Getting the Shaft at Fukushima

The Worst Nuclear Disaster since Chernobyl

On March 11, 2011, the tsunami caused by the Tōhoku earthquake hit Fukushima. The tsunami caused various power and equipment failures at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, leading to the meltdown of three reactors. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima was rated a seven on the INES scale, the worst possible rating, having only been reached once before at Chernobyl. Cleanup is expected to take 40 years and cost about 100 billion USD.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant needs to be disassembled. Damaged fuel rods are being moved into casks, which in turn are submerged into water in reinforced stainless steel and concrete shells. Over 1,500 fuel rods need to be disposed of, weighing a total of over 400 tons. In the meantime, the fuel rods must be continuously cooled since it will take years for them to cease emitting radioactivity that’s hot enough to make the fuel rods burst into flames. There’s also a great deal of contaminated soil and debris that needs to be cleared out of nearby towns and villages.

This cleanup effort has so far employed about 50,000 workers. The disturbing conditions Fukushima workers have been enduring throughout the process and what we should expect to see regarding clean-up efforts in the near future deserve more attention than the international media has been giving them.

Cleanup Worker Exploitation

When the Japanese government passed a bill to help fund the decontamination of Fukushima, it relaxed a number of construction labor regulations. Contracts were auctioned to inexperienced companies that used brokers to gather workers. Many of these workers have little to no experience with nuclear power. Most are poor and underpaid, many not receiving the hazard-allowances they’re legally entitled to.

About half of the cleanup workers at Fukushima are paid by one contractor and managed by another, which is against Japanese labor law. Because of this arrangement, many workers’ wages are skimmed. Additionally, some labor brokers are reported to be former yakuza members, and the yakuza plays an active role in rounding up workers. Such workers are coerced into a sort of indentured servitude through their preexisting debts to the yakuza.

The yakuza is the collection of organized crime families in Japan. Some yakuza groups trace their lineage to samurai who became unemployed and turned to crime during the Tokugawa era as a long period of civil war gave way to peace. The yakuza gets much of its money from gambling, drugs, extortion, and human trafficking. They have also been helping out somewhat in the tsunami relief through a minor PR campaign.

The journalist Tomohiko Suzuki worked undercover inside Fukushima for four months. He claims that many workers have no idea what they were getting into. This was confirmed by the worker Tetsuya Hayashi, who was hired and put to work inside an extreme radiation zone under false pretenses.

According to Suzuki, many workers are either homeless or recruited by the yakuza, and some even suffer from mental disabilities. He reports that certain TEPCO managers asked yakuza-affiliated subcontractors to recruit men who were “expendable.” As an anonymous worker told RT News, “We were given no insurance for health risks, no radiation meters even. We were treated like nothing, like disposable people — promised things, and then kicked out when we received a large radiation dose.”

Cleanup worker Ryo Goshima, 23, has an even more shocking story. He used to be a lower level yakuza member, mostly collecting debts and working as a night guard. When he quit the gang, he was badly beaten and forced to pay the yakuza $2,000 dollars a month. He quickly went into debt and found an opportunity to make money at the Fukushima plant. As he told Reuters,

radioactive mushrooms“[A] labor broker offered me a job. His pinky finger was missing and he was covered in tattoos. He did not hide the fact he was a former yakuza member. . . . Each month, the broker would hand over pay in a brown envelope. . . . The work was quite mundane. I had to collect fallen leaves and cut grass and weeds from rice paddies. . . . We were forced to eat fish, mushrooms and fried bee larvae that [my boss] picked next to our work site. I was worried because mushrooms are known to suck up radioactive cesium. He and other workers would poke fun at me for being scared to eat these things. He also started charging us about $20-30 per meal.”

TEPCO representatives claim that they “are doing everything [they] can to ensure the safety of workers” and “deal harshly with law-violating subcontractors.” However, they also claim that subcontractor oversight is extremely hard. In addition, many workers are afraid to speak out, having no other source of income and a fear of being blacklisted. Lower-level managers also prevent complaints from reaching the attention of TEPCO’s executives, assuming that such complaints would even be responded to.

Radiation Exposure among Workers

Nuclear workers are limited to exposure levels of 100mSv every 5 years, while never exceeding 50mSv in a single year. The limit for workers in case of an emergency is 100mSv a year. This limit was raised to 250mSv a year for workers in the Fukushima disaster. Needless to say, more than twice 100mSv is probably not a safe limit. So far, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has reported that “It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among . . . the vast majority of workers” at Fukushima. This report was released in 2012, when it was believed that only 170 workers were exposed to levels of over 100mSv. Now, based on evidence from thyroid gland tests, researchers have reported that nearly 2,000 workers at the Fukushima plant exceed the normal 100mSv / year exposure-level limit.

chamber radiationBut is this dangerous? According to the World Nuclear Association, based on studies carried out on 61,000 emergency workers at the Chernobyl accident with an average exposure of 107 mSv, about 4.6% died from exposure-related illnesses. Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor at the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital, states that “at over 100mSv the risk of cancer increases linearly in proportion to the dosage of radiation exposure.” It therefore seems that this new level of “acceptable” radiation exposure (250mSv), while possibly unavoidable, will seriously damage the health of nuclear workers.

Nuclear Gypsies are Nothing New

Some, such as the lawyer Yousuke Minaguchi, report that the Japanese government turns a blind eye to certain illegal employment practices in the nuclear industry. The Japanese Minister for Economy Toshimitsu Motegi certainly didn’t admit to this, but he did admit (albeit more euphemistically) that outsourcing labor contracts was pragmatically unavoidable during the crisis. And this is probably true. But let’s not forget that, as Saburo Murata, deputy director at Hannan Chuo Hospital, told Reuters, “Working conditions in the nuclear industry have always been bad. . . . Problems with money, outsourced recruitment, lack of proper health insurance—these have existed for decades.”

Since the 1970s, plants like Fukushima have scoured impoverished areas with large homeless populations in search of cheap labor. Horie Kunio wrote a book in 1979 on the issue, Nuclear Power Station Gypsies (Genpatsu jipushī), describing the same problem that currently exists at Fukushima.

untouchablesMost of these “nuclear gypsies” belong to a class called the burakumin (“hamlet people”), descendants of the outcast caste of Japanese feudal society. The majority of yakuza members are burakumin, so, as it turns out, the yakuza involvement in the Fukushima cleanup is neither surprising nor coincidental.

The media has been acting very shocked about the current treatment of workers at Fukushima, but the Fukushima disaster has really just intensified and highlighted preexisting problems in nuclear industry employment. We have already discussed the recent loosening of subcontracting regulations and surge of subcontracted employment. This again is just the intensification of preexisting practices. According to a 2009 Nuclear and Industrial Safety Industry survey, Fukushima employed only about 1,000 TEPCO workers and about 9,000 contract laborers. As the Centre for Research on Globalization reports, “contract laborers are routinely exposed to the highest level of radiation. . . . Since contract laborers move from one nuclear plant to another . . . they lack access to their individual cumulative dose for one year or for many years. NISA compiles only the cumulative dose for each nuclear plant.” This makes it hard to assess the total radiation exposure of these employees and limits their ability to apply for occupational hazard compensation.

An Uncertain Future

A panel assembled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Party believes that the cleanup should be handled differently. They think it should be reallocated to a smaller, more specialized organization. Ideally, this company would just be a separate unit within TEPCO itself. However, the panel is also considering setting up an independent, government-affiliated cleanup administration. Whether any of this will happen and subsequently improve conditions for workers remains to be seen.