The Reality of Nuclear Power Plant Workers

Fukushima Today

Katayama Natsuko (Tokyo Shimbun reporter)


In the summer of 2011, more than four months after the accident, a subcontractor at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant carried 20 kilograms of lead plates on his back and, on cue, ran up a steep set of stairs of the Unit 1 reactor building to a height equivalent to the sixth floor of an average building. He was heavily armed with two layers of windproof protective clothing and a full-face mask. The worker’s dosimeter kept ringing due to high radiation levels, and despite being out of breath, the worker kept muttering to himself,” please let this be over soon.”

I started covering the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake. I began by covering the press conferences held in Tokyo by the government and TEPCO. At the press conferences, I was able to understand the progress of the work being done, but I could not gain insight into the condition of the workers. With hydrogen explosions taking place one after the other in the reactor buildings, and radiation levels on-site and in the surrounding areas rising by the minute, I wondered what the situation was for the workers at the “hypocenter.” Would they survive if there is another explosion? How much radiation had they been exposed to? It wasn’t until five months later, in August of 2011, that I met and interviewed the workers. I approached them in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, the city where many workers were staying at the time.

There were so many things that I didn’t understand until I spoke with them directly. Immediately after the accident, there were reports rumoring workers were being recruited for daily wages of 400,000 yen. While some were receiving tens of thousands of yen per day, others were receiving only 6,000 to 8,000 yen. There should have been a hazard allowance, but at the time many workers had never seen such compensation.

“I want to do something for Fukushima.” “If my skills can help out.”

Workers from all over Japan gathered at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Their motives for working there varied. One worker from a rural area searched for a job at the plant, hoping to be of service to Fukushima in some way. He was prepared for the possibility that he might die, visiting the most memorable places in his hometown before coming to Fukushima. Many other workers came from outside the prefecture, saying they “wanted to do something for Fukushima” and that they hoped their “skills would be useful.” The local workers motives for working at the plant were “to be able to return to their hometown as soon as possible”, “to be able to live with their family”, and because “the people of Fukushima have no choice but to do their best.” A veteran worker who had already been working at the plant prior to the disaster said, “I have a responsibility as someone who has been working here. I want to work here until the plant is decommissioned.”

Some were stopped by family members who cried and begged them not to go to such a dangerous place. On the other hand, there was a local worker who was told by his son, “Go fight, Dad.” Immediately after the disaster, there were workers who were called in by their supervisors but were too scared to come to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Some even came to the site but then turned around and left. But not one of the workers ever blamed those who ran away. A representative of a local subcontractor said, “Everyone was scared. We all understood why people wanted to flee.”

Grueling On-Site Conditions

What happened to the people on-site at the time of the nuclear disaster? I wanted to uncover what each and every person went through. It was a week after I met the workers for the first time that I started writing a series of articles written in the first-person, called “Fukushima Workers’ Journal.” The problem was that at that time, a gag order had already been imposed on the workers preventing them from being interviewed. For this reason, I conducted all interviews in a private room of a Japanese pub away from the workers’ lodgings so that they would not be recognized and took great care not to include any details that could identify the interviewees. I did not want to take away the jobs of the workers who risked their lives to work there.

The work was grueling. A worker from a rural area said, “I was so scared that I was shaking” when he first saw the Unit 3 reactor, which had been destroyed by a hydrogen explosion. The full-face masks are sealed to prevent radioactive materials from entering from the outside. This makes it impossible to wipe away beads of sweat that fall into one’s eyes. The sweat gradually accumulates in the chin area of the mask and enters the mouth. Although protective clothing prevents radioactive materials from sticking to the skin, it also allows radiation to pass through, exposing people to it. Immediately after the disaster, people continued to work despite the fact that dosimeters were not made available to them.

Working in protective clothing and wearing a full-face mask, it was a fight against heat stroke in the summer. As soon as the work began, workers were covered in sweat as if buckets of water had been poured on them. The welders wore flameproof clothing on top of that making it a literal “scorching hell” for them. Since it was not possible to drink water while working, if workers lost consciousness due to heat stroke, their lives would be in danger. The workers pushed themselves to the limit knowing that if they got sick and had to stop working, it would be a problem for everyone around them.

Working under high radiation levels was even more grueling. Since workers were exposed to radiation while moving about, they had to run at full speed to the work site. When building the enclosure around the Unit 3 reactor which experienced a hydrogen explosion, workers only had approximately five minutes of actual work-time at the site outside of the time it took them to travel to and from there. Wearing a tungsten vest weighing 15 to 17 kilograms to reduce exposure to radiation, the workers would run up the wall, tighten a bolt or two, and then return to the site where they were replaced one by one, working in waves. One worker said, “We had to run as fast as we could to secure as many bolts as possible.”

