Fukushima Cleanup Recruits 'Nuclear Gypsies' From Across Japan

Workers on the bus which will transfer them to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. (Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert)

Fukushima Cleanup Recruits 'Nuclear Gypsies' From Across Japan

Thousands of engineers and labourers have been lured by higher wages and a sense of duty

The sun has only just risen in Iwaki-Yumoto when groups of men in white T-shirts and light blue cargo pants emerge blinking into the sunlight, swapping the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms for the fierce humidity of a Japanese summer.

Four months on from the start of the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, this hot-spring resort in north-east Japan has been transformed into a dormitory for 2,000 men who have travelled from across the country to take part in the clean-up effort 30 miles away at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Iwaki-Yumoto has come to resemble corporate Japan in microcosm. Among its newest residents are technicians and engineers with years of experience and, underpinning them all, hundreds of labourers lured from across Japan by the prospect of higher wages.

They include Ariyoshi Rune, a tall, wiry 47-year-old truck driver whose slicked-back hair and sideburns are inspired by his idol, Joe Strummer.

For five days a week, Rune is in thrall to the drudgery of life as a "nuclear gypsy", the name writer Kunio Horie gave to contract workers who have traditionally performed the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs for Japan's power utilities.

The industry has relied on temporary workers for maintenance and repair work since the nuclear plant construction boom in the 1970s. Now, as then, those from the lowest rungs of Japanese society work for meagre wages, with little training or experience of hazardous environments.

"I've never thought working at the plant was dangerous," Rune tells the Guardian after a day's work, for which he receives 12,000 yen (PS95). "And I think my wage is fair for the kind of work I do. It's more than I used to get driving a truck."

He arrived at Fukushima in early June after seeing an advertisement for labourers in a magazine. His 73-year-old mother knows her son is working in the area, but she has no idea he spends half of every day at the site of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident.

Rune, who is divorced, generally gets two days off a week, when he travels to nearby Ibaraki prefecture to see his sons. "When I told them about my work the first thing they said was, 'Please don't get irradiated.' They worry, but they also think that what I'm doing is kind of cool."

He says he has been exposed to five millisieverts (mSv) in little over a month - more than double the worldwide average background dose of 2.4mSv a year. While Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) engineers working inside reactor buildings are allowed an annual radiation dose of up to 250mSv, Rune's firm has imposed a cut-off point of 30mSv for staff and 15mSv for casual labourers.

"I have about two months left before I reach my limit, but I'm hoping they will make an exception and let me work for longer," he says.

The next morning, at 5.45am, the bus is already waiting when Rune emerges from his hotel, where he shares a room with five other workers.

Before them lies a 45-minute journey to J-Village, a football training complex, where they will be briefed on their duties for the day before changing into radiation suits, masks and goggles, protective gloves and glass-encased monitors which they must carry with them at all times on site.

At 8am they begin the first of two 90-minute shifts at Fukushima Daiichi, separated by a break of similar length. Radiation exposure and heat bring their working day to an end by early afternoon.

Rune gave the Guardian a rare insight into working conditions inside the plant.

As he leaves his place of work for his 90-minute break, he must remove his cotton gloves before opening a door into a second room, where he takes off two pairs of rubber gloves and strips down to his underpants. In a third room, he is scanned for radiation. If he gets the all clear, he is given a new uniform and underwear. The process is repeated again after his second 90-minute shift of the day.

"It is so hot there at the moment, we have to take lots of breaks, so I don't think this will be done by January," he says, referring to Tepco's self-imposed deadline for stabilising the plant. "That said I have seen signs of progress, like the treatment of contaminated water."

He is part of the team of 25 men removing and packing 23,000 firefighters' uniforms dumped near reactors No 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the first chaotic days of the crisis, when three of the plant's six reactors suffered core meltdowns. One group retrieves the uniforms, which he collects by truck and drops off for another crew to sort and pack before they are taken away for disposal.

