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    Japan
     May 4, 2011


Dying for TEPCO
By Paul Jobin

While Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) experiences difficulties in recruiting workers willing to go to Fukushima to clean up the damaged reactors, the World Health Organization (WHO) is planning to conduct an epidemiological survey on the catastrophe. This is the first of two reports offering a worker-centered analysis of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In the titanic struggle to bring to closure the dangerous situation at Fukushima Nuclear Plant No1, there are many signs that TEPCO is facing great difficulties in finding workers. At present, there are nearly 700 people at the site. As in ordinary times, workers rotate so as to limit the cumulative dose of radiation inherent in maintenance and cleanup work at the nuclear site. But

 
this time, the risks are greater, and the method of recruitment unusual.

Job offers come not from TEPCO but from Mizukami Kogyo, a company whose business is construction and cleaning maintenance. The description indicates only that the work is at a nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture. The job is specified as three hours per day at an hourly wage of 10,000 yen (about US$122). There is no information about danger, only the suggestion to ask the employer for further details on food, lodging, transportation and insurance.

Those who answer these offers may have little awareness of the dangers and they are likely to have few other job opportunities. A rate of $122 an hour is hardly a king's ransom given the risk of cancer from high radiation levels. But TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) keep diffusing their usual propaganda to minimize the radiation risks.

Rumor has it that many of the cleanup workers are burakumin (a minority group dating from Japan's feudal era and still often associated with discrimination). This cannot be verified, but it would be congruent with the logic of the nuclear industry and the difficult job situation of day laborers. Because of ostracism, some burakumin are also involved with yakuza, or organized crime groups. Therefore, it would not be surprising that yakuza-burakumin recruit other burakumin to go to Fukushima. Yakuza are active in recruiting day laborers of the yoseba (communities for day laborers): Sanya in Tokyo, Kotobukicho in Yokohama, and Kamagasaki in Osaka. People who live in precarious conditions are then exposed to high levels of radiation, doing the most dirty and dangerous jobs in the nuclear plants, then are sent back to the yoseba. Those who fall ill will not even appear in the statistics. [1]

Before the catastrophe ...
According to data published by NISA, in 2009, there were 1,108 regular employees (seisha'in at Fukushima NP1. These were TEPCO employees, but may also include some employees from General Electric or Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi. But the vast majority of those working at Fukushima 1 were 9,195 contract laborers (hiseisha'in).

These contract employees or temporary workers were provided by subcontracting companies: they range from rank and file workers who carry out the dirtiest and most dangerous tasks - the nuclear gypsies described in Horie Kunio's 1979 book Nuclear Gypsy and Higuchi Kenji's photographic reports - to highly qualified technicians who supervise maintenance operations.

So even within this category, there is much discrepancy in working conditions, wages and welfare depending on position in the hierarchy of subcontracted tasks. What is clear is that the contract laborers are routinely exposed to the highest level of radiation: in 2009 according to NISA, of those who received a dose between 5 and 10 millisieverts (mSv), there were 671 contract laborers against 36 regular employees. Those who received between 10 and 15 mSv were comprised of 220 contract laborers and two regular workers, while 35 contract workers and no regular workers were exposed to a dose between 15 and 20 mSv.

Since contract laborers move from one nuclear plant to another, depending on the maintenance schedule of the various reactors, they lack access to their individual cumulative dose for one year or for many years. NISA compiles only the cumulative dose for each nuclear plant. The result is that the whole system is opaque, thus complicating the procedure for workers who need to apply for occupational hazards compensation.

... and after
On March 14, three days after the earthquake and tsunami that caused the damage at Fukushima, the Ministry of Health and Labor raised the maximum dose for workers to 250 mSv a year, where previously it was set at 100 mSv over five years (either 20 mSv a year for five years or 50 mSv for two years, which is in itself a strange interpretation of the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection's guideline stipulating a maximum of 20 mSv a year. The letter that the ministry sent the next day to the chiefs of labor bureaus to inform them of the decision justifies it on the grounds of the state of emergency, ignoring the safety of the workers. [2]

This could be a measure to avoid or limit the number of workers who would apply for compensation. Stated differently, it has the effect of legalizing illness and deaths from nuclear radiation, or at least the state's responsibility for them. Usually, in case of leukemia, a one year exposure to 5 mSV is sufficient to obtain occupational hazards compensation. The list of potential applicants could be very long in light of the number of workers already on the job, or who are likely to be recruited to dismantle the reactors. The project proposed by Toshiba to close down and safeguard the reactors would take at least 10 years. [3]

