Editor’s note: An army of workers, 6,000 or so, battles daily on the front line of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to get the site ready for the decades-long process of decommissioning the reactors.
An overwhelming majority of the men are hired by subcontractors and endure low pay, fragile job security and hazardous working conditions. Radiation exposure is a constant risk.
This three-part series is intended to shed light on conditions at the plant and how the people working there feel about their jobs.
It is winter and still dark when the man awakes at 3:30 a.m. to start his working day. He begins by putting on five layers of clothing under his protective gear, and dons two pairs of gloves and socks, the insides of which are stuffed with disposable hand warmers.
Thirty minutes later, a cutting breeze blows from the ocean as the man climbs into a car ordered by his employer to take him to the J-Village facility, where the workers board buses to transport them to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant 20 kilometers away. The man’s job is to lay pipes containing contaminated water at the complex. He works for a fourth-tier subcontractor with Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant.
Five years after the triple meltdown, the plant premises are much tidier than in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Today, the ground is covered with steel sheets.
However, the steel frames of the reactor buildings still stand exposed because the concrete walls were blown out in hydrogen explosions triggered by the overheating of reactor cores.
Inevitably, jobs near the reactor buildings pose radiation risks.
“The closer you get to the reactor buildings, the higher the radiation readings,” the man said. He is required to carry a dosimeter whenever he is on-site.
Each time the man’s dose climbs by 0.16 millisievert, an alarm sounds. If the alarm goes off three times in a single shift, he must stop what he is doing, no matter what work remains to be done.
With a full-face mask and protective gear, working in summer months can be more grueling–and even life-threatening.
He packs ice cubes under his clothes to keep cool, but they melt within 30 minutes.
One summer day, he saw a middle-aged man lying on the floor of a lounge where the workers congregate during their break.
The man had collapsed after the end of his shift. Although the individual was airlifted to a hospital by helicopter, he apparently died of heatstroke.
When the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake struck, the Iwaki man was working inside the No. 1 reactor building. The power went out and in the darkness he heard a loud crashing noise, as if a piece of equipment had suddenly ground to a halt.
He fled the building as fast as he could.
Fissures dotted the concrete surface of the ground and shards of glass were everywhere.
The man took refuge in a structure in the compound known as the “company building.”
A roll call was taken to check that everybody was safe, and then he and his colleagues were dismissed in the evening.
The Iwaki man did not recall seeing the effects of the tsunami on his way home, which he reached at 8 p.m. By that time, he was running a fever and itched all over his body, probably the result of a stressful and nerve-racking day.
A hydrogen explosion rocked the No. 1 reactor building the following day, March 12.
Several days later, the man and his family evacuated to Nagoya, where he has relatives.
But around May, the president of the company he had worked for called and asked him to consider returning to the plant.
After giving the matter some thought, the Iwaki man accepted. His daughter had just turned 1 year old. He had a family to raise. Leaving his family behind, the man returned to Fukushima for a job that pays 11,000 yen ($97) a day.