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.