” A pattern of shirking responsibility permeates the decommissioning work at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. An increasing proportion of the 3,000 contract laborers at Fukushima are poorly trained, with little technical expertise or knowledge of radiation. They earn about $150 a day, less than what a regular construction job pays. Few are given insurance coverage. Many are destitute, recruited by ruthless labor brokers, some with ties to the mob. And the laborers are tossed out once they are exposed to the legal radiation limit. Critics point to the poor quality of the laborers for the series of large leaks of contaminated water.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as Tepco, responsible for decommissioning the plant, hires contractors, which, in turn, hire subcontractors. The contract laborers stand at the bottom of this multilayered pyramid of subcontracting, and they are exposed, on average, to twice the amount of radiation compared with Tepco employees, as reported recently in The Times. Tepco says it is not in a position to comment on the employment practices of the contractors, and the company seems unaware of what is happening on the ground. There are more than 1,000 firms at work at Fukushima.
The subcontracting system has been a feature of the nuclear power industry since its beginning in the 1970s, but it is dangerous in the continuing emergency at Fukushima. Moreover, it is questionable whether Tepco is even capable of cleaning up radioactive material, controlling contaminated water and decommissioning melted-down reactors. These are tasks beyond the abilities and expertise of an electric power company.
It was the Japanese government, which had been leading the promotion of nuclear power, that made the Fukushima cleanup Tepco’s responsibility. The government kept Tepco afloat to protect shareholders and bank lenders. It then used taxpayer money to set up the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, which provided loans to Tepco to deal with Fukushima. This arrangement has conveniently allowed the government to avoid taking responsibility for the nuclear cleanup.
Yet, as the sorry state of the contract laborers shows, the current setup is untenable — particularly since so little is understood about how to deal with the melted-down reactors, or how long it will take to end the radiation threat. It is long past time that the government take direct control of the disaster site. “