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Unskilled and Destitute Are Hiring Targets for Fukushima Cleanup via The New York Times

NARAHA, Japan — “Out of work? Nowhere to live? Nowhere to go? Nothing to eat?” the online ad reads. “Come to Fukushima.”

That grim posting targeting the destitute, by a company seeking laborers for the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is one of the starkest indications yet of an increasingly troubled search for workers willing to carry out the hazardous decommissioning at the site.

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That shift in attention has translated into jobs at Fukushima that pay less and are more sporadic, chasing away qualified workers. Left behind, laborers and others say, is a work force often assembled by fly-by-night labor brokers with little technical or safety expertise and even less concern about hiring desperate people. Police and labor activists say some of the most aggressive of the brokers have mob ties.

Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiation release.

“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”

That crisis was especially evident one dark morning last October, when a crew of contract workers was sent to remove hoses and valves as part of a long-overdue upgrade to the plant’s water purification system.

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Although the workers received significant exposures, Shigeharu Nakachi, an expert in the health effects of pollution, said it was not enough to cause radiation sickness. Still, he said such exposures were “something that should be avoided at all cost.”

Tepco has refused to say how experienced these workers were, but according to regulatory filings, the company that hired them signed a contract for the work a week before the leak. Tepco also refused to say whether the contractor procured them from labor brokers, which is an often illegal if widely accepted part of hiring at nuclear plants. In a written reply to questions, Tepco said it was “not in a position to comment on the employment practices” of its contractors.

Similarly, Tepco has refused to divulge a full accounting of a recent leak at the plant — the worst spill in six months — which occurred when workers filling storage tanks with contaminated water remotely diverted it into the wrong tank. But even the scant information available points to confusion by workers. They ignored alarms warning of an overflow because so many tanks are near capacity, alarms ring all the time. No one noticed that water levels in the tank that was supposed to be receiving the water never rose.

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At the heart of the plant’s problems is a multitiered hiring system in the nuclear industry that critics have long said allowed the large utilities that run the plants to distance themselves from troubles that arise. Under the system, it hires contractors who parcel out work to several layers of subcontractors. At the bottom, subjected to the dirtiest work, are the so-called “nuclear Gypsies” — itinerant laborers lured by the industry’s generally good wages.

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Each of the men — who feared being fired if their names were used — were housed in tiny rooms with a bed and a desk. The area around the dormitory is mainly deserted since many people refused to move back after the accident.

Workers say there is little to do at night other than watch TV, play roulette at a tiny game center, and drink. A store inside “J-Village” — Tepco’s base outside the plant — sells beer, whiskey and sake. According to several accounts, alcoholism is rampant, and one worker said he and his colleagues sometimes showed up for work hung over.

Struggling to maintain 3,000 workers at the plant — compared with 4,500 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — labor brokers are getting desperate. Mostly chased away by labor activists from urban areas where day laborers and homeless people congregate, the brokers have increasingly taken their pleas online and made clear their standards are low.

Read more at Unskilled and Destitute Are Hiring Targets for Fukushima Cleanup

Related article: Japan mulling new credentials for nuclear workers via Enformable Nuclear News

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