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5 years after disaster, reactor decommissioning faces troubling shortage of workers

Workers are seen undertaking construction work on the premises of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant on May 7, 2015. (Mainichi)

A total of 21 companies involved with the decommissioning of reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant -- half of the firms that responded to a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun -- revealed that they are facing concerns due to an insufficient number of employees for the work.

    The risk of radiation exposure from the decommissioning work means that the companies are having trouble attracting young people, with the ongoing aging of the population pointing toward a possible hollowing-out with respect to the technical abilities of the workforce in this regard. This could mean that the problem of securing workers will become an ongoing problem that would result in a delay of reactor decommissioning -- which could in turn hinder local reconstruction efforts.

    At the administrative building located at the nuclear plant's point of entrance and exit, workers are routinely met with a greeting of "Please be safe" as they come and go in order to encourage them to fulfill their tasks without any incidents occurring.

    While the plant was known immediately after the nuclear accident as a disaster zone, now -- five years later -- a sense of calm has been restored. The radiation exposure risks and the aging of employees, however, have meant that problems continue to plague the workplace environment.

    The survey was sent to a total of 246 companies connected to the reactor decommissioning work, including prime contractors, as well as additional firms whose names were included in construction work-related approval and licensing documents that were submitted to Fukushima Prefecture and other local government offices. Responses were received from 42 companies, or around 20 percent of the total number contacted.

    Asked whether they had a sufficient number of employees, 21 firms responded either "No, we have an insufficient number of employees," or "Basically speaking, we have an insufficient number of employees" -- a figure eclipsing the 20 firms that responded, "We have a sufficient number of employees," or "Basically speaking, we have a sufficient number of employees."

    Asked to name the reasons for the insufficiency (with multiple responses allowed), the answer with the highest number of responses was "Numerous employees are leaving the company due to retirement, and young people are not coming (to take their place)," at 10 firms. The second- and third-highest answers, respectively, were "it's difficult to pass down the (required) technical skills," at seven firms; and "the number of aspiring employees is decreasing due to the high radiation levels," at six firms.

    "Although people respond when we announce job openings, they do not have the necessary qualifications -- such as being able to hoist and lower suspended loads," commented the 52-year-old president of a construction firm in the Fukushima prefectural city of Iwaki that is contracted by the nuclear plant for reactor decommissioning-related work.

    The firm in question is mostly contracted for on-site work where radiation levels are high. When the government-set figures of 50 millisieverts per year and 100 millisieverts per every five years are exceeded, on-site work is not permitted -- and the company must therefore compensate by hiring extra employees.

    Because qualified individuals are not available, however, the firm contracts with another company -- resulting in a situation whereby its labor insufficiency is filled by hiring the other firm's employees as its own. This practice, which is known as fake subcontracting, runs the risk of infringing the Worker Dispatch Law and other regulations.

    "We are aware that this is illegal," the company president notes, "but everyone still does it."

    According to a worker survey conducted by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, some 20 percent of all workers at the plant had been hired via fake subcontracting. And while TEPCO asks its business affiliates to comply with the law, it does not appear that this is a situation that is set to improve.

    "With reactor decommissioning set to be entering its most crucial stage, the national government should be taking the initiative to put measures in place that are aimed at securing workers for this purpose," points out Kazumitsu Nawata, a professor of econometrics at the University of Tokyo who is well-versed in the situation facing the nuclear plant workers.

    In assessing the future prospects for the reactor decommissioning work, which is likely to go on for several decades, a matter exists beyond that of securing new laborers that is an additional cause for concern: the problem of workers' exposure to radiation.

    The estimated average monthly radiation exposure of workers was 32 millisieverts immediately following the nuclear accident, and has presently decreased to 0.44 millisieverts. No longer is there a need to wear full-face masks, which made breathing difficult.

    Between the disaster and January 2016, however, the number of workers whose yearly radiation exposure level was greater than 5 millisieverts -- a figure that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare utilizes as a criteria when determining the recognition of workers' compensation in cases of leukemia -- was around 20,000 among the total of 42,000 workers.

    When irradiated fuel from the spent nuclear fuel pools begins to be transported, moreover, there is a possibility that the dosage in this regard will increase even further.

    A 23-year-old male worker from the city of Iwaki who was responsible for removing radioactively-contaminated vehicles that had been left on the premises of the nuclear plant said that he was surprised when the figures on his dosimeter began increasing immediately.

    "I do not know what effects (this work) will have upon my body in 30 years," he commented. "I do not want to do work involving high doses (of radiation)."

    Also troubling are the effects of the withdrawal of seasoned workers from the field. According to TEPCO, veteran employees in their 50s or older comprise 45 percent of all total workers. With reactor decommissioning work -- including the collection of melted nuclear fuel -- expected to enter its main phase in 2021, it is possible that the continuing loss of experienced workers will lead to a situation characterized by a reduction in both human resources and technology.

    "I will never again return to 1F (the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant)," asserted Yuji Takagi, 53, a former nuclear plant worker from the city of Iwaki.

    Takagi, a veteran employee since the time prior to the nuclear disaster whose work included helping to measure the number of neutrons directly underneath the nuclear reactors, explained that with the sudden increase in the number of tank and other construction projects taking place following the accident, there was also a rising number of employees who were inexperienced with working at nuclear power plants.

    As a result, Takagi felt like there was a mismatch wherein he was unable to utilize his job experience.

    "If you do not understand the inner structure of nuclear plants, there will be problems with reactor decommissioning," he commented, adding, "Know-how is indispensable."

    The system is comprised of a pyramid-like structure, whereby TEPCO and major general contractors -- which serve as the original contractors at its peak -- contract out work to the other companies that are fanned out beneath them. With work consequently compartmentalized, then, it accordingly becomes increasingly difficult to utilize employees' expertise.

    "The structure of subcontracting results in decreasing profits for lower-level companies, who are additionally burdened with taking up the slack (of companies further up on the pyramid)," commented Professor Nawata. "A mechanism is necessary to improve this treatment."

    Also involved with the reactor decommissioning work are numerous local residents of Fukushima Prefecture who are themselves victims of the disaster.

    A 51-year-old worker from Futaba County who is responsible for analyzing contaminated water at TEPCO-owned facilities on the premises of the plant commented, "My work plays only a small part, but analysis of the contaminated water is an indispensable part of the reactor decommissioning process."

    The worker added, "I am happy to be of service to Fukushima Prefecture, as well as to the next generation."

    The feared scarcity of workers, then, has also resulted in a situation of dependence upon Fukushima workers to fill this employment need that exists within the reactor decommissioning sector.

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