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Foreign workers vital for Japanese contractor in cleanup at Fukushima nuke plant

Foreign workers who have been employed at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant are pictured in Fukushima Prefecture. (Mainichi photo, image partially modified)

FUKUSHIMA -- Foreign technical intern trainees have been employed in what is said to be a 40-year-long decommissioning operation underway at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in the wake of devastating core meltdowns in 2011. While they are not supposed to be there under TEPCO policy, they are still considered indispensable by their employer, commissioned by TEPCO.

The homelands of the interns include Vietnam, a country that abandoned plans to import a nuclear reactor from Japan two years ago. As trainees, they are supposed to "transfer" their experiences in Japan to their compatriots back home. But in the case of Vietnam, there is no chance of using such know-how in the non-nuclear country. What is going through the minds of the trainees as they engage in this work?

"Hosha-kei, hosha-kei, hosha-kei," one foreign worker repeated when the Mainichi Shimbun asked six workers from Vietnam and elsewhere about their job at the plant in February. It was not clear whether he meant radiation, radioactivity or a dosimeter.

"The job is easy and many Japanese workers are with us. I think (safety) is OK," said another foreign worker who had the best command of the Japanese language in the group. The location they started working last fall is outside the radiation controlled areas and everyone there is in ordinary workers' outfits.

The president of the Tokyo-based company that employs the six has nothing but praise for them. "People say they are so good at their work. I depend on them very much." The six workers make up two-thirds of the company's workforce, which also includes three Japanese nationals.

When the company was founded some 30 years ago it employed over 20 Japanese workers in their 20s, but now foreigners are vital for its operations. Says the president: "Japanese youngsters quit easily but foreigners stick with us because they borrow heavily to come to Japan and cannot go home at least for three years," a requirement for technical intern trainees.

The six each borrowed between 1.2 million and 1.5 million yen to pay for their trip to Japan and other expenses. Four of them are paying back the debt as they work. They all share a one-story, three-room wooden apartment near the plant that includes a small dining room and a kitchen.

When one male foreign worker who barely spoke Japanese was asked why he came to Japan, he replied in Japanese, "Okane" (money).

The workers have not told their families they are working at the nuclear plant. "My family would worry and tell me to come home," one man said in broken Japanese.

(Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya, Chiba Bureau)

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