The long and the short of it is this: Nuclear power plants probably would not operate properly in Japan if workers were not willing to sacrifice their health, and possibly their lives.
It emerges that workers at nuclear plants routinely resorted to ingenious ways to conceal the true levels of radiation to which they were exposed–simply to go on earning a living.
That is the disturbing picture that emerges from accounts given by more than 10 people, either working at nuclear power plants or now retired.
They came out of the woodwork after The Asahi Shimbun reported in late July that a senior executive of a subcontractor to Tokyo Electric Power Co. ordered workers to cover dosimeters with lead plates to keep measured radiation doses at low levels.
One man in his 30s who is employed at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant recalled looking into the back seat of a vehicle parked within the complex in May and finding about 20 sets of items that every worker normally carries.
Each set consisted of a dosimeter that displays radiation exposure levels for that day, a badge-type dosimeter that measures accumulated radiation exposure levels over a longer period, as well as the IDs for the workers. The man peeked into the vehicle three hours later and noticed the gear was still in the back seat. He concluded that workers clocked in at the nuclear plant without their dosimeters.
He cited similar instances on five subsequent occasions.
Nuclear plant workers are forbidden from going on-site if they are exposed to accumulated radiation levels that exceed annual standards set by the government.
A man in his 40s echoed his colleague’s comments. He said that between March and April, there were 10 occasions when he noticed 10 sets of such items placed in a vehicle within the same parking lot.
Officials of TEPCO, operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, insisted they had no inkling of the ingenious ways that radiation exposure levels were concealed.
However, on Aug. 3, a TEPCO official said that a worker for a subcontractor got on with his job without displaying a dosimeter. The official said the utility would look into the matter because the company had discovered other similar cases.
LONG HISTORY OF CONCEALMENT
While it is troubling that workers hid their dosimeters while working at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where radiation levels soared after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami last year, it is now clear that such practices have been in place for years, if not decades.
The man in his 30s who spotted the dosimeters left in the car recalled another incident about a decade ago when he worked within the reactor containment vessels at the No. 1 to No. 6 reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
At that time, the supervisor for the subcontracting company instructed the man to place his dosimeter in a lead container about the size of a tissue box that was placed within the reactor building.
The man said his work usually lasted about an hour. When the dosimeters were placed in the lead container, radiation exposure doses were close to zero. When the dosimeters were carried by the workers, the readings were between 0.3 and 0.4 millisievert.
The man also said that instructions to place the dosimeters in the lead container tended to increase toward the end of the fiscal year when the accumulated radiation exposure levels approached the 20-millisieverts standard established by the contracting company.
In reflecting on the practices, the man said, “If a worker diligently carried a dosimeter, he would not be able to work because the radiation levels would increase and set off the alarm. I felt it was only natural to place the dosimeters in the lead container.”
On other occasions, the dosimeters were hidden behind operating panels within the reactor building, he added. The individual in charge of radiation management at a subcontractor would remind the workers to be careful so that TEPCO or other authorities would not uncover the ruse.
“I have no idea how much radiation I was really exposed to,” the man said. “The company also does not allow me to get health checks for cancer. I am very concerned about my health.”
A retired man in his 70s who worked at several nuclear plants in western Japan cited yet another underhand practice when he was still working more than a decade ago.
He said one worker would hold on to the dosimeters of his colleagues and wait in an area where radiation levels were low.
“Workers of the electric power company and plant manufacturers also turned a blind eye to such practices,” he said. “That was a well-known practice among anyone who worked at nuclear plants for a number of years.”
One individual took his case to court.
Ryusuke Umeda, 77, of Fukuoka, spent many years at a subcontractor for a nuclear power plant. While working at the Shimane and Tsuruga nuclear plants, he said he was forced to do so without the benefit of dosimeters or protective masks.
In February, he filed a lawsuit at the Fukuoka District Court seeking to overturn a central government decision to not approve worker’s compensation for the heart attack Umeda claims was caused by his exposure to radiation.
“Workers cannot speak out because they are afraid of pressure from the company,” Umeda said. “Although I have repeatedly pointed out the problem, the central government has not even bothered to conduct an investigation.”
One high-ranking official of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare who has been involved in periodic inspections at the Fukushima No. 1 plant said, “Nuclear plants are sealed places where only a limited number of people are allowed in. Even if we hear rumors that dosimeters are not being carried by workers, it is very difficult to obtain evidence for such practices.”
RETIRED WORKER’S CONSTANT HEALTH FEARS
A 64-year-old man living in Kanagawa Prefecture contacted The Asahi Shimbun through family members after the newspaper published its initial report about covering dosimeters with lead plates.
He said such practices were common knowledge among nuclear plant workers. From his late 20s, the man said he spent about 30 years working at subcontractors for several nuclear plants around Japan.
The first time he removed a dosimeter was about five years after he began working. He just followed what everyone else was doing.
At that time, he received about 20,000 yen ($255) a day for minimal work. One worker wrapped string-shaped lead around the dosimeter.
On occasion, he found several dosimeters hidden in a tool box handed out to subcontractors that sent in workers to a reactor building.
One incident that sticks out in the man’s mind was from about 15 years ago when he worked at a nuclear plant in eastern Japan. The work involved inspecting the control valve to adjust the volume of water circulating within the core pressure vessel. The work was done in an area of high radiation levels because workers were limited to 15 minutes of work a day.
Before the start of work, the supervisor from the subcontracting company instructed the men to be careful about not becoming exposed to radiation.
The man immediately realized the supervisor was indirectly asking that radiation exposure levels recorded be kept low so that experienced workers would be able to work for longer periods. Before entering the room where the control valve was located, the man removed his dosimeter and hid it in a ventilation pipe.
Over a 10-day period, the man said he removed his dosimeter five or six days.
Several layers of vinyl were wrapped around the walls and floor near the control valve.
“That was done to prevent contaminated water from leaking because the radiation level was probably very high,” the man said.
While he was well aware of the dangers of radiation, the man said: “If we diligently carried the dosimeter, we would not be able to work at nuclear plants because we would very quickly (reach the radiation level limit). We had no choice because we had to make a living.”
Since retiring about eight years ago, the man’s eyesight has deteriorated due to inflammation. While the relationship with radiation exposure is unclear, the man said, “It would have been better if I had carried the dosimeters properly.”
At the same time, the man said, “Nuclear plants would not operate unless there were people like me willing to sacrifice their lives.”
(This article was compiled from reports by Miki Aoki, Toshio Tada and Tamiyuki Kihara.)