Just after 6 a.m. in this still sleepy hot spring town, bleary-eyed workers emerged from their inns, ready to board buses to return to their daily battle to contain the crisis at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Some men are local technicians who have worked at the plant for years; others are construction workers who have traveled here from across Japan to clear radioactive debris, fix leaking pipes and fill an ever-growing need for fresh labor at the site, devastated in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Despite the dangers at Fukushima, laborers from across Japan are traveling to the plant in search of work during the country’s harsh economic downturn. Some workers at Iwaki-Yumoto traveled here from as far away as Kyushu, over 600 miles away, transforming the little hot spring resort into a major hub for migrant labor.
The prolonged battle to stabilize the power plant has cast a harsh light on the labor practices of an industry that has long relied on informal contract labor for many of its more dangerous and taxing jobs. Of about 2,500 workers at the plant, all but 300 of them are hires of subcontractors and subsubcontractors who receive little job security, benefits or insurance for injuries or the effects of radiation.
Unwinding for the night, workers described the arduous work at the site, constricted by bulky protective suits and suffocating masks.
They constantly check radiation levels on their dosimeters, they said, and are dogged by fears of further accidents at the plant’s still volatile reactors.
Last month, a contract worker in his 60s collapsed after carrying heavy equipment in a waste disposal building at the site. Tokyo Electric, the plant’s operator, said that they did not detect unsafe radiation levels on his body; workers at Iwaki-Yumoto speculated that he might have suffered from heat stroke.
“Underneath your suit and mask, you’re drenched with sweat,” said one 20-year-old worker, still in a pale-blue uniform, washing socks and underwear at a tiny laundromat. He, like other workers, did not give his name or that of his company, which is affiliated with Hitachi, saying he did not want to get his bosses in trouble with Tokyo Electric.
His company puts him up seven to a room at a nearby inn, he said. At Fukushima Daiichi, he helps build scaffolding at the crippled No. 4 reactor. His shift is short, only about three hours long — common for nuclear workers — but the hourlong drive to and from a staging area, where he dons the protective suits, lengthens his working day.
“You wake up, you go to the plant, you come back, you eat, you bathe, you sleep. There’s no time for anything else,” he said. Still, he was glad to have work; there are few good jobs in his native Fukuoka, on the southernmost island of Kyushu, he said. Earlier this month, government figures showed that the Japanese economy had slipped back into recession. Joblessness is on the rise.
Though workers interviewed were reluctant to talk about pay, a search on the Web reveals jobs at Fukushima Daiichi paying as little as 200,000 yen a month for positions like “remote robot operator” and “general workman,” which would come to just under $30,000 a year.
By contrast, the average Tokyo Electric employee makes $94,000 a year, according to Nensyu Labo, an online personnel research company.
This setup has long allowed Tokyo Electric to transfer risk to subcontractors and their poorly paid, poorly trained employees, endangering their health and undermining safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, said Takeo Kinoshita, a labor expert at the Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.
“There is no work at a nuclear power plant that doesn’t involve radiation risks,” Mr. Kinoshita said. “Tokyo Electric hands off the risk to small subcontractors, who are less likely to be able to adequately ensure their workers’ health.”
Amid the continuing confusion at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, there has been minimal monitoring of radiation exposure. The Radiation Effects Association, a government-affiliated body that is supposed to keep track of radiation exposure levels among Japanese nuclear workers, says that it has not been able to fully track radiation exposure among plant workers past March 11.
The workers keep coming
Still, the workers keep coming. At Iwaki-Yumoto, a 35-year-old worker said he had traveled here from Hamaoka, in central Japan, where he worked at a nuclear plant recently ordered shut by Prime Minster Naoto Kan over tsunami concerns. He is a veteran in the industry and has already worked at four other nuclear power plants.
“Radiation is just part of the job,” he said. “A fireman doesn’t stay away from a burning house because he’s afraid of fire.”
But increasingly, subcontractors at Fukushima Daiichi must compete with other building jobs as reconstruction begins in areas affected by the tsunami. Recent job listings on the Internet list positions offering as much as 1.2 million yen, or $15,000, a month for work at the plant, though labor officials warn that some postings are fraudulent.
In the scramble to contain the crisis, Tokyo Electric employees have also been sent to the front lines in some cases. Last week, the company said two employees at the plant had been exposed to up to 580 millisieverts in the early days of the crisis, over twice the government’s limit. Higher levels of exposure can correspond to higher cancer risks.
Takeshi Tanigawa, a professor in public health at Ehime University who advises Tokyo Electric, recently described harsh conditions for company employees at the plant in the accident’s early days: 500 people sleeping side by side on tatami mats at a nearby gymnasium, with no showers and meager rations.
Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister, acknowledged that workers might not have been adequately protected. “In our early response, we did not have a system in place to manage radiation risks,” he said.
In Iwaki-Yumoto, the streets are desolate during the day and even quieter at night, with tourists driven away by radiation fears. A scattering of traditional taverns attract the town’s new nuclear worker population, but many say they prefer to bring beer and cartons of shochu, a cheap distilled liquor, back to their rooms.
Some workers pointed out the perks of their work: they soak in hot springs every night, and the inns sometimes serve sashimi dinners. They have constant work, and camaraderie.
Still, older workers also sigh that they are here because they do not expect to find other lines of work. Others are victims of the tsunami itself, with no homes to return to.
A 60-year-old worker said he was at Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 5 reactor, near the diesel engines, when the tsunami struck. He heard the engines come on; they would later be swamped by the tsunami, starting a chain of events that set off a fuel meltdown at three of the plant’s six reactors.
He fled, not from fear, but from concern about his family home in Ishinomaki, about 100 miles north of the plant. Driving on damaged roads, he finally got back at 10 p.m. His four brothers and sisters were safe. But his house had been washed away.
Now homeless, he boards at Iwaki-Yumoto and works at Tokyo Electric’s Hirono coal power plant, about 10 miles south of Fukushima Daiichi.
But he says he is willing to go back to the nuclear site if he finds a better paying job.
“At this age, it’s too late to do something else,” he said. “And there will be lots of work around here for a long time.”