The biggest radiological cleanup the world has ever seen has been hampered by violations of employment laws, shoddy working practices and a shortage of people willing to work in an irradiated environment. The failure, so far, to secure permanent storage sites for contaminated waste has added to the authorities’ woes.
The Environment Ministry stopped short of taking legal action or naming the companies concerned, saying only that it would investigate the claims and send written demands that workers be paid retrospectively.
In a meeting with reporters earlier this month, three workers, who asked not be identified by the media, admitted they had dumped leaves and branches into rivers. “I wondered if it was really all right to do that,” one said. “But I was afraid that I might be fired if I refused. And my supervisor was doing the same thing right in front of me.”
On top of his daily wage of 12,000 yen ($125), he was entitled to 10,000 yen a day from the central government as danger pay for operating in a highly radioactive area. He says the government paid the money — more than half a million yen in total — but that his employer had simply held on to it.
The 54-year-old, who with several coworkers has formed a union to demand payment, believes that thousands may have been swindled out of cash.
“We’re trying our best, but we’re just a minnow up against a powerful corporation,” Nakamura, who has since quit his job, told GlobalPost.
Just months after it began, the decontamination drive is the subject of widespread malpractice allegations. Contractors have been accused of withholding additional dangerous work payments, and of sending workers into radiation zones with minimal training and only basic equipment.
Nakamura also worries about radiation. He underwent a check using a full body counter at the start of his two-month contract, and then again when it ended. But the company has yet to tell him his readings, despite repeated requests. When he left, the dosimeter Nakamura had worn around his neck to measure cumulative external exposure was taken away. He still doesn’t know the readings stored inside the device.
“If I become ill at some point, I’ll have no evidence of my cumulative radiation dose to offer as proof that I worked in a dangerous environment,” he said.
Attempting to keep radiation levels down in residential areas could prove futile, according to Ian Fairlie, a London-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment. Fairlie, who had just returned from a conference on the Fukushima crisis in New York, said there was evidence that some areas recorded the same levels of radioactive cesium-137 just 24 hours after they had supposedly been contaminated.
“This was found too after Chernobyl, where cleanups were largely ineffectual,” he said. “[Decontamination] is good for reassurance and official statements, but poor for actual dose reduction. I think the 20 km zone and other areas will have to remain permanently evacuated. That will be awful for the [tens of thousands of people] affected, but I can’t really see any other way.”
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