In short, the state's concern appears to be less the health of employees and more the cost of caring for nuclear victims. The same logic prevailed when, on April 23, the government urged children back to the schools of Fukushima prefecture, stating that the risk of 20 mSv or more per year was acceptable, despite the high vulnerability of children. Can the state be prioritizing the limitation of the burden of compensation for TEPCO and protection of the nuclear industry at large over the health of workers and children? [4]

Why subcontracting?
As early as the mid-1970s, the use of subcontracting labor in the nuclear industry was well established in Japan. In France, this trend would develop after 1988, reaching a rate of 80% by 1992. According to NISA's data, in 2009, Japan's nuclear industry recruited more than 80,000 contract workers against 10,000 regular employees. The initial goal was not necessarily to hide the collective dose, but to limit labor costs. But the fact is that whether in France or Japan, the nuclear industry nurtures a heavy culture of secrecy concerning the number of irradiated workers.

As far as we can know, based on the figures published by the Ministry of Health and Labor, before Fukushima's catastrophe, only nine former workers received compensation for an occupational cancer linked to their intervention in nuclear plants. [5] This number is probably very far from the reality of the victims, given the number of workers exposed and the numerous opacities of that system beginning with the fact that TEPCO and other electric power companies have always refused to disclose the list of their subcontractors.

The objective of epidemiological surveys
An epidemiological survey published in March, just before the catastrophe, was based on a huge cohort of 212,000 persons recorded between 1990 and 1999, out of the total of 277,000 who had worked in nuclear plants. The survey found a significant mortality ratio for only one type of leukemia and judged that other forms of cancer among this population could not be attributed to their exposure to radiation at nuclear plants.

One problem is that the survey only calculates mortality ratios, ignoring people who might have cancer but are still alive at the time of the survey. Such obvious methodological bias is frequent in this sort of surveys. In France and other countries, another bias is the tendency to ignore contract workers, though they receive the highest cumulative radioactive doses. Therefore, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the very goal of these epidemiological surveys is to minimize the risks of nuclear radiation and encourage the nuclear industry's business as usual.

The same logic has prevailed at the WHO and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in their evaluation of Chernobyl's legacy. Compared to a mere 4,000 in the "definitive" United Nations report published in 2005, [6] the report published in November 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences (based on more than 5,000 articles translated from Belorussian, Ukrainian and Russian) evaluated the total number of victims 985,000. [7] Of the 830,000 liquidators mobilized at Chernobyl, the Academy of Sciences report estimated that at least 112,000 had already died, compared to some 50 in the UN report.

While the conclusions of the two reports remain contested, even Nakajima Hiroshi, a former WHO director, has acknowledged that the control of WHO by IAEA on nuclear issues was problematic. [8] Therefore we can anticipate that the survey WHO is planning to conduct on Fukushima may provide the same anodyne conclusions.

Notes
1. In the 1980-90s, Fujita Yuko, then professor of physics at Keio University, distributed leaflets warning day laborers not to accept these dangerous jobs. See Higuchi Kenji's documentary in Kamagasaki.
2. Link.
3. On the decommissioning of nuclear plants, see NHK's recent documentary.
4. See the reaction of the chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to this decision, and the protest petition online.
5. For more details, see the reports of the Citizen Nuclear Information Center's homepage, mainly written by Watanabe Mikiko, who has provided constant follow up and support for these workers (use the following keywords: workers, worker exposure, Nagao Mitsuaki, Kiyuna Tadashi, Umeda Ryusuke, Shimahashi Nobuyuki.).
6. Link.
7. For a presentation of this survey, see this link. Alexey V. Yablokov (Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Moscow, Russia), Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (Institute of Radiation Safety, Minsk, Belarus). Consulting Editor Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2009).
8. See the following reports (French only) on the protests in Switzerland about the control of WHO by AIEA on nuclear issues: 1, 2.


Paul Jobin is director, French Center for Research on Contemporary China, CEFC, Taipei Office, and Associate Professor, University of Paris Diderot.

(Republished with permission from Japan Focus.)


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(Apr 16, '11)

Japan faces nuclear meltdown
(Mar 16, '11)

 

 
 



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