Professor warned about safety problems in using contracted workers at nuclear plants

July 26, 2012


The frustration level of an economics professor at the University of Tokyo has risen by a few notches.

Kazumitsu Nawata warned in 2008 that the electric power industry’s dependence on contracted workers at nuclear plants would make it more difficult to ensure their safety against radiation and other factors. However, those in the industry shouted down his recommendations, dealing a disheartening blow to his efforts to promote worker safety.

Electric power companies continued with the practice of having subcontractors handle much of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants.

Now, recently released reports show that contracted workers at nuclear power plants have been exposed to several times the levels of radiation that employees of the utilities experienced.

It was this very situation that Nawata was trying to prevent.

Scholars at the University of Tokyo began a project on nuclear energy education research in 2007 that included not only experts in nuclear engineering, but also those in the humanities.

Nawata's specialty was econometrics, and he did not have prior experience in the nuclear energy field.

One of the first research topics he handled was the structural issue of depending on contracted workers at nuclear power plants.

At that time, the practices of disguising dispatched workers as contracted workers as well as suddenly ending dispatch worker contracts had become a major social problem.

Companies who accept contracted workers are not allowed to directly give orders to such workers, but they are also not obligated to hire the workers or secure their safety.

Dispatched workers, on the other hand, can be ordered directly by the company to handle various tasks, but the company must also ensure their safety.

Problems emerged when companies used dispatched workers with fake contracts as contracted workers, allowing the companies to terminate those jobs after a short period of time.

On Oct. 9, 2008, a symposium was held at the University of Tokyo to commemorate the first anniversary of the nuclear energy education research project.

"The use of contracted workers will make it more difficult to secure adequate safety standards," Nawata said when he presented his research findings.

He also pointed out that contracted workers were exposed to higher radiation levels than employees of the electric power companies.

But his presentation was greeted by various opposing comments from the audience.

One participant identified as a member of the central government's Japan Atomic Energy Commission said, "The levels cannot be said to be high if you look at radiation level limits."

The main argument was that even if the radiation levels were higher for contracted workers than for electric power company employees, all levels were below the legal annual standard of 50 millisieverts.

"For safety purposes, it is desirable to have the radiation levels as low as possible,” Nawata said in response. “Rather than say something is safe at such-and-such millisieverts, efforts must be made to lower the radiation levels as much as possible."

However, other audience members jumped in and criticized Nawata's research.

"You should make comparisons by job category," a professor specializing in nuclear energy said.

When Nawata suggested that electric power companies directly hire such workers, an official of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan said: "The most important issues at the work place are maintaining work quality and managing risk. There is no attempt to compare (cutting costs) with the expenses involved in safety control."

During a break in the proceedings, Nawata said about the heated exchange, "There is a need to conduct discussions."

But Nawata stopped doing research on contracted workers because he felt his attempt to improve the situation was not being accepted seriously by those in the nuclear energy field.

He also stopped participating in similar symposiums thereafter.

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last year left Nawata feeling helpless because he was unable to use his research findings.

He said he was concerned not only about the safety of the workers, but also how they responded to the accident.

"Because companies cannot directly give orders to contracted workers, they only hear second-hand comments during emergencies," Nawata said. "Although the head of the nuclear plant can tell Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees to 'go,' similar instructions cannot be given to subcontractors."

Nawata has resumed his research on contracted workers.

At a June 23 meeting in Sapporo of the Japanese Economic Association, a joint researcher gave a presentation and said, "The objective of using contracted workers is to avoid responsibilities as an employer and there is the possibility of lowering the standard of safety education."

Nawata said he believes the recent revelation of a senior official of a TEPCO subcontractor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant ordering the use of lead plates to cover dosimeters is just one example of the problems that arise from depending excessively on subcontractors.

"Although regular employees are taken care of by the company well into the future, there is no similar guarantee for contracted workers," Nawata said. "It would be preferable to switch such workers to direct hires or as dispatch workers."

To more broadly publicize the issue, Nawata plans to release a report in English in the near future.

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Kazumitsu Nawata (The Asahi Shimbun)

Kazumitsu Nawata (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Kazumitsu Nawata (The Asahi Shimbun)

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