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Japan

Deadly Clean-Up: Will Fukushima Workers Start Dying Within Weeks?

Concerns are growing for the health of the some 600 people, so-called liquidators, struggling to stop deadly radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Many are resigned to the fact they could be dead within weeks.

Japanese radiation suits
Japanese radiation suits
Philippe Mesmer

Words can barely describe the working conditions of "liquidators' at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Around 600 workers are responsible for resolving the innumerable problems of the dilapidated facility, laboring in conditions that are permanently dangerous and potentially mortally dangerous. Seventeen of these workers, operating amid the elevated radioactivity levels and intense heat of the damaged reactors, have already been seriously contaminated.

On March 31, it was discovered that many of these workers had not been equipped with a dosemeter indicating the dose of radiation they were receiving in real time. This oversight is against the law, and prompted the Ministry of Health to look into the safety measures taken by the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the site.

The company had already admitted to a delay in transmitting information about radiation levels to technicians working in one of their reactors. This delay could have caused the serious contamination of three workers on March 24.

In addition to this information, there have also been revelations regarding the living conditions of technicians, who are for the most part TEPCO subcontractors, as well as firefighters and soldiers from the self-defense forces.

The details of their work schedule was unveiled on March 29 in Tokyo by Kazuma Yokota, a member of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, after he spent five days at the site.

Yokota said that workers, who for the most part are replaced every week, receive only two meals per day: breakfast and dinner. After waking at about 6 a.m., they are given two-dozen granola bars and 180 ml packs ​​of vegetable juice. In the evening, each worker is given rice and some tinned chicken or fish. Until March 22, they received only one 1.5 liter bottle of water per day.

At the site, hands are washed with alcohol and there are no showering facilities. Workers sleep in rooms or in hallways, where radioactivity may reach 2 to 3 millisieverts (mSv), per hour. In France, the accepted level for the general public is 1 mSv per year. They wrap themselves in blankets that contain lead to help limit their exposure to radiation. Cell phones do not work, preventing all contact with families, who are often located in shelters far from the plant.

Yokota's eyewitness account prompted a reaction from Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, who is also a member of the team set up by the government and TEPCO to manage the Fukushima crisis.

"The technicians, but also firefighters and soldiers are working in an extremely hostile environment," he said. "We need to improve their meal and rest conditions."

His reaction, albeit belated, adds to growing concerns for the health of the people attempting to bring Fukushima under control. Having been exposed to high levels of radiation for long periods of time, they face serious health problems, such as the loss of the body's ability to produce blood cells. Several hospitals in Tokyo have asked that the workers provide samples of their hematopoietic stem cells so that they can be re-injected with them later on, if needed.

The areas surrounding the plant have not been spared either. In the 12.5 mile exclusion zone, where the expansion of the area has been debated, the police charged with collecting the bodies of victims of the tsunami work in protective suits. They sometimes need to stop their work because the levels of radioactivity are too high. "We find bodies everywhere, in cars, in rivers, in the rubble and on the streets," one of them said. These bodies have been exposed to such a high level of radioactivity that they can't be burned, because the resulting smoke and ash retains radioactive particles.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Surian Soosay

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