The prolonged crisis at the quake-stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture is increasingly wearing down front-line workers, as the exhausting and dangerous work shows no signs of letting up.
Companies supplying the workers say safety fears have grown, particularly since three workers were exposed to high levels of radiation March 24 from leaked water at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Although some workers continue to return to the plant to avert a catastrophe, others willing to help cool down the reactors acknowledge they are more concerned about their next paycheck.
“We have become very nervous,” said a senior official of a company with business ties to Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the plant.
The official said the company is checking to ensure that TEPCO was not forcing workers to engage in too difficult a task.
Wearing protective gear, workers at the plant are toiling under stressful conditions amid the ever-present danger of radiation exposure.
Those who need to stay within the compound sleep on the floor of a tightly sealed room. They are given emergency rations twice a day.
Machinery maker IHI Corp., electric facility engineering firm Kandenko Co., reactor makers Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp., and general contractors are among those supplying workers to help TEPCO repair the plant battered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Highly radioactive water flooding the basement of turbine buildings, which injured the three workers last week, is hampering work to restore systems to cool the reactor cores.
Hitachi has assigned 170 workers, including those from subcontractors, to help restore power at the reactors.
“Workers with expertise are limited, and they can’t be easily replaced,” said a Hitachi official. “We are managing to somehow get by while carefully watching radiation levels.”
The company has gradually increased the number of workers in an effort to reduce their burden.
Another company with ties to TEPCO has set a radiation limit lower than the government’s standard of 250 millisieverts to make frequent replacements. Some of the workers have already reached the company-set limit.
“The work environment is becoming more and more risky, so it seems not many employees are willing to go,” said a senior official. “We cannot force them to go. It’s been such a headache.”
According to TEPCO, 381 of its employees and 69 from “partner” companies entered the plant compound March 28. Most of the latter worked to restore electricity and repair equipment.
Kandenko and related firms have sent more than 200 workers, including the three workers exposed to high levels of radiation. All three have been discharged from hospital.
“Because there are dangerous places, we are taking the utmost caution,” a Kandenko official said. “We must bring the situation under control while putting priority on safety.”
Toshiba has assigned more than 100 engineers, including those from affiliates, to the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 plants. The company says it will send more if requested.
IHI dispatched about 30 to the No. 1 plant, including those from subcontractors, to help repair pipes for cooling systems. But it says rubble from explosions is also a source of concern to worker safety.
The current situation poses a difficult choice to those working for TEPCO’s subcontractors, most of them neighborhood residents.
Many are staying at shelters after residents within a 20-kilometer radius from the plant were told to evacuate, but some are considering a return to the plant if asked because they must “make a living.”
A man in his 30s who is at a shelter within the prefecture once declined a request from the president of his company in mid-March to help lay cables at the plant. He said he couldn’t go because gasoline was not available at that time.
Having worked in the field for five years, the man confided that “nuclear power is scary because we can’t tell what’s happening.” But he said he is proud of having worked for Japan’s electricity supply and would accept the next request.
“We are in a position to get work from a subcontractor to TEPCO,” he said. “If we gain a reputation that ‘they didn’t come’ under these circumstances, what do you think will become of our job in the future?”
His daily wage is between 10,000 yen ($122) and 20,000 yen.
Another evacuee, who has accepted a request to return to work for a subcontractor, said: “We were given work from TEPCO for all 365 days. To get additional work, we must go even if it means having to work in a restricted area with risks of radiation exposure.”
Another man in his 40s, who works for a sub-subcontractor to TEPCO, was born and raised in an area near the plant site.
At a shelter, the man has been waiting for a call from his employer “because there is no place to work here except at a nuclear power plant.”
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