Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cleaning up Japan’s nuclear mess

The twilight zone

Its owner fears not just radiation leaking out of the Fukushima plant, but also bad news

IT IS another world beyond the roadblocks stopping unauthorised traffic from entering the 20km (12.5-mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The few people inside are dressed in ghostly white protective suits.

Town after town was abandoned after March 11th, and spiders have strung webs across the doorways. An old lady’s russet wig lies in the road, lost perhaps as she took flight after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Outside the “Night Friend” nightclub in Tomioka, 9km from the nuclear plant, this correspondent was confronted by an ostrich with a feral glint.

Journalists are supposedly barred from the exclusion zone, though sympathetic evacuees, many furious with the authorities about their state of limbo, help provide access. Some of the 89,000 displaced residents have been given one-day permits to go home and each collect a box of valuables. To an outsider, the size and recent prosperity of the abandoned communities is striking. As well as the rice paddies, now overrun with goldenrod, are large businesses and well-built schools for hundreds of children.

Patrol cars stop passing vehicles. The police are particularly vigilant in preventing unauthorised people getting near the stricken plant, owned by Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), Japan’s biggest utility. The air of secrecy is compounded when you try to approach workers involved in the nightmarish task of stabilising the nuclear plant. Many are not salaried Tepco staff but low-paid contract workers lodging in Iwaki, just south of the exclusion zone.

It is easy to spot them, in their nylon tracksuits. They seem to have been recruited from the poorest corners of society. One man calls home from a telephone box because he cannot afford a mobile phone. Another has a single front tooth. Both are reluctant to talk to journalists, because a condition of their employment is silence. But they do share their concerns about safety. One, who earns ¥15,000 ($190) a day clearing radioactive rubble at the plant, says he was given just half-an-hour of safety training. Almost everything he has learned about radiation risks, he says, came from the television.

A strict hierarchy exists among the workers at Fukushima. Tepco’s own salaried staff are in a minority. The firm employs a top tier of subcontractors, from the builders of reactors such as Toshiba and Hitachi. They, in turn, subcontract work to builders and engineers, who subcontract further, down to small gangs of labourers recruited by a single boss. Some lower-ranking companies may have ties to the yakuza, Japan’s mafia, and among the lowest-paid recruits are members of the burakumin minority, who have long been discriminated against.

Those on the lower rungs, say labour advocates, are particularly vulnerable. They often have no corporate health, pension or redundancy benefits. Hiroyuki Watanabe, an Iwaki councillor from the Japan Communist Party who is campaigning to protect Dai-ichi workers, has a document showing one worker’s accumulated radiation exposure. In two months it had reached almost 33 millisieverts, or a third the level normally permissible for those working on a nuclear accident in a year. Mr Watanabe reports many safety breaches. Workers wading through contaminated water complain that their boots have holes in them. Some are not instructed in when to change the filters on their safety masks.

Mr Watanabe believes Tepco is cutting corners because cash is tight. Even such basic tools as wrenches are in short supply, he claims. Tepco is shielded by a lack of media scrutiny. The councillor shows a Tepco gagging order that one local boss had to sign. Article four bans all discussion of the work with outsiders. All requests for media interviews must be rejected.

Those higher up the rungs appear to be treated better—though they, too, are sworn to secrecy. One engineer who has played a front-line role in helping cool the meltdown of Fukushima’s three reactors spoke unwittingly to The Economist. A swarthy man in his 50s, he had worked in nuclear-power stations for 25 years. Once he heard about the accident, he knew it was his duty to help, since so few people understood how to run reactor systems. He came to the Dai-ichi plant in May, despite family protests.

Then, he said, the hardest work was done by the low-level labourers. They had so much rubble to clear, he says, that they often keeled over in the heat under the weight of their protective gear. Taken out in ambulances, they would usually be back the following day.

The engineer’s most stressful months, he said, were in June and July, once enough rubble was cleared to let him work on the systems. Seven-hour shifts usually involve an hour on and an hour off. Before he starts he must put on two sets of protective clothing, four pairs of gloves and a helmet with breathing apparatus, all of which is taped up so that not a particle of skin is exposed. At the end of every hour, he has to take off the protective layers and replace them with new ones before starting again. (Tepco says, with attention to finickety detail, that it has accumulated a mountain of 480,000 such suits in need of disposal.) During the busiest months, the hour-on, hour-off rule was foregone, the engineer said. “Though everyone is really trying their best, most of the Tepco guys in head office are clueless about what’s going on. No one has any idea of the conditions we’ve had to work under.” But then he added: “I’m not leaving this until I’m done. Never.”

The brink of bankruptcy

Government officials say some of the low-level safety breaches may be justified, given that Tepco is on a war footing and that its top priority is to stabilise the reactors. This week Yasuhiro Sonoda of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan drank a glass of water from the Dai-ichi plant in an attempt to play down safety concerns.

On November 1st the government also said that it intended to invite journalists to Dai-ichi for the first time—though it muddied the message by discouraging women (for health reasons, it said, and because there are no women’s loos at the plant). The following day Tepco reported unexpected signs of nuclear fission in one of the stricken reactors, forcing it to inject boric acid against renewed radiation leaks.

Tepco’s share price fell sharply.

The physical mess at Dai-ichi is mirrored in Tepco’s finances. A leaked plan drawn up with the government proposes to cut costs by ¥2.5 trillion over ten years.

Government officials insist they will not let the utility cut corners on safety. But Tepco is already expected to lose ¥570 billion this financial year, rendering it barely solvent. The government was expected to confirm massive support of Tepco on November 4th, with a ¥1 trillion injection, mainly to help the 89,000 evacuees.

For those forced from their homes as a result of the disaster, compensation cannot come soon enough. But increasingly they are fed up with the shroud of secrecy thrown over the Fukushima plant and the abandoned towns and villages where families had lived for centuries. The less media coverage there is, the more they worry that their plight will be forgotten—and the less pressure there will be on Tepco to cough up proper compensation. That appears to be one reason some are starting to take the law into their own hands and smuggling journalists into the forbidden zone. The Economist

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