With bills to pay and needing a place to stay, when Koichi Watanabe got the call he was waiting for, he could either work in the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant or in a thermal power plant--or in the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, at double the pay.
His wife and children were opposed to him going into the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Watanabe, 60, finally decided he needed the money, after agonizing over the concerns of his family.
Currently, he is working to prevent water leaks in a building at the crippled plant.
It does not take very long before perspiration accumulates around the chin part of the full-face mask he wears.
In addition to fears about high radiation levels at the plant, Watanabe must also deal with the possible dangers of heatstroke.
Before, workers would joke among themselves and say, "Come summer, we may just buy the farm."
For Watanabe, however, it has become much more difficult to laugh at such jokes now.
He lived in Futaba before being forced to evacuate because of the nuclear accident. He began working for a subcontractor to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, from about 12 years ago.
After the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, he moved from one evacuation center to another.
He wanted to move into an apartment to become independent, but he would need money for food and utilities.
When he searched for work, the ads seeking workers on civil engineering projects had age limits of up to 50.
It was at such a time that Watanabe received a call from his company.
A company official said, "There is work. When can you start?"
The work involved restoring operations at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. He has now evacuated to a hotel in Inawashiro, Fukushima Prefecture. When he has work, Koichi moves into the company dorm in Iwaki, closer to the plant. He works four days a week at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
His co-workers refer to him as "the elder."
Some younger workers quit after they said, "My family is worried about me."
All Watanabe can say to those young workers is, "There is nothing that can be done since you are young. Stay healthy."
He has been exposed to an accumulated amount of 13 millisieverts of radiation. The company has told him that he will not be allowed to work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant when the accumulated radiation level exceeds 20 millisieverts.
"I don't know what will happen in the future," he said. "Will they allow me to work at some other power plant?"
His oldest son, Yohei, 31, works at another company that has long cooperated with TEPCO.
At the time of the natural disasters, Yohei was involved in piping work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
However, he evacuated from his home in Okuma to a location in Niigata Prefecture and stayed there under instructions from the company.
Without any income, Yohei found himself hesitating to spend money to buy candy for his two sons, one 7 years old and the other 5 months.
"That was the most difficult thing for me as a parent," Yohei said.
He went to employment offices in Fukushima Prefecture, but was stunned at the low number of available jobs.
He realized there were jobs only because of the nuclear power plants.
In May, the company contacted Yohei and asked if he could take a business trip.
It involved work at a thermal power plant. While it was not a job at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Yohei is prepared for the day when the company asks him to go there.
"Once a worker accumulates a certain amount of radiation, that person will not be able to work, so there should be a shortage of people," Yohei said. "I could not refuse if the company asked me to go."
Takahiro Sakata, 37, headed a subcontracting company to TEPCO in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture.
Since late April, he has been involved in repairing piping at a petroleum complex in Sodegaura, Chiba Prefecture.
He has a 30-year-old wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 3.
His wife is expecting a third daughter in July, and his family remains in Gunma Prefecture. Sakata has rented an apartment in Chiba Prefecture for himself and commutes to his new job.
After graduating from high school, he entered his father's company, which was also a TEPCO subcontractor.
He set up his own company when he was 23 and was mainly involved in welding piping at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
His seven workers are all in their 20s. They have all evacuated to elsewhere in Fukushima Prefecture or to Saitama Prefecture.
Because his company office lies within a 10-kilometer radius of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, there is no telling when, if ever, the company can resume operations.
He is well aware of the dangers of radiation. About two weeks after the disasters, the company that he did subcontracting for called and said workers were needed at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Sakata, however, turned down the offer, saying, "I want to wait until there are assurances about safety."
When he thinks about his employees who have no jobs, he cannot stop worrying. His own job in Chiba Prefecture will only last until October.
He will soon face a choice of continuing with his company by agreeing to work at the nuclear plant or starting a different line of work after going out of business.
According to TEPCO officials, there were a total of about 9,300 workers at the end of 2009 at the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear plants, including workers at affiliated and cooperating companies.
It is said that the livelihood of between 20,000 to 30,000 people depends on work related to nuclear plants.
Currently, about 2,000 people on average work daily to restore operations at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
TEPCO is replacing workers periodically to reduce their exposure to radiation, and new groups of workers are being sent from various parts of Japan.
(This article was written by Keishi Nishimura and Kazuyuki Ito.)
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