In the tense days after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the world’s eyes turned briefly on the “Fukushima 50,” the small group of men desperately trying to bring the reactors under control.
Little has been heard from those men—who actually numbered more than fifty—or those that took their places in the following months. Most have been reluctant to speak to the media for fear of losing their jobs.
Three workers, however, did agree to speak to The Asahi Shimbun AJW after being introduced by Masayoshi Hisada, the author of a recently published book about their experiences, “Young Nuclear Outlaws.”
All grew up close to the Fukushima plant and started working there in their late teens or early 20s. Yuji and Tetsuo—not their real names—say they were working in an underground room at the plant when the quake hit.
Thinking they were going to die, they and thousands of other workers scrambled to evacuate before the tsunami hit. It was a few weeks before they got back to work.
Kenichi, who employs Yuji and Tetsuo (also not his real name), said his motivation for returning was not a rumor of wages 10 or 20 times their previous day rate of 10,000 yen ($124).
“Money wasn’t the reason I originally went back to the plant,” says Kenichi. “After the accident there was a chronic lack of workers, and I felt the clean-up would be performed better and quicker if experienced guys like me went back.”
Kenichi also says he felt responsible to decontaminate the plant for the sake of his hometown, which is inside the 20 kilometer no-entry zone imposed by the government.
“I used to hate the countryside, but after the accident I began to feel a sense of affection for my hometown for the first time. I get pangs in my chest when I drive past my old house,” he said. “It’s impossible to live there, but I hope one day we’ll be able to visit when we like. That’s the main reason we’re working to decontaminate the plant.”
Personal connections and relationships are also a factor. Kenichi, who returned to the plant after a friend did so first, runs a small company at the bottom of a long chain of subcontractors below Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant’s operator. He believes Yuji and Tetsuo are mostly working out of solidarity with him.
“I tell them they can quit any time they want, but they haven’t yet,” he says. “On the one hand, that makes me so happy I could cry, but on the other it’s really tough to deal with [that responsibility].”
All three say that they have become desensitized to the risks of radiation exposure after years of work in the nuclear industry. The training they received from TEPCO played down the risks with cartoons of doses received from flights, x-rays and rocks and made no mention of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.
“After working in this job for 10 years you become anesthetized to words like ‘exposure,’ or ‘contamination’,” said Kenichi, whose internal radiation exposure has been measured at 5,000 counts per minute, or around five times the upper range for an average person. “I sometimes think maybe I shouldn’t get married and I won’t be able to have kids.”
Tatsuo, who is in his late 20s like Kenichi, says the invisibility of radiation makes it easier to put out of mind.
“I don’t have any symptoms. You never feel it or see it, so it’s easy to ignore,” he says.
The government increased the annual limit for nuclear workers’ radiation exposure from 100 to 250 millisieverts in “emergency situations” on March 15. Kenichi says he was receiving around 18 to 20 millisieverts a day in the fall, according to his dosimeter. That has now fallen to around 0.08 millisievert.
Hisada notes that the workers use a crude Japanese word for eat—“kuu”—to describe exposure to radiation, emphasizing its visceral effects.
Besides the long-term health risks, daily working conditions in the plant are harsh. Workers start at 7 a.m. and work for 10 hours, with just a 20-minute lunch break. Unable to take off their masks within the compound, they can’t even sip water—a particularly harsh limitation in the stifling, humid summer. They say sweat poured out of their masks and pooled in their gloves, forcing them to wear two pairs.
Many fainted from heatstroke, but Kenichi notes that if they had to go home they would not be paid. Those who blamed the plant’s operators for their symptoms were told not to come back the next day.
“And yet wages have now almost gone back to what they were before the accident, the same level as other plants. You’re going to get a lot of people quitting under these conditions,” says Kenichi.
Workers at the end of the subcontracting chain get around 1,000 yen an hour, just above the rate earned by starting-level service staff in restaurants and shops.
Kenichi acknowledges that the initially inflated wages attracted many inexperienced men who were only interested in the cash.
“If you have only old people and those desperate for money working there, we aren’t going to get anywhere,” he says.
Having worked in the industry for over 10 years, Kenichi and Tatsuo were much more aware of what was happening at the plant than the general public, who were reliant on information released by TEPCO and the government.
Kenichi predicted that the reactors would melt down in strict number order, from the No. 1 reactor upward, as the cooling system runs from the first to the sixth reactor. Hisada, the former editor of Jitsuwa Knuckles, a monthly magazine focusing on Japan’s seamy underbelly, heard the same prediction from a worker he knew on March 12.
“Information travels fast in these circles,” Hisada says. “The workers knew because they’ve been working in the same place for so long.”
None of them trust anything TEPCO or the government says.
“The government and the media must explain things more clearly, because their vagueness only spreads uncertainty,” Hisada quotes Yuji as saying in his book. He says he is ambivalent about nuclear power.
“Whenever I see anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, I feel a bit uneasy,” Tatsuo is quoted as saying. “Tokyo uses the electricity produced by the Fukushima No. 1 plant, and yet look at the fuss caused when people were asked to conserve energy.”
The three are bitter that their work has not been recognized or reported, which is why they agreed to talk to Hisada. Kenichi, whose father calls the workers “nameless heroes,” says he feels people are already forgetting about the accident.
Hisada says he didn’t mean to present the men as heroes, but thought their stories needed to be told.
“We didn’t hear anything about the workers; we had no idea what kind of people they were,” he says. “You can’t understand anything from going to TEPCO press conferences. You have to go to the field and talk with the workers directly.”
He continues: “These guys are young, they’re in their 20s… and they’re also nuclear victims and evacuees. They’re not being paid enough, while TEPCO bosses are getting bonuses. They should be paying them more.”
The workers see themselves more as "outlaws," as Hisada calls them, than heroes; estranged from society since a young age, when they started causing trouble and were involved in crime, they say work in the nuclear industry was an attractive alternative.
Yuji, the youngest of the three, has talked of quitting and pursuing a career as a DJ. Kenichi also dreams of a different life.
“I’d like all of us to have more normal jobs. I’ve always wanted to open a bar restaurant in our hometown, or something like that,” he says. “Sure, there’s work in other plants, but you can never ask, ‘Can I work there instead?’”
Whether Japan chooses to continue to rely on nuclear power or not, there will be plenty of work to do, according to Yuji. Decommissioning or maintaining the plants when they are offline requires, he says, more labor than when they are running.
“Right now, I’m just doing what I have to do,” says Kenichi. “Going to work, getting paid—I don’t have much choice. But will I still be able to say the same thing in a couple of decades?”
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