Japan Nuclear Disaster Exposes Unskilled Contractors to Extra Hazards

Nine months after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, creating a widespread environmental disaster, cleanup work continues at the coastal site.

That effort is exposing a fault line within the Japanese workforce. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the most dangerous and thankless jobs mostly are in the hands of unskilled contractors who are subjected to high doses of radioactivity, often not fully aware of the hazard.

“This job is a death sentence, performed by workers who aren’t being given information about the dangers they face,” said Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute and author of the book “The Lie of Nuclear Power.”

Activists are calling for better government protection for these workers. For decades, the activists say, nuclear plants have maintained a two-tiered workforce. One is made up of highly paid and well-trained utility employees, and the other consists of the itinerant contractors commonly known as “jumpers” or “nuclear gypsies,” who receive less training and fewer health benefits.

The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based watchdog group, says that contractors last year accounted for 96% of the harmful radiation absorbed by workers at the nation’s nuclear plants. What’s more, according to the government’s industrial safety agency, temporary workers at the Fukushima plant in 2010 faced radiation levels 16 times higher than did employees of the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco.

Meanwhile, the environmental damage continues. As the Times reports in a separate story, Tepco disclosed that more than 45 tons of highly radioactive water leaked this weekend from the site, with some of the water possibly reaching the nearby Pacific Ocean. The plant is about 220 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The leak defies assurances that the company has largely controlled damage at the nuclear operation, which it plans to shut down by year’s end.

Workers found highly radioactive water leaking from cracks in the concrete wall of a runoff container to a gutter that leads to the ocean. Employees later stemmed the leak with sandbags.

The ongoing Japanese crisis has raised fears about nuclear safety that figure in environmental debates in this country. As The Associated Press reports, questions are being raised about whether a $5.8 billion nuclear lab being planned at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico would be vulnerable to an earthquake.

The project, whose shorthand name is CMRR, is moving into the final design phase. Project director Herman Le­Doux says that officials have “gone to great extremes” to ensure that the planned building could withstand an earthquake of up to 7.3 magnitude. But local activists worry that the lessons of the Japanese disaster are being ignored.

STUART SILVERSTEIN

Related Post:
Japan Admits Lax Nuke Oversight, Doubles Estimate on Radiation Release

 

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