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“To Work at Fukushima, You Have to Be Ready to Die“

Masayuki Ishizawa a temporary nuclear power plant laborer in Japan, April 8, 2011. Before the quake, thousands of untrained, temporary laborers handled most of the dangerous work at nuclear plants, lured by the higher wages offered for the risks. (Photo: Moshe Komata / The New York Times) Interview: Specialist on Japan, the sociologist Paul Jobin [1] has studied workplace conditions for workers in the nuclear industry. He offers us his analysis at a moment when those workers are attempting to get a hold on the situation at the Japanese power plant heavily damaged by the earthquake.

Interview: Specialist on Japan, the sociologist Paul Jobin [1] has studied workplace conditions for workers in the nuclear industry. He offers us his analysis at a moment when those workers are attempting to get a hold on the situation at the Japanese power plant heavily damaged by the earthquake.

We read that they are sleeping on the hard soil, that they have only two meals per day, and are rationed in drinking water. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and its subcontractors allow little information to filter out concerning workers fighting on the front lines at the Fukushima power plant, a plant devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. Sociologist and specialist on Japan, Paul Jobin knows these places well. In 2002, while doing research on sub-contractors in the nuclear industry, he interviewed managers and temporary workers in that plant. He analyzes the current situation in the light of this experience.

- The interview

What is known about the workers who currently work at the plant in Fukushima?

Paul Jobin: It’s a paradoxical situation. There has never been so much said about nuclear issues in Japan, but information remains scarce about those who are at the heart of the volcano, in central Fukushima. Up until ten days ago, we saw no people except the helicopter pilots who dropped the seawater, and now the soldiers of the national defense forces and firefighters, using firemen’s lamps. We had to wait until Friday March 25 to see the first photos of workers in full protective suits, these being worn inside the plant, where you could see the general state of disrepair, even in computer and control rooms, barely lit … That day, three sub-contractors were taken to the hospital because they were seriously irradiated. That was the first time we heard officially about subcontractors. But when you know how a plant like that functions under normal circumstances, one can only assume that their presence on site was at 90%. They are the ones who do the maintenance work, and who receive the collective dose of radiation – these are the official figures.

But then there are different types of sub-contractors: at the very bottom of the pyramid there are, for example, temporary workers who use mops to clean the reactors, or who deal with used protective clothing. They receive the strongest doses. Then come the technicians (plumbers, electricians …) who inspect facilities, piping and pumps, and at the very top, there are the technicians, managers and engineers of Tepco, who enjoy higher wages and better social protection. A number of them must be on-site, but for now, we do not really know who does what. What is certain is that all those who have worked so far have had to take large doses of radioactivity.

Today, how many employees are there on the site?

Paul Jobin: Ten days ago, we talked to four teams of fifty, or two hundred workers. According to the most recent information, there would be six hundred. This figure might include fire fighters and soldiers, but this remains unclear. In a week, how many will there be? TEPCO had to mobilize its network of subcontractors for emergency recruiting in the region or even beyond.

According to the ads that circulate on SMS, and which are relayed on Twitter, wages offered are around 10,000 yen per day (84 euros), which is about double the average salary for a young temporary employee, but does not represent an exceptional offer either. This would mean that, despite the sacrifice of those who agree to go there, TEPCO continues to skimp on wages. Last week, the Tokyo Shimbun has published testimonies of people who refused to come to work at the plant.

A man of twenty-seven had received an SMS offering a good salary, but since he has a little boy of three and a wife of twenty-six, he did not want to leave them, imagining that he would face a high risk of premature death. Also a man 48 years of age testified. He lived 40 kilometers from the plant, and had been called by someone saying: “We are looking for people over fifty who could intervene in the reactor; the pay is much higher than usual.”

You won’t come? The wording “over fifty” suggests that in order to come work on the site, you must be ready to die … Elsewhere, I read that there are locals who are willing to do the maximum because they do not want to see everything lost for thirty or for a thousand years to come. And this is already partly true. Finally, Saturday, April 2, the Mainichi newspaper published an interview with an employee of TEPCO who describes the extreme difficulty of the conditions for intervention and the patched-together systems they are compelled to use to protect themselves, like wrapping themselves in plastic bags, for lack of appropriate protective suits.

Only the bosses are furnished with dosimeters. According to another worker present on that day, Friday the 11th, many simply went home carrying their dosimeter. TEPCO confirms that, due to the tsunami, a large number of dosimeters was damaged. Out of 5000, there remain no more than 320. The manufacturer has virtually no more stock, and Toshiba has sent them only 50.

