IWAKI — Our meeting with one of the “liquidators” of Fukushima’s power plant takes place in a discreet location, out of sight. Talking to journalists is risky, and the man's nervous employers could use it as a pretext to fire him.
“It’s the same thing for workplace accidents — there’s a collective solidarity,” he says. “If it isn’t too serious, we hide them to avoid problems with the social insurance.”
He is one of the liquidators in charge of securing and dismantling the site. In his thirties, he was working for a subcontractor at the power plant when the accident occurred, following the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Then, his company’s contract was not extended. He just started working on the site again. “The workers' situation has gotten better when it comes to security, but wages have gone down and there are fewer and fewer qualified people,” he says, asking to remain anonymous.
“The quality of work is mediocre because the management asks us to work fast, but the guys aren’t experienced enough,” explains the supervisor of a radioactivity inspection company, in charge of about 50 workers. “Sometimes they don’t even know the names of the tools. The teams often change. There’s a mandatory rotation because workers who have received the maximum radiation exposure must leave the zone. But others leave prematurely because they think they're not paid enough. If we don’t manage to form a qualified and trustworthy team quickly, we won’t be able to work fast and efficiently. We even lack qualified team supervisors.”
Bad all along
These deficiencies partly explain the contaminated water leaks that have increased considerably over the last few months. The people we are speaking to start smiling. “The leaks? They've been there for a while, but no one talked about them.”
Even the employees working directly for Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the site’s operator, are leaving because of the inadequacy of wages and risk premiums, or the non-payment of overtime. “The power plant lacks workforce. There are a thousand job offers in the Fukushima prefecture, and barely a quarter of these jobs are occupied,” says the assistant director of Iwaki's employment agency. Less dangerous decontamination projects and the prospect of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 are draining workers elsewhere, far from the damaged nuclear plant.
A little more than 3,000 people work at the plant. Some 1,400 live in J-Village — Japan Football Association's National Training Center, a TEPCO sports facility that was transformed into a reception center for the workers. The other 1,600 or so live in nearby hostels or in temporary accommodation built on car parks in front of which, in the evening, the minibuses that take them to J-Village and back are parked in line. They leave from there to the power plant, 10 kilometers away, and return in special shuttles.
Some of the liquidators are from the region — sometimes, former farmers who lost their farms because they were located in the contaminated zone. The others come from all over Japan, even Okinawa, more than 2,000 kilometers to the south. They are recruited through numerous subcontractors: six to eight levels, depending on the job category.
“For the first three — direct TEPCO subcontractors and important companies — we can find out how recruitments are done, but with the lower levels, it’s very complicated,” says Hiroyuki Watanabe, a communist Iwaki city counselor who set up a consultancy agency for the nuclear plant’s employees. “People think that Japan, a technologically advanced country, uses the most sophisticated methods with its robots at the damaged power plant — but the reality is different. We often use old material because once it is contaminated, it becomes unusable.”
The least qualified workers do not benefit from sufficient protection, and their wages are “drained” by the intermediaries through which they are recruited. In the end, they only earn 6,000 yens (45 euros) per day. “Discussions with the workers reveal the discontentment and the latent anxiety of those who are the most exposed,” Watanabe explains. “Some try to cheat with the cumulative radiation exposure limit in order to be able to work as long as possible.” They hide the device used to measure their contamination in a less-contaminated place to decrease the level of radiation accumulated during the day.
Some companies would like to reduce the exposure limits, “but the workers refuse because they want to be able to work. At the same time, they are bitter because they’re being ignored by the rest of the country. Tokyo is indifferent to their fate,” Watanabe continues. In J-Village, words of encouragement sent by high school students the country over are displayed on walls.
The time of high wages during the panic year that followed the tsunami disaster — with its influx of workers and, in their wake, bars in the nearby towns — is over. The nuclear plant’s workers remain cloistered in their companies’ prefabricated dormitories or in hostels around the region. Some places, such as Hirono, a dozen kilometers south of the plant, are ghost towns.
After being evacuated, this small town was reopened in August 2012. Hirono is the last stop of the railway line towards the north, which has been cut off. Only 1,000 of the 5,800 residents who lived here before the disaster have returned. The schools are empty. Most houses are boarded up. The stores’ iron curtains are down. Early in the evening, the main street is dimly lit and dull. The only illuminated sign is the Maehama Café. The small room on the second floor is almost empty. “We’ve lost our regulars,” the owner says. “The workers don’t come here anymore. They buy their food in the supermarkets along the main road.”
Some of the liquidators live in houses rented out by owners who no longer want to live there. They can only be seen at dusk and dawn when they get on and off the minibuses. The dismantling of the nuclear plant will probably take 40 years and will require many thousands such “drudges,” invisible and vulnerable.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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