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Problems emerge in operations to bring the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident to an end, and in decontamination operations

We demand the abolition of the multi-layer subcontractor system and the provision of jobs and wages for workers whose total accumulated radiation exposure has exceeded the official limit


   Two years have passed since the outbreak of the disastrous nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS). Even now, about 3,000 workers are engaged in various operations in the plant every day. Without the hard work of the workers and their struggles with the fear of accumulating radiation exposure in the plant’s extremely severe condition, it would be impossible to achieve an end to the accident.
Table 1. Accumulated External and Internal Dose of Workers Engaged in Radiation-related Operations at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Accumulated Dose Distribution at the End of December (March 11, 2011 to December 31, 2012)

Notes: 1) Values for external exposure use the sum of the APD values for each area entered, but these can vary due to replacement by monthly dose values from cumulative dosimeters. 2) Significant internal exposure is not recognized after October 2011. This table was prepared from data published by TEPCO to which total exposure data has been added. (CNIC)

    Table 1 is based on data for the evaluation of plant worker exposure to radiation published by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) on January 31, 2013 and shows cumulative internal and external exposure up to the end of December, 2012. Total accumulated exposure has reached approximately 300 person-Sv, an enormous amount. Of this, roughly 70% is accounted for by cumulative exposure of workers hired by subcontractors. In March 2011, the TEPCO officials who took charge of the work to deal with the accident suffered overwhelmingly large exposure to radiation. But in and after April 2011, the total accumulated exposure of the workers employed by subcontractors exceeded the levels of the TEPCO officials.

    According to TEPCO’s report on the overall situation regarding accumulated radiation exposure levels of the workers at FDNPS released on December 3, 2012, the levels are on the decline due to the overall situation at the plant. The report noted that the radiation levels of the majority of the workers were far below the exposure limit, and that they are still able to take part in radiation-related operations. The report thus indicates that TEPCO is extremely optimistic about the workers’ accumulated exposure levels.

    The number of workers whose one-month radiation exposure topped 10 mSv totaled 20 in October 2012 (the highest was 16.94 mSv), 15 in November (19.28 mSv), and 8 in December (15.85 mSv). According to data compiled in FY2009, before the nuclear accident occurred, the annual radiation exposure levels of 94% of the workers were 5 mSv or less, with the highest level standing at 19.5 mSv, and the average exposure level at 1.1 mSv. Considering these wide gaps, it is evident that the workers are currently working in a far more severe environment at the nuclear power plant than previously. The electric utility should realize the fact that the workers are exposed to incomparably large amounts of radiation compared with the pre-accident period.

    Although two years have passed since the accident occurred on March 11, 2011, it has been disclosed recently that TEPCO has yet to submit to the Radiation Effects Association (REA), a public interest incorporated association that manages radiation exposure data of workers at nuclear power plants across the nation, data on more than 20,000 workers that have worked at the Fukushima plant since the nuclear accident (TEPCO announced on March 25 that it had submitted the data for FY2011 and FY2012).

    In Japan, nuclear plant workers are working under a multi-layered subcontractor system with the electric power companies at the top. Some of them are engaged in work involving regular inspections of nuclear power plants, moving from one plant to another. Unless their exposure data are collected and managed by one organization, their cumulative exposure levels may sometimes exceed the legal limit. These cumulative exposure levels are collected and managed in a database by the Radiation Dose Registration Center (RADREC). This is the private-sector system for registration and management of radiation exposure doses financed mainly by electric power companies.

    Under this system, the original contractor or subcontractor records data in the worker’s personal “radiation work passport” (in most cases, this passport is managed by the subcontractor), and electric power companies send the data to the REA Central Registration Center. This means that Japan’s system for the management of radiation-related worker exposure data is fragile and not legally binding.

Wages and compensation for workers with above-limit exposure to radiation under the subcontractor system.

    Since July 2012, when it was discovered that worker exposure to radiation was being concealed by covering the personal dosimeter with a lead plate, TEPCO conducted a questionnaire survey with the workers, and the government ministries concerned, such as the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), also carried out various types of investigations on the management of worker exposure.

    The MHLW report, titled “Results of the Investigation on the Management of Worker Exposure at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi NPP,” was released on October 30, 2012. The report stated that the first-tier and the lower-tier subcontractors discuss the future with plant workers when their cumulative exposure levels approach the limit set by the original contractor, and in most cases are taking the following measures.

    In the case of general contractors, the workers whose cumulative exposure levels approach the limit will be transferred to the low-exposure-level workshop in the plant. When the workers’ exposure level exceeds the limit despite the transfer, they will be assigned to other general construction work or decontamination work. (Such workers are sometimes forced to switch jobs.) In the case of the subcontractors engaged solely in work at nuclear power plants, it is difficult to find other jobs for such workers outside the plant. The subcontractors have therefore set up a rotation system for their workers among the company’s branches so that the exposure levels of all the workers are almost evened out. Should the worker exposure level approach the limit, the workers will be transferred to jobs carried out in a low-dosage environment in the plant or to decontamination jobs.

    These measures can be taken only by the first-tier and other high-tier subcontractors that are to some extent providing their workers with a guarantee of status. The lower-tier subcontractors are unable to transfer their workers to other workshops and the workers will lose their jobs if their exposure levels exceed the limit. There is also another problem of intermediary exploitation of their wages.

