NARAHA, Japan — “Out of work? Nowhere to live? Nowhere to go? Nothing to eat?” the online ad reads. “Come to Fukushima.”
That grim posting targeting the destitute, by a company seeking laborers for the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is one of the starkest indications yet of an increasingly troubled search for workers willing to carry out the hazardous decommissioning at the site.
The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as TEPCO, has been shifting its attention away, leaving the complex cleanup to an often badly managed, poorly trained, demoralized and sometimes unskilled workforce that has made some dangerous missteps.
At the same time, the company is pouring its resources into another plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, that it hopes to restart this year as part of the government’s push to return to nuclear energy three years after the world’s second-worst nuclear disaster. It is a move that some members of the country’s nuclear regulatory board have criticized.
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That has translated into jobs at Fukushima that pay less and are more sporadic, chasing away qualified workers. Left behind, laborers and others say, is a workforce often assembled by fly-by-night labor brokers with little technical or safety expertise and even less concern about hiring desperate people. Police and labor activists say some of the most aggressive of the brokers have mob ties.
“Crisis of manpower”
Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiological release.
“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”
In a written reply to questions, TEPCO said it “is not in a position to comment on the employment practices” of its contractors.
Similarly, TEPCO has refused to divulge a full accounting of a recent leak at the plant — the worst spill in six months — which occurred when workers filling storage tanks with contaminated water remotely diverted it into the wrong tank. But even the scant information available points to confusion by workers.
They ignored alarms warning of an overflow because so many tanks are near capacity, alarms ring all the time. No one noticed that water levels in the tank that was supposed to be receiving the water never rose.
“It’s an extremely elementary mistake,” Toyoshi Fuketa, a commissioner at the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said at a recent hearing. “If a fire alarm went off in your house, you’d be worried, let alone a nuclear power plant.”
TEPCO’s deputy nuclear chief, Masayuki Ono, later explained that “it did not occur to us to actually go to the scene to check.”
At the heart of the plant’s problems is a multitiered hiring system in the nuclear industry that critics have long said allowed the large utilities that run the plants to distance themselves from troubles that arise. Under the system, it hires contractors who parcel out work to several layers of subcontractors. At the bottom, subjected to the dirtiest work, are the so-called “nuclear gypsies” — itinerant laborers lured by the industry’s generally good wages.
The accident has only magnified the problems the system allows. According to company records, contract workers at Fukushima Daiichi receive, on average, more than twice the radiation exposure of TEPCO employees. The layered system, many say, also allows for relatively little oversight by TEPCO.
In a recent interview, a TEPCO spokeswoman said that the company regularly evaluated its contractors and required them to provide their workers with a class on the basics of radiation. (She denied charges of widespread cheating made by some workers.)
But at a news conference last month, the chief nuclear regulator, Shunichi Tanaka, said, “There is a subcontracting structure that means even workers from third- or fourth-level contractors work at the site, and TEPCO does not have a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground.”
Naka, the contractor who talked of a manpower crisis, said many of his best engineers — including those who battled explosions and fires in the early days of the crisis — have either quit, or cannot work at the plant because they have reached legal radiation limits for the year.
Yoshitatsu Uechi is one of the people who has stepped in for more experienced workers. A former bus driver and construction worker, Uechi has never before worked at a nuclear plant.
He was paid about $150 a day to work on one of the plant’s most pressing jobs: building tanks to store the vast quantities of contaminated water at the site. He describes hurried days, saying he was told at one point by his contractor to continue sealing the seams of the tanks despite rain and snow that made the sealant slide off.
He believes such slipshod work eventually compromised the tanks, some of which have since leaked.
“I spoke out many times on the defects, but nobody listened,” said Uechi, a father of four who says he left Okinawa and its depressed economy for Fukushima to provide a better life for his children. He said he rarely saw TEPCO managers while on the job.
He said he expressed his worries not only to his immediate bosses, but to TEPCO. (Asked about the complaints, TEPCO said it could not discuss individual workers out of privacy concerns.)
Desperate to hire
Struggling to maintain 3,000 workers at the plant — compared with 4,500 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — labor brokers are getting desperate. Mostly chased away by labor activists from urban areas where day laborers and homeless people congregate, the brokers have increasingly taken their pleas online and made clear their standards are low.
One ad, for work involving radiation monitoring, said, “You must have common sense, and be able to carry out a conversation.”
Although it is unclear if any workers were living on the streets before they came to the plant, laborers and others familiar with the workforce say many people there are living on the edge.
“We’re talking people who are basically living hand-to-mouth,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a City Council member in nearby Iwaki.