Nuclear workers kept in dark on Fukushima hazard pay

One of Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) nuclear power plants.
Koichi Kamoshida - Getty Images
One of Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) nuclear power plants.

Almost a year after Japan pledged to double hazard pay at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, workers are still in the dark about how much extra they are getting paid, if anything, for cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Under pressure to improve working conditions at Fukushima after a series of radioactive water leaks last year, Tokyo Electric Power Co President Naomi Hirose promised in November to double the hazard pay the utility allocates to its subcontractors for plant workers. That would have increased the amount each worker at the nuclear facility is supposed to earn to about $180 a day in hazard pay.

Only one of the more than three dozen workers interviewed by Reuters from July through September said he received the full hazard pay increase promised by Tepco. Some workers said they got nothing. In cases where payslips detailed a hazard allowance, the amounts ranged from $36 to about $90 a day – at best half of what Hirose promised.

In some instances, workers said they were told they would be paid a hazard bonus based on how much radiation they absorb – an incentive to take additional risks at a dangerous work site.

Read MoreFukushima fallout: Resentment grows in nearby Japanese city

One worker interviewed by Reuters said he was told he would get an additional $45 per day every time he was in so-called "hot zones" near Reactors No. 1 and No. 2. Another worker was told he would receive an hourly rate that worked out to $4,500 extra in hazard pay for being exposed to the radiation limit for Japan's nuclear workers over a five-year period. And a third worker said he was told the payout for that same exposure would be $36,000.

Assessing how much Fukushima workers are being paid is complicated by Tepco's insistence that pay is a private matter for its contractors. The power utility, which runs Fukushima and has been nationalized, sits at the top of a contracting pyramid that includes construction giants such as Taisei. Tepco has declined to disclose details of any of its legal agreements with its subcontractors.

The top Tepco official at the plant conceded during a July press tour of the complex that he did not know how much of the increase in hazard pay was being disbursed. "When it comes to the pay rise, I don't have an exact understanding of how much money is getting directly to the workers," said Akira Ono, the Fukushima plant manager.

Tepco said in a statement to Reuters that it instructs subcontractors to ensure workers' pay is included in all contracts and it also asks companies working at the plant to submit documentation for all the subcontractors they use. The power utility said it had recently begun random checks of some of the smaller contractors to determine how much of the hazard pay is reaching workers. A worker who filled in a Tepco survey told Reuters in September that one of the questions was directly related to hazard pay.

Read MoreWorst spill in 6 months at Japanese nuclear plant

Tepco still relies on some 800 mostly small contractors to provide workers for the cleanup after the tsunami that swamped the plant on March 11, 2011 sparked meltdowns at three reactors. Subcontractors provide almost all of the 6,000 workers now employed at the plant. Tokyo Electric employs only about 250 on its own payroll at the facility.

The workforce at Fukushima has almost doubled over the past year, mostly as part of an effort to protect groundwater from being contaminated and to store water that comes in contact with melted fuel in the reactor buildings.

Some of the workers who arrived recently at the plant have been building bunkers to store highly radioactive sludge, which is a by-product of the process whereby contaminated water is treated. Others are installing equipment to freeze a ring of earth around four reactors at Fukushima to keep water from reaching the melted cores, an unprecedented effort directed by Kajima and expected to cost nearly $300 million.

Kazumitsu Nawata, a professor in the University of Tokyo's department of technology who has researched conditions inside Fukushima, said that if workers do not receive pay that is commensurate with the risks they are taking, they will ultimately look elsewhere for employment. If more experienced workers leave for safer jobs in Tokyo where construction projects are accelerating ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, it will also increase the likelihood of accidents at the plant, Nawata said in an interview.

"Until now, we have relied heavily on the goodwill of workers. But it's already been three years since the accident. This is no longer sustainable," he said.

Japan's energy debate rages on
Japan's energy debate rages on   

Ignored pledge

Like other workers, Koji Sakurada learned about the hazard pay pledge soon after Tepco president Hirose made his announcement last November. News of the promised increase spread by word of mouth and text messages at a crowded break room at the plant.

"I expected one of my (subcontractor) employers to call a meeting to talk about a raise, but there was nothing," Sakurada said. "They completely ignored Tepco's announcement."

By then, Sakurada, 52, had already spent a year and a half scanning buses and work vans for radiation as they left the plant. Wearing a protective suit and mask, he worked a nine-hour shift running a Geiger counter over the vehicles in a makeshift tent set up as a decontamination station. He was paid about $9 an hour.