    In a series of investigations conducted so far, it was disclosed that there are many labor brokers disguised as subcontractors, and the mass media have begun reporting on these questionable people. In view of this situation, it is necessary to abolish this multi-layered subcontractor system, and provide the plant workers with guaranteed wages. There is also a need to establish a system to secure jobs for workers with above-limit exposure levels and guarantee them social security. The government must tackle this problem immediately, as it is expected that the workers will be required to work in even more severe environments during the coming decades until the nuclear power plant is decommissioned. This has been a major problem since nuclear power plants first began operation, and our society as a whole must face this problem and cope with it in a conscientious manner.
 
Cutting corners in decontamination operations and sloppy management of worker exposure data. Decontamination workers have filed a complaint with the government over the pocketing of special allowances by employers.

    The decontamination projects launched for restoration of disaster-hit areas by the central and local governments are creating "new exposed work". In the pilot decontamination project carried out in 2011 in the evacuation zone and the planned evacuation zone, one of the workers was exposed to a total of 11.6 mSv over the 108-day period. It was reported that this worker’s accumulated radiation exposure would reach 129 mSv, far greater than the official limit of 100 mSv, if he continued to do the same job for five years. The most serious aspect of this problem is that neither the decontamination workers nor the residents engaged in decontamination work in their communities on a voluntary basis are fully aware of this risk.

    It was also revealed that cutting corners is rampant in decontamination operations. One example is that contaminated water from decontamination works is not collected and is simply drained off into the environment. Although the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has been informed, it is very slow to respond to such problems, and its competence as the ministry in charge of a national project to which a massive budget is allocated is in doubt.

    The government and MOE are paying a 10,000-yen per day special job allowance in addition to wages to decontamination workers in consideration of the radiation exposure risk. However, the reality is that the workers are not receiving the allowance. MOE is handing out the contracts for decontamination operations to general contractors, but there are a number of subcontractors under each general contractor. Among the subcontractors are temporary job placement agencies, construction companies, civil engineering and building contractors, painting companies, and other local medium- and small-sized businesses. They form a complex, multi-layered subcontractor system.

    Our organization, the Radiation-exposed Workers' Solidarity Network has received more than 100 complaints and inquiries from decontamination workers. “I received the allowance, but instead they reduced my wages to the lowest level,” “Although the employer is required to provide me with accommodation and food costs, they deducted those costs from my wages retroactively,” “The employer didn’t prepare masks for workers. So I had to buy one for myself. The company doesn’t measure personal dosimetry and I don’t know how much radiation I have absorbed so far,” are some of the examples of their complaints. Their comments have revealed that the subcontractors are not taking proper measures to reduce their worker exposure risks, that they have unilaterally reduced the workers’ wages or changed their working conditions, and that they are attempting to conceal the fact that they are pocketing the special allowances.

    Since last year, the Fukushima Solidarity Union, Iwaki Free Labor Union and other groups participating in the Radiation-exposed Workers' Solidarity Network have been helping decontamination workers through joint negotiations with a number of subcontractors. Confronted with strong indignation expressed by the workers, the subcontractors have apparently come to the conclusion that they could no longer conceal their misconduct, and begun admitting that they had pocketed the special allowances. Meanwhile it has also been revealed that the second-tier and third-tier subcontractors have not been paid sufficient sums of money from the original contractor to pay the special allowances to their workers. This means that the lower-level subcontractors were also victims. 

Workers negotiating with the government concerning problems with the decontamination operations (Feb. 28, 2013) Photo by Akira Imai.

    On February 28, the Radiation-exposed Workers' Solidarity Network and its affiliated groups negotiated with MOE and MHLW about the problems appearing in decontamination projects. Many workers took part in the negotiations and complained of various issues that have arisen in decontamination operations. They demanded thorough investigations regarding the multi-layered system, from the original contractors down to the subcontractors, and called for ministerial guidance vis--vis the contractors. “I really want to know who has pocketed the special risk allowance paid by taxpayers’ money,” said one of the workers. A MOE official replied, “It is not so important to know who has pocketed the allowance, but whether the allowance was paid to each worker or not.” He went on to say that the ministry is checking the workers’ wage ledgers. The workers were not convinced by his reply and retorted angrily. “The workers’ wage ledgers do not tell the truth. The reality is that we haven’t received anything, even an employment contract,” “You have left everything to general contractors and that’s why you cannot discover the truth,” said the workers. The MHLW official said the ministry will launch an investigation if the workers consult the local labor bureaus about the matter, or if they give information about their problem to the bureau. The workers replied angrily that the labor bureau did not take up their problems and did nothing for them. Another worker also complained that he went to an MHLW office and told the official there about the unpaid risk allowance, but the official urged him to continue negotiations with his employer and eventually did nothing. The issue of the management of decontamination worker cumulative exposure and other problems were not taken up and remain pending.

    As for management of decontamination worker cumulative exposure to radiation, REA is charged with creation of the database, just as in the case of the nuclear plant worker exposure data. But the truth is that REA has yet to receive any data on decontamination worker radiation exposure. MOE drew up a contract form to be used when signing with general contractors for decontamination projects, and clearly stipulated in the contract that each worker must obtain a radiation work passport whenever possible. REA called on MOE to urge the subcontractors to send exposure data for each worker to REA when each decontamination job is completed so that the organization can manage the data for all the workers in a uniform manner. MOE said it would comply with the request. REA says, however, that it has not received any such data yet. The Radiation-exposed Workers' Solidarity Network plans to clarify who is responsible for the management of the worker exposure data in future negotiations with the government, and will strive to resolve the problem.

Mikiko Watanabe (CNIC)

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