A series of recent mishaps at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant may be symptomatic of declining worker morale.
A major reason for this disturbing trend is the health concerns held by workers who still face high levels of radiation every time they enter the plant.
Workers receive what looks like a receipt at the end of each shift, which shows their level of radiation exposure. Some workers are exposed to nearly 2 millisieverts over the course of a day, which is close to double the annual exposure limit for the general population.
There are many locations within the plant site around the reactor buildings where radiation levels continue to exceed 100 millisieverts per hour.
Although work schedules are made while considering the amount of radiation a worker will be exposed to, those who have accumulated levels that exceed the annual 50-millisievert limit will not be allowed to enter the plant site for the rest of that year.
"If we exceed our radiation exposure limits, we will simply be disposed of as workers," said a man in his 30s who has worked at the Fukushima No. 1 and other nuclear plants for more than 10 years.
Before the Fukushima nuclear accident, the man was responsible for leading a team that worked within the reactor building. Immediately after the accident, he volunteered to return to work at the plant from where he had evacuated. One task he performed was to carry a hose to the reactor building so water could be pumped into the reactor. Dose levels exceeded 10 millisieverts per hour.
"I thought I would die," the man said.
Media reports about Fukushima tend to focus on the problems that have arisen, and the voices of workers at the plant site are rarely reported. Whenever celebrities visit the disaster site to encourage victims, they never meet with any plant workers.
"Right now, I do not feel that our efforts are being recognized by society," the man said. "My motivation to work is gradually disappearing."
Among the recent blunders at the plant have been storing too much contaminated water in storage tanks, leading to leaks. In another instance, workers were showered with contaminated water after piping was inadvertently removed.
At the building workers must pass through to enter and leave the plant site, another male worker feels with the increase in problems related to radiation-contaminated water this summer, there has also been an increase in workers whose skin or underwear has become contaminated with radiation.
Although workers are required to wear protective clothing and full face masks, some workers touch the back of their necks with their contaminated gloves when removing their masks.
"The workers brought in by the construction companies after the accident do not have much work experience or knowledge," the male worker said. "They cannot even skillfully remove their protective clothing."
Moreover, unlike other nuclear plants, the landscape of the Fukushima No. 1 plant is constantly changing with the removal of rubble and the installing of storage tanks to hold the massive volume of contaminated water left over after cooling the reactors. There are some areas of the plant where work experience from before the accident is of no use at all.
A worker in his 20s feels that more people are choosing to become involved in the decontamination efforts. One reason may be that those who do decontamination work receive an additional 10,000 yen ($102) a day in the form of hazard pay, which comes from public funds. In 2011, when the accident occurred, the man received close to 30,000 yen a day in wages, but now he receives under 20,000 yen. That means there is almost no difference in pay with those doing decontamination work.
"The dose levels workers at the Fukushima plant can be exposed to are several hundred times that for those doing decontamination work," the man said. "I feel more workers have come to think it is not worth it."
Although such factors make it difficult to find good workers, there are some from the local community who continue to return to the Fukushima plant.
A man in his 30s was scolded by his mother for his decision to continue working at the Fukushima plant. He has with him a tablet computer on which he keeps an image of a person who died after being exposed to a large dose of radiation during the 1999 criticality accident at the JCO Co. plant in Ibaraki Prefecture.
"I work while thinking that is how I might end up," the man said.
One reason for the low worker morale is because a large percentage are employed by subcontractors. Only 10 percent of those working at the plant site are employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator.
The central government and TEPCO estimate that about 12,000 workers are needed over the course of a year. However, workers who exceed their annual radiation exposure limit cannot continue to work, meaning new workers have to continually be found.
Inexperienced workers are recruited from around Japan, many by the subcontractors. The multi-layered structure of the companies involved in the work at the Fukushima plant means there is ambiguity about who is actually the employer, and that has left open the possibility of illegal hiring practices.
Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, raised concerns about TEPCO's tendency to leave things up to subcontractors.
"Efforts must be made to maintain the morale of each and every worker at the plant," Tanaka said on Oct. 9. "Careless errors cannot be corrected simply through regulations."
At an Oct. 11 news conference, Masayuki Ono, acting general manager of TEPCO's Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, said, "We will improve the situation after determining whether it is a structural problem or simply a careless error."
(This article was written by Takuro Negishi, Tetsuya Kasai, Susumu Okamoto and Toshio Tada.)
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