Safeguards at nuclear plant have failed emergency crews, and trust in the Japanese authorities is fading
27 March 2011
THE last time Tomotake Watanabe turned up for his shift at the No 1 reactor of the Fukushima nuclear plant, he was thrown to the ground by Japan's powerful earthquake and showered with broken glass and ceiling plaster.
Now he awaits a call to join a mission to regain control of the plant whose danger is terrifyingly evident. "I feel under pressure that I might be called back," he said. "I don't feel I need to volunteer, but I worry about what I will do when I get called."
Seventeen workers have been exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, including three last week who stood for 40 minutes in pools of water with radiation 10,000 times above safety limits.
The accident raised fears of a leak in one of the six reactor cores and deepened criticism of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's safeguards for workers. It also reinforced Watanabe's conviction that he will not go back to work, if called. "I wouldn't go back because I have a family and it is a very dangerous time. I would refuse," he said. "At the moment there is a very high level of radiation, so even if they are calling people to return now, I don't think that it is possible to go in safely."
The best Japan's top government spokesman, Yukio Edano, could offer reporters was: "We are preventing it from worsening."
Sea water near the plant is now contaminated; Japan's nuclear safety agency said that levels of radiation 1,250 times the legal limit were detected in sea water near drain outlets from the plant. High levels of radiation have already been detected in milk and leafy vegetables.
The nerve centre of the operations to contain the crisis is a heavily shielded building on the reactor site, manned by about 50 top engineers. But the rest of the workforce, from firefighters to welders to electricians, are drawn from a pool of semi-skilled labour who work for low wages. Many work for associated companies such as Hitachi, Watanabe's employer, Toshiba, and Toden Kogyo. Between shifts they are housed in a football stadium, J-Village, within the expanded 30km evacuation zone and brought in by bus.
A number were seasonal workers, using a job at the plant to supplement livelihoods as small farmers. Some, like Watanabe, have been hopping between jobs at nuclear plants for years.
Like much of Japan, Watanabe is in awe of their bravery. "Of course, someone has to go and do the job and maybe the people who went wanted to do the right thing," he said.
He does not want to be asked to make the same sacrifice. The 35-year-old had been working as a caretaker at an old people's home when he got his first job at another nuclear plant three years ago. Since then, he has bounced from job to job in the industry, working for below the average monthly wage.
At the outset he had few concerns about his safety at Fukushima – he says that he was never issued with protective gear. "They were always bragging about safety. They would say the plant was strong, that it could withstand an earthquake."
Watanabe started his current stint at Fukushima on 4 January, when he replaced worn and contaminated equipment on the spent atomic fuel pool at reactor No 4. But he was also called to service the other reactors and was in the turbine room next to reactor No 1 when the earthquake hit. "I couldn't stand," he said. "The window above my head shattered and parts of the ceiling fell in."
The three workers injured last week were trying to reconnect a pump in a turbine building next to reactor No 3 when they stepped into water 10,000 times more radioactive than normal.Press reports said that the three had ignored alarms from radiation dosimeters because they assumed there had been a malfunction.
They were exposed to between two and six sieverts of radiation, or up to 24 times the annual exposure limit of 250 millisieverts set for workers at the plant in the wake of the disaster.
"Now I have no trust in that place," said Watanabe. The only way he thinks he will return to work at Fukushima is once the authorities declare radiation levels are low enough to demolish it.
"They said they would close the plant. If that happens, there could be work again, tearing it down," he said.