Why cleaning up Fukushima is the worst job ever

Exposure to radiation is only the beginning of abuses leveled at the nuclear plant's workers

Topics: Fukushima, Radiation, Nuclear Power, Corruption, Organized Crime,

A big investigative report from Reuters provides some much-needed insight into the continued mishaps and delays at Fukushima, as Japan desperately attempts to get its damaged nuclear reactor under control and decontaminate surrounding areas. The $150 billion cleanup and containment effort, they found, is plagued by safety problems, workplace corruption and organized crime.

A major problem, according to the report, stems from the fact that much of the work at Fukushima has been farmed out to 800-some inexperienced and unscreened subcontractors, whose unpreparedness to deal with a nuclear crisis on this level would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying.

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To give just one egregious example, a worker told Reuters that he was told by his boss not to worry about the extreme levels of radiation he was being exposed to, because it wouldn’t “build up.” He was able to provide a recording of the boss telling him: ”Once you wait a week, the amount of radiation goes down by half.” (The actual safety standards at Fukushima, according to Reuters, take there to be no safe dose of radiation.)

When the worker complained, he was fired.

The jobs, of course, are usually taken as a last resort by people with no other options, and can end up approaching slave labor:

In extreme cases, brokers have been known to “buy” workers by paying off their debts. The workers are then forced to work until they pay off their new bosses for sharply reduced wages and under conditions that make it hard for them to speak out against abuses, labor activists and workers in Fukushima said.

…”The workers are scared to sue because they’re afraid they will be blacklisted,” said Mitsuo Nakamura, a former day laborer who runs a group set up to protect Fukushima workers. “You have to remember these people often can’t get any other job.”

The cleanup effort is far from over — it’s going to be a 30-year process, and in many ways is only beginning to ramp up. Thousands more workers, on top of the 50,000 already hired, will be needed to finish the job, according to Reuters. The big question, now, is how it will manage to get done. As Shinichi Nakayama, deputy director of safety research at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, put it: ”I think we should really ask whether they are able to do this while ensuring the safety of the workers.”

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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