"We don't have any contact with the Tepco engineers or technicians," he says. "My company is about six places down the pecking order."

None of the men the Guardian spoke to was confident that Tepco would meet its deadline of January to bring the reactors to a safe state, known as cold shutdown.

In April, Tepco said it would reduce radiation leaks by this month and achieve cold shutdown by January. But that timetable is expected to be revised when the utility company releases its latest roadmap on Tuesday.

The prime minister, Naoto Kan, said this week that it may be a decade before work can even begin on decommissioning the reactors.

In the aftermath of the 11 March disaster, Tepco called on major construction and maintenance companies to help. Those firms in turn hired workers from a sprawling network of 600 contractors of varying expertise and reputation.

For the time being Iwaki-Yumoto will comprise three disparate communities - about 30,000 locals, 2,000 plant workers and 1,000 people evacuated from towns and villages near Fukushima Daiichi.

The presence of so many contractors, and the sheer number of men, has led to fears that not all are observing health and safety regulations.

One restaurateur complained of workers returning in the evenings still wearing their uniforms, even down to the boots they wear inside the plant's grounds.

Tourism to the town, with its hot springs and mountain views, has dried up since the nuclear accident.

"There's not much exchange between the workers and local people," says Katsue Takahashi, an Iwaki city official.

"The inn owners are pleased to be fully booked for months ahead, but they are beginning to worry about how long this will go on. With the evacuees here, too, no one wants to come here for a holiday."

Toshiyuki Sasaki, an employee at a construction firm in Hokkaido, is one of the better-paid contract workers who have made Iwaki-Yumoto their temporary home.

He is earning twice his monthly salary of 350,000 yen clearing debris from in front of the No 3 reactor, preparing it for the arrival of a 700-tonne crane that will erect a huge steel shroud over the unit to prevent further radiation leaks.

"I'm not allowed inside the reactor itself, and I work for just one or two hours a day," says Sasaki as he drinks a cold beer at a local restaurant. "If my reading reaches 40mSv for the a year, I have to leave for good."

Sasaki, like other machinery operators, spends his shift inside crane and digger cabins, the only way they can clear dangerously radioactive debris.

He has helped build nuclear power plants, but never helped rescued one from catastrophe. Yet he says he will work at Fukushima for as long as his radiation readings permit.

"We are very careful," he says. "If my dosimeter hits a certain level during a single shift, I have to get out. But that hasn't happened yet."

Not all of the firm's staff share his optimism. About half the company's employees have refused to work at the plant at the pleading of their families.

All of the men who spoke to the Guardian said they believed the most immediate threat to their health came not from radiation but from hours spent wrapped in masks, goggles and protective suits sealed tight with tape at the ankles, wrists and neck. "Radiation doesn't bother me, but I am worried about falling ill because of the heat," says a 34-year-old man from Osaka who declined to give his name. "It is unbelievably hot inside those suits. I know of several people who have been taken ill on the job."

The food, meanwhile, has improved since the early days of the crisis, when Tepco and the government were criticised for not providing workers with enough to eat and drink. Lunch is usually a boil-in-the-bag curry and rice, bottled water and tea, jelly-like vitamin supplements sucked from a tube and packets of sweets.

"But there is not enough room to get your head down for an hour during breaks," says Rune, who travelled to Fukushima from the south-western island of Kyushu, about 600 miles away. "That said, there are more toilets and drinks and more space for relaxing."

When the Fukushima crisis is finally over, accolades will deservedly go to the Tepco engineers, soldiers and emergency workers who battled serious radiation leaks and exploding reactor buildings in the days after the tsunami.

But Rune expects there will be little praise, at least in public, for the men who cleaned up the devastation the waves left in their wake.

"People like me came here partly out of a sense of duty, but mainly to make more money," he says. "Some came because they were unemployed. And others are here because they have never been able to hold down a regular job. Until now, no one has ever wanted to give them a chance."

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