Hidden Radiation Exposure

The upper limit of exposure for nuclear power plant workers is set at “50 millisieverts per year” and “100 millisieverts per five years” under normal circumstances. If they exceed these limits, they are not able to work at any nuclear power plants. The workers always kept track of their remaining radiation dose limits as they worked. When they reached the upper limit, they would have to leave the site. If they were hired by a large company, workers could potentially be sent to other sites, but for small companies, it was difficult to find other assignments and sometimes workers would have to be dismissed. Young local workers took the initiative to work in areas with high radiation doses after the nuclear accident. One worked later recalled, “I was so focused on the work right in front of me. I didn’t have time to think about the radiation exposure.”  However, workers who surpassed the radiation dose limits, as well as workers at companies unable to obtain work through competitive bidding were dismissed.

Under such circumstances, some workers, fearing unemployment, put lead covers over their dosimeters or did not bring their dosimeters to the site, hiding their radiation doses.

 “The disaster has been resolved.” “It is under control.” Meanwhile on-site…

On December 16, 2011, the government declared that “the disaster itself has been resolved.” The melted nuclear fuel (debris) had been cooled, producing large amounts of contaminated water every day, and the spread of radioactive materials continued. The reactor building was still recording high radiation levels and therefore not in a state where people could enter, and there was no prospect of a realistic timeline for when removing the debris would be possible. I received calls from workers saying, “I don’t understand what they are saying,” “it is far from stable,” and “there is no way the disaster’s effects have been resolved.” After this declaration, the working conditions deteriorated, with risk allowances and daily wages being lowered, and accommodation expenses no longer being covered. A vicious cycle began, with engineers and veterans leaving as radiation doses approached their upper limit, and work taking longer hours, resulting in fatigue and increased radiation doses for on-site workers. The facilities that were built hurriedly in the days following the disaster as well as the tanks that had not been welded began to give way. Shortly after the massive leak of contaminated water from the tanks in 2013, the Prime Minister at the time declared to the world that “the impact of the contaminated water is under control” in his bid for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The workers on-site were being rushed to conduct treatment of contaminated water, tank patrols, and construction to reduce the amount of contaminated water. Under these circumstances, people were working longer than the permitted 10 hours at the exposure site. Some of the workers were not even allowed to go to the bathroom.

“We must meet the deadline. We are told to hurry up, and everyone is exhausted. There is a shortage of workers, and we don’t get many days off. Injuries are on the rise, and in some sites, work is being simultaneously conducted in the same area on different levels, which is prohibited in construction. The concern of the veteran workers that “a major accident will happen someday” became a reality. It led to a number of fatal accidents between 2014 and 2015. The remote operation of robots and other equipment in high-dose environments also requires human labor. When investigating the containment vessel inside the reactor building, it is the workers who open the penetration hole for the robot to be inserted and workers who carry the robot to the entrance. The workers also had to lower the radiation dose by surrounding the site with lead plates so that the robot could be carried in. When dismantling tanks that had not been welded, the water that had been used to treat contaminated water could not be removed by a machine but had to be collected by hand by workers wearing protective clothing, ponchos, and a rubber body suit that covered their entire body like a wet suit. The heavy equipment made it difficult to move and working in the dark tank made it impossible to work for long periods of time.

During the interviews, I often thought back to the words of a local veteran worker who explained, “No matter what kind of work, you will always need people to do the work in the end.” However, the workers were cheerful even while working in these grueling conditions. They played pranks on their fellow workers, fell in love, and had a lot of laughter in their daily lives. While they loved their hometowns, thought about their families, worried about the future of their jobs, they took time to tell me exciting stories every day. I wanted to convey not only the hard work, but also the energetic nature in which they were living their lives.

No Prospects on When the Reactors Will Be Decommissioned

Ten years have passed since the accident. The cooling of the nuclear fuel, which was the biggest problem in the immediate aftermath of the accident has since been stabilized, and the amount of contaminated water produced daily has decreased. The radiation level of the entire site is much lower than it was immediately after the accident. On the other hand, heavy equipment continues to be used in areas with high radiation levels in order to prepare to remove the nuclear fuel. There are many issues to be addressed, such as how to dispose of the treated contaminated water stored in the tanks that continues to accumulate. The work to remove the debris from the Unit 2 reactor, which was scheduled to start in 2021, was postponed at the end of last year due to the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. Only a part of the debris has been confirmed at the Unit 2 reactor, which has undergone the most examinations, and the full extent of the debris is still unknown. Even if the debris from Units 1 to 3 which is estimated to be 880 tons is removed, we still face the problem of where to store it. There is still no prospect of when the reactors will be decommissioned.

And even now, if a nuclear power plant worker is diagnosed with cancer or another illness, there is no compensation other than the standard workers’ compensation. As more work is being done under high radiation levels in preparation for fuel removal, the struggle against the radiation dose limit for workers is becoming increasingly challenging, making it difficult for them to continue working at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in a stable manner. Nevertheless, the work at the site is supported by the workers who want to continue working to help Fukushima and want to be involved in the work at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The generational change has already begun amongst the workers. The decommissioning of the nuclear power plant will take decades and may seem like a never-ending task. It will not be possible if we do not review the compensation for the workers and establish employment conditions that allow them to continue working with peace of mind.

※ Ms. Katayama’s award winning book on the nuclear reactor workers is available (in Japanese)

(“Fukushima Today and Japan’s Energy Future 2021”

Original article published March 2021)