They speak about a worker who was irradiated when he was working on the site while wearing small rubber boots. How to the employees protect themselves on the site?

Paul Jobin: This is true. It sounds totally inadequate, but how to do otherwise? Even in normal times, in this part of the reactor, you have to move very quickly to receive the smallest dose possible. That you can’t do with lead soles. There exist coveralls with full masks, but these devices seem poorly designed and primitive compared to the challenge of the task.

So, in the absence of effective protection, one uses what is called “radiation protection”. In Japanese, one speaks of “management of radioactivity”. That’s exactly what it is: Manage imposed collective dose administered to workers. The issue of radiation protection enters in direct conflict with that of plant safety, because the more a plant ages, the more it “showers,” as the Japanese workers say, the more it must be cleaned, and the more you must ask personnel to intervene for repairs and maintenance. Hence the extensive use of subcontractors. What makes the situation in Japan so unique is that nuclear power was developed in the 1970s, and the use of subcontracting during periodic shut-downs has been systemic ever since. This organization of work has dramatic consequences for the health of workers and plant safety; hence the repetition of anomalies and other incidents, even before considering the issue of seismic risk.

Why has the Japanese minister of health decided to raise the legal dose to be received by workers?

Paul Jobin. Since 2002, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommends that an annual dose for nuclear workers not exceed 20 millisieverts (mSv) per year. But even in normal times, workers receive large doses, with consequences that are systematically denied or minimized.

In Japan, legislation has accommodated the standard of 20 mSv per year for workers, stipulating that the dose can be calculated as an average over a five year period, with a maximum of 100 mSv during any two years. But as of March 19, probably because they can not recruit enough people to intervene, TEPCO asked to boost the maximum dose to 150 mSv, and the Ministry of Health went further, raising it to 250 mSv — this perhaps to limit the number of possible applications for recognition of occupational disease.

On Thursday, March 31, the Nuclear Safety Agency (Nisa) announced that 21 workers had received doses above 100 mSv, but that none had exceeded 250, as if this meant they could escape without too much damage, when even the International Atomic Energy Agency believes that the situation remains “very serious” in Fukushima. And in fact, dose rates are now such (up to 1000 mSv per hour on Saturday, April 2) that intervention near the reactor seems impossible.

Have there been victims recognized as having contracted occupational diseases due to their work at the plant?

Paul Jobin: In 2002, I counted 8 cases recognized since 1991. Since then, there were few others, as far as is known, because there is a certain opacity in the system. I think for example of the case of Mr. Nagao. He had worked in Fukushima 1 and 2 between 1977 and 1982 and received a cumulative dose of 70 mSv. Starting in 1986, he began experiencing all sorts of symptoms, lost his teeth, and in 1998, doctors diagnosed multiple myeloma. In 2002, he filed an application for recognition as having an occupational disease, which he obtained, not without difficulty, with the support of an associative network. Then he filed a lawsuit against TEPCO. His complaint was dismissed in 2009 in an all-too expeditious manner: the judge did not even bother to examine the medical opinions presented by the prosecution.

You have conducted a study on the effects of mercury pollution in the sea off the coastal town of Minamata by the Chisso Petrochemical Plant. How were the victims treated in this disaster?

Paul Jobin: There is an important difference between these two disasters. In Minamata, there was no explosion, residents were not immediately aware of the danger, and fear came later. Yet by the 1920s, there was already an impact on fisheries, and fish numbers decreased (not because of mercury but because of emissions of other pollutants). From the 1940s, they saw dead cats and birds, then the first human victims in the mid-1950s. The creation of awareness of the threat took a long time. The first trial took place between 1969 and 1973 and concluded with a judgment against Chisso for a substantial sum of compensation for the plaintiffs.

Then there were many other trials, and it has been estimated that there was a total of at least 40,000 victims. Finally, in July 2009, a compensation law was passed, quite well received by many victims. From the first steps taken by the victims from Chisso in 1956 and 2010, it will have taken over fifty years of battle with the industry and the state to see fairly complete reparations. This bodes ill for the current disaster, especially since the history of reparations for victims of Minamata disease occurred at a relatively prosperous time for Japan. Who knows now what will happen to Japan after a disaster like this? It was the third largest economy in the world, but will it remain so?

As stated by the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, this is truly a national disaster on a scale that Japan has not faced since the end of the Second World War. This is a catastrophe for the whole country. This will make it even harder for people to get redress.

[1] Director, French Center for Research on Contemporary China, CEFC, Taipei Office, and Associate Professor, University of Paris Diderot.

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