Sakurada was one of four Fukushima workers who last month filed a lawsuit seeking to hold Tepco responsible for conditions at the plant, even for workers it does not employ directly. It marks the first time Tepco has been sued for a failure to police the employment practices of its subcontractors.

Read MoreJapan to OK nuclear plant return, push to close old reactors

The lawsuit, which was filed in a court in the city of Iwaki, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of the nuclear plant, seeks $600,000 in unpaid wages. It also seeks to have Fukushima workers put on Tepco's payroll or have the utility otherwise take responsibility for their pay.

Tepco said it had not yet received Sakurada's lawsuit. "If a suit has indeed been filed, we will check the demands and claims and make a sincere effort to deal with it," the company said.

Interviews with 37 current and former workers, almost all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed a wide variance in how they were being compensated, particularly for hazard pay. Six workers employed by different subcontractors for Taisei and who were working side by side in July building concrete bunkers were receiving a hazard allowance that ranged from zero to $90 a day.

Taisei said it could not comment on the claims without more details about the identity of the workers. The company said it oversees and monitors all the subcontractors it employs.

Read MoreJapan's energy debate rages on tsunami anniversary

Only one worker interviewed by Reuters, a crane operator who reports to Raito Kogyo, a large Tokyo-based construction company, said he was receiving the promised hazard allowance of $180 per day.

Residents of Olympic bid city Tokyo celebrate while holding Tokyo signs after the announcement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games host city at Komazawa Olympic Park in Tokyo, Japan.
Getty Images
Residents of Olympic bid city Tokyo celebrate while holding Tokyo signs after the announcement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games host city at Komazawa Olympic Park in Tokyo, Japan.

Olympic angst

Tepco's pledge last November to increase hazard pay came after a nudge from Japan's government, which was seeking to burnish its image in the weeks leading up to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pitch last year for Tokyo to host the Olympics. Abe assembled a previously undisclosed public relations team for this purpose, including officials from the trade and foreign ministries, according to two members of the team.

With Fukushima spinning back into crisis as new revelations emerged of radioactive water leaks, the Japanese were concerned that their chances of pulling off a successful Olympic bid might be damaged. Abe's then-trade minister compared Tepco's attempts to control the leaks to a game of "whack-a-mole."

In Buenos Aires in early September, Abe told the International Olympic Committee that the water leaks from Fukushima were "under control," a remark that attracted widespread criticism from opposition lawmakers and environmental activists back home.

Read MoreTokyo Olympics costs jump amid labor shortage

By late October, after Tokyo was awarded the Games, Abe's PR team was battling negative publicity over working conditions at Fukushima, the two team members said. Abuses at the plant were outlined in a report by Reuters that exposed illegal labor practices as well as the involvement of organized crime in providing workers for the clean-up.

The government encouraged Tepco to take action, partly in response to the reports. That led to Hirose's announcement in November to double hazard pay, according to one of the people on the PR team.

Within weeks of the pledge, Tepco was quietly back-pedaling. In a letter issued to contractors in late November, first reported in the Mainichi newspaper, the company said the promise to double the hazard allotment was "aimed at improving pay for workers," but that did not mean each worker would necessarily see a pay increase of that amount.

In testimony before parliament in March where he was questioned about hazard pay, Hirose said he wanted to encourage Tepco's contractors to pay "an appropriate wage to each and every worker.

Read More Tokyo faces hurdles in building for 2020 Olympics

'Like hitting a reset button'

Sakurada moved to Fukushima in May 2012 to be closer to his fiancée in Iwaki. He took a job with a local company because he was promised a place to stay.

TOP, a local firm that supplies workers for construction, only told Sakurada he would be working in the nuclear plant two days before he started. When Sakurada asked for a pay rise to compensate for the increased danger, he said a TOP manager told him it would be unfair to others to pay him more.

By early 2014, Sakurada said he'd seen a 56-year-old worker fired for reaching his radiation limit. He had also watched another middle-aged worker – a man he did not know – die in front of him of an apparent heart attack. None of the other workers knew how to revive him with a defibrillator kept in the break room, he said.

Read MoreIndependence of Japan's nuclear regulator questioned after shakeup

Sakurada quit in May. Unlike the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, he agreed to be interviewed and identified by name for this report.

TOP's manager did not respond to repeated calls to the company headquarters or faxed questions about Sakurada's claims.

"The whole structure at Fukushima, everything from working hours to radiation levels, needs to be made clear. Like hitting a reset button," said Sakurada.