CROOKED CLEANUP: Decontamination workers say cutting corners came naturally

January 09, 2013


The slipshod organization of the mammoth decontamination program around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant created an environment where cutting corners came naturally and morals and ethics quickly slipped away, workers said.

They cited a lack of training, unreasonable deadlines, threats of isolation, and persistent feelings that their efforts were pointless.

"When I first entered the work area, I could not believe that I was involved in a state-run project," a 50-year-old worker said in an e-mail.

Asahi Shimbun reporters and the company have received more than 100 e-mails and phone calls from people involved in the decontamination project in Fukushima Prefecture. They were responding to the newspaper’s report on Jan. 4 that workers were dumping potentially contaminated soil, water and debris into the environment instead of properly storing them for disposal.

Many of those messages and calls showed the workers felt they were not doing anything inappropriate under the circumstances.

"We were pressed to finish the work as quickly as possible,” wrote the 50-year-old worker who was involved in decontaminating Tamura between Nov. 5 and Dec. 28.

“If we tried to resist, we would become isolated from other workers, although it did not reach the extent of losing the job. With sub-zero temperatures in the mountains, being placed in such circumstances would have led to feelings of loneliness among many people."

In December, the leader of the work group instructed the man to throw bundles of collected bamboo grass outside of the cleanup area within 20 meters from a road. The 15 or so workers each tossed away several bundles in the area, which had very little vehicle traffic.

The man felt that many workers soon realized their efforts were not very productive, leading to a weakening of their ethics. He said that when he tried to work carefully, others told him, "Most of the leaves will end up flowing down rivers."

He said he felt an invisible gap was developing between him and the other workers.

Arrangements were made to meet the man on Jan. 5. He told The Asahi Shimbun that he was born in Fukushima Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo, and worked in construction and landscaping.

He was hired for the decontamination work through a job placement center last October. A subcontractor told him the work would only involve bagging debris that had been left by the side of roads.

But the work was much tougher, and he found himself gathering vegetation along steep slopes by the road.

"Even if the work was not properly completed, we were told to hurry up because there was no time," the man said. "As long as the site looked all right, we moved on to the next location."

The man showed a copy of his work contract, which listed his daily wage as 11,000 yen ($125). There was no indication that he was given the 10,000 yen in hazard pay to which he was entitled.

He said Environment Ministry officials never showed up at the work sites.

“Radiation levels returned even after we completed the work, so there was a sense that what we were doing was worthless," he said. "There will be no end to the shoddy work even if oversight is strengthened."

Another man in his 50s also described the futility of the work: "While we did try to scoop up leaves that had fallen into a river, most just flowed away."

He said some bags filled with leaves were simply left in the river.

Many workers lost all concerns about handling radioactive substances, the man said, adding that he feared he would become as insensitive as those around him.

Another e-mail was critical of the lack of local companies involved in the decontamination work.

An executive with a Fukushima Prefecture construction company said he often observed vegetation flowing down rivers.

"Residents know that such leaves and vegetation will flow downstream,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There was a problem with the major construction companies that did not use local people."

A man in his 60s said the workers should not be the target of criticism.

"Not all workers were being lax," the man wrote. "They were doing their best trying various methods because there was no job manual."

The man said workers did not receive detailed training before starting the job. He also said contractors took part of the workers' pay for various reasons.

"It would be very difficult to accept criticism about shoddy work against people who were doing their best amid the terrible work conditions," the man wrote.

(This article was compiled from reports by Tamiyuki Kihara and Toshio Tada.)

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Part of the e-mail sent in by a 50-year-old decontamination worker (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

Part of the e-mail sent in by a 50-year-old decontamination worker (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

  • Part of the e-mail sent in by a 50-year-old decontamination worker (Kazuhiro Nagashima)
  • Workers wipe away radioactive materials from a home in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Jan. 7. (Miki Aoki)

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