On March 11, 2011, a number of nuclear reactors were badly damaged by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. As a consequence, all Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors tripped and the nuclear fission process was halted. However, the fuel inside the nuclear reactor continued to output vast amounts of decay heat, and required a continuous supply of water to keep the fuel rods cool.
With the magnitude 9 earthquake taking out the mains electricity, the backup diesel generators sparked into life, providing power to the pumps that circulate cooling water around the fuel. Unfortunately, the 15-meter tsunami, subsequently, knocked out the backup generators. The loss of power to the pumps resulted in water boiling within the pressure vessels, causing the fuel to heat up within the oldest Fukushima plants.
As workers desperately tried to restore power to the reactor coolant systems, a series of chemical explosions rocked the area between March 12 and March 13, 2011. The three disastrous reactor meltdowns were followed by a radiation leak that prompted large-scale evacuation efforts.
TEPCO (a.k.a. Tokyo Electric Power Company, Incorporated) – the utility operator of the crippled Fukushima plant – was criticized in the aftermath of the disaster. Among TEPCO’s many detractors was Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), who forewarned the utility company of a slew of safety violations, just days before the earthquake struck.
With the company now facing nationalization, and its top brass under investigation for criminal negligence, TEPCO is involved in organizing the cleanup operation – a government-subsidized undertaking. However, reports of yakuza involvement, shoddy labor, and delegation of responsibilities to inexperienced nuclear cleanup subcontractors, are becoming relatively commonplace.
High-Risk Work and Botched Labor
Throughout the nuclear cleanup operation, reports of high-risk work conditions and botched efforts by subcontracted construction companies have been widespread. Reuters interviewed over 80 employees, employers and officials that were responsible for organizing the cleanup and dismantling the Fukushima reactors.
According to complaints submitted to the news agency, one of the most common grievances centered around the many subcontractors, who were deemed too inexperienced to handle the work and, allegedly, had ties with organized crime. Contactors involved in decontamination initiatives are reported to undergo little screening in the selection process, resulting in a number of ill-qualified nuclear contractors suddenly springing to existence to capitalize on the disaster.
Additional concerns have been raised over TEPCO’s limited oversight of the cleanup, and a number of poorly equipped workers have already been exposed to dangerous working conditions. On Aug. 12, 2013, a group of workers were irradiated when handling rubble around one of the reactors. Meanwhile, during a separate incident, another six workers were reported to have been exposed to radioactive water from a pipe that was dislodged from a treatment system.
Channel 4 News also received disturbing information from former cleanup employee Toyotatsu Uechi. Uechi – who had previously worked as an auto mechanic and tour-bus driver – dedicated around five months to the Fukushima cleanup, during 2012, and was part of a crew selected to create new locations to store contaminated water.
The worker was assigned the task of affixing a lid to one of the tanks, situated at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Donning a yellow body suit, designed to protect against the radiation, he ascended a ladder to get to the opening. Upon reaching the summit, however, he was shocked by what he saw – duct tape, in place of a proper, sturdy lid. Speaking to Channel 4 News, Uechi briefly ruminated on the surprise finding:
“In a place where safety needs to come first in terms of calming the situation, Tepco has been putting band-aids just to speed things up.”
After applying a sealing agent to the opening, which was approximately 30 centimeters in diameter, he put in place a steel lid and secured it with the four bolts that he had been provided; alarmingly, however, Uechi claims that the lid had a total of eight bolt holes.
Uechi took the opportunity to discuss his observations with fellow employees. According to his colleagues, the use of duct tape was common practice in temporarily sealing off radioactive water.
Reflecting on a separate incident, Uechi describes a time when he was repairing the floor of a reactor building. His boss at the plant instructed him to focus on completing his objectives in a timely fashion, rather than fixate on delivering high quality work.
Uechi reiterates many of the concerns previously highlighted. He insists there remains a perpetual shortage of skilled laborers, describing the people comprising the workforce as “disposable.”
Government data indicates a shortage of workers, while TEPCO continues to drive down the wages of its beleaguered workforce – an action that only serves to hamper recruitment efforts for the ongoing operations.
These issues are rounded off by allegations circulating that the yakuza are involved in the employment process – a suspicion upheld by Uechi, who reports seeing numerous workers sporting gang member tattoos.
Yakuza Profiteering From Fukushima Cleanup Operations?
According to the Telegraph, undercover reporter Tomohiko Suzuki signed up for the cleanup operation, at the Fukushima plant, to uncover the yakuza’s involvement. Throughout his employment, Suzuki reports finding yakuza-supplied labor, working alongside former yakuza members. He also alleges that TEPCO subcontractors bargained with the yakuza to acquire construction contracts, while political figures and factions of the media ignored the underhanded dealings.
Suzuki also discussed the poor work conditions, which were exacerbated by a culture of fear instilled into the workforce. Recruits would overheat and collapse from heat exhaustion; plant temperature sensors were broken; face masks were poorly maintained with ill-fitting filters; and radiation-monitoring dosimeters were simply ignored.
TEPCO claim they are seeking to resolve issues with low pay, and are also taking steps to educate the cleanup workforce on matters pertaining to their legal rights. The utility also states that it performs regular safety inspections and is aware of allegations centering around the yakuza’s involvement in the cleanup; they indicate they are cooperating with police investigations into the matter.
By James Fenner