6 Avril 2016
April 6, 2016
By SAWAAKI HIKITA/ Staff Writer
Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on conditions that contract workers face at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
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For those living in coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is a bit like the proverbial elephant in the living room, in that it looms large in their lives.
Although the plant unleashed untold havoc five years ago, many people find it unsettling to badmouth the site to which they have owed their economic well-being--even after the disaster.
Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s sprawling nuclear complex provided them with coveted employment that made the difference between making do and doing without in an otherwise depressed local economy.
One local resident, a onetime fisherman, summed up the thoughts of people in the area by saying: “You cannot deny having a sense of gratitude if you have lived in this coastal region. It is not a question of like or dislike.”
Born in a community close to the crash of waves, the man aspired from an early age to become a fisherman.
He loved the sea so much that he even stopped attending high school for several months to work on a boat trawling for Pacific saury.
He eventually quit high school to make his living by fishing full-time.
Local fishermen can be away from home for months at a time, traveling to distant parts of the globe and danger. The longest time the man had been away was 10 months.
He recalled fishing for squid off Argentina shortly after the Falkland War ended in 1982 and witnessing a ship coming under fire and sinking because the vessel had intruded into the country's territorial waters.
He began a stint at the Fukushima plant in around 1972, about a year after the plant opened. Although he was a full-time fisherman, the man sought to supplement his income when it was off-season for fishing.
As prices for fish continued to stagnate, he eventually quit fishing altogether in 1989 to become a full-time worker at the Fukushima plant.
Ever since, his life revolved around his work at the site--until the disaster triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
After a break of a couple of months in the aftermath of the triple meltdown, the man returned to the plant to work on ventilation equipment at a reactor building.
He was hired by a construction company based near the crippled facility.
Back in the 1970s, the man recalled that subcontractors were lax about the handling of radioactive materials.
“Workers did not follow the set rules as strictly as today,” he said.
They occasionally disposed of pipes and other radioactive waste generated at reactor buildings manually, although they were expected to use a machine for the task.
His responsibility also involved checking pipes for cracks.
To detect a flaw in piping, it was a standard procedure then, as it is now, to conduct a liquid penetrant test.
Workers paint pipes with a red solution and wipe them after a while.
The penetrant remains inside the damaged parts. Workers then coat the pipes with “developing fluid,” which is a mixture of highly volatile liquid such as thinner and some sort of white powder.
Red stains left in the flawed sections emerge in the process so that workers can identify parts that need to be repaired.
However, they would skip making needed repairs when they feared they would not be able to meet the deadline for the work they had been assigned to do.
“We deliberately did not paint red penetrant to the parts that we knew were damaged,” he recalled.
The man said his crew had no choice.
“The contractor told us to make out a report for all the mistakes we made, but we knew we would be better off not doing so because we would be certainly slapped with a penalty for the errors we would have reported,” he said. “As long as the nature of relations between a contractor and a subcontractor remained that of a higher and lower rung of a pyramid, attempts to cover up oversight were bound to continue.”
When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck, the man was in the basement of a reactor building.
An inspection was under way at the time to check whether the replacement of parts he had just finished was done properly.
The man heard metallic clanks from a floor above as if two huge objects had collided with each other.
He was desperate to flee right away, but could not. The stairs were shaking so violently that he was unable to climb them. The man was only able to climb ladders and reach safety after the vibrations had subsided.
Ensuing tsunami swept into the compound, but did not reach the office where he took refuge.
He managed to return home that night.
Later, he learned that the last people to leave the plant were engineers who handled valves.
These were the men who knew exactly which direction water will flow when a particular pipe valve was opened.
“All of us hired by a contractor and subcontractors remained on-site after the other workers had left,” a valve engineer told him.
The man returned to work at the plant around May 2011.
The company initially stated that the men would not have to work at the plant. But one day, the president of the company summoned them to a canteen and apologetically told them they had to.
“It is far from my intention to accept work at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, but I would be out of a job if we refused,” he said. “I am sorry to have to say this, but I registered you as reserve workers for the plant.”
The president said executives of a contractor had assembled the presidents of subcontractors to ask them to secure manpower for the plant.
One of the presidents demanded an extra allowance for the radiation risks in return.
“The current terms and conditions are unacceptable,” the president said. “We request you provide more hazard pay.”
Then one of the executives of the contractor declared: “We will not partner with a subcontractor that puts money first.”
Some subcontractors went along with the contractor, including the man’s company, while others refused.
When he was a full-time fisherman, the man and his peers were opposed to the plant.
“We believed that warm, discharged water from the plant would cause a change in the ecosystem in waters nearby,” he said.
Still, it was the nuclear power plant that provided him with a job to make a living over nearly four decades.
“Subcontractors have heavily relied on work at the plant as a source of their revenues before and even after the accident,” he said. “Thanks to the contracts with the plant, some companies grew into larger ones and others succeeded in improving their technological skills."