I’ve seen some bad reporting in my day – some downright horrible reporting. However, this might just take the cake. It’s made even worse by the fact that this shameful article was in the New York Times, a once respectable mainstream news source.
It is so blatantly anti-nuclear and anti-corporate that it resorts to the most odious of lies in a very thinly veiled attempt to paint the entire nuclear industry as being a horribly socially irresponsible monster. The reporter obviously an ax to grind, but reports this as news, not opinion.
I think TEPCO should sue them for slander, but that probably would do more harm than good.
Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job
Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation.
They do not do “most of the dangerous work.” They do most of the work period. A nuclear plant is like just about any other industrial site. There are some jobs that require a great deal of skill and/or education, but there are a lot of unskilled jobs that range from sweeping floors to moving boxes to tightening bolts.
If you don’t believe me, go to any construction site. You will see some skilled, experienced and educated individuals, such as the foreman, inspectors and welders. However, you’ll also see a lot of laborers whose primary jobs include digging, cleaning up, moving around lumber, installing drywall and so on.
Yes, people are drawn to the nuclear industry because it pays highly. It’s not simply because they are “working with radiation.” The industry tends to offer good wages and benefits and working conditions that are at least as good as any industry and often much better.
Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to JapanÃ¢â¬â¢s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry.
Which, by the way, is still well within extremely conservative limits. Contractors do a lot of the maintenance work and laborers do the majority of the actual physical labor at the plant. Naturally they are exposed to more radiation than the executives and engineers who sit in offices. Unless, of course, an executive happens to do a lot of business travel by plant, but that doesn’t generally count because only radiation at the plant is counted as workplace exposure, and most business travelers don’t wear dosimeters.
They are emblematic of JapanÃ¢â¬â¢s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits.
No, it’s emblematic of how the world works. If you have an education or special skills, you can work as a professional in a white-collar office job. If you don’t, you end up doing more physical tasks, but if you’re lucky you get to do those in a nuclear plant and not a coal mine.
Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at JapanÃ¢â¬â¢s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.
Ã¢â¬ÅThis is the hidden world of nuclear power,Ã¢â¬ said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a longtime campaigner for improved labor conditions in the nuclear industry. Ã¢â¬ÅWherever there are hazardous conditions, these laborers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.Ã¢â¬
Again, no evidence to this effect is presented. Also, I have no idea how a former university physics professor is qualified to describe how things are within the nuclear industry,
Interviews with about a half-dozen past and current workers at Fukushima Daiichi and other plants paint a bleak picture of workers on the nuclear circuit: battling intense heat as they clean off radiation from the reactorsÃ¢â¬â¢ drywells and spent-fuel pools using mops and rags, clearing the way for inspectors, technicians and Tokyo Electric employees, and working in the cold to fill drums with contaminated waste.
Okay, so it’s hard work. Lots of manual labor jobs are hard. Many are worse. Plenty of construction workers work in the hot sun all day. Coal miners are in tight filthy quarters. Janitors have to clean toilets. There are workers out there who have to crawl through sewers.
I’m not going to say that it isn’t unpleasant to clean out the inside of a drywell while wearing a respirator and plastic coveralls. I’m sure it’s a tough, sweaty job that leaves the mask sticking to your face and the coveralls filled with sweat. But that is why it pays well.
It would be one thing if the employer actually violated basic worker safety regulations or exposed the workers to unnecessary dangers, but no evidence of that is presented.
In the most dangerous places, current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed off to the next person. Similar work would be required at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now, where the three reactors in operation at the time of the earthquake shut down automatically, workers say.
So what exactly is the problem here? The radiation levels are higher than background so the employees are given only a short time in close proximity to minimize exposure. This is actually not an unusual procedure. The total exposure is low, but standards for exposure are very conservative, so rotating workers assures none ever get exposed to any significant cumulative dose.
It would be cheaper to just have one worker do it, and doing so would not expose the worker to enough radiation to cause acute sickness, but rotation is done for safety.
Ã¢â¬ÅYour first priority is to avoid pan-ku,Ã¢â¬ said one current worker at the Fukushima Daini plant, using a Japanese expression based on the English word puncture. Workers use the term to describe their dosimeter, which measures radiation exposure, from reaching the daily cumulative limit of 50 millisieverts. Ã¢â¬ÅOnce you reach the limit, there is no more work,Ã¢â¬ said the worker, who did not want to give his name for fear of being fired by his employer.
Again, I fail to see the problem here. The employer is strictly enforcing radiation exposure limits. If you exceed the extremely low limits, you are not allowed to do any more work that may cause additional exposure.
This is actually a problem beyond the nuclear industry, however. Day laborers may be prohibited from working after being injured or from working without safety equipment, but it can be difficult to prevent low level workers from cutting corners. It’s actually a huge problem, especially when they could potentially earn a little more money by disregarding safety requirements.
Would the critics be happier if TEPCO encouraged workers to work beyond the exposure limits? It seems they are doing the opposite.
Takeshi Kawakami, 64, remembers climbing into the spent-fuel pool of the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during an annual maintenance shutdown in the 1980s to scrub the walls clean of radiation with brushes and rags. All workers carried dosimeters set to sound an alarm if exposure levels hit a cumulative dose limit; Mr. Kawakami said he usually did not last 20 minutes.
Ã¢â¬ÅIt was unbearable, and you had your mask on, and it was so tight,Ã¢â¬ Mr. Kawakami said. Ã¢â¬ÅI started feeling dizzy. I could not even see what I was doing. I thought I would drown in my own sweat.Ã¢â¬
Again, I don’t see the problem. Yes, the work is strenuous. That is why it pays so well. No, Mr. Kawakami did not become dizzy from radiation poisoning, but only because he was doing strenuous physical work. The masks and protective clothing may have made things more difficult or made the process take longer, but they were there for the protection of the workers.
If the company didn’t enforce such safety regulations, workers could have been sent down without protective clothing and they’d have gotten the job done quicker, but it would have put them in some danger. If workers had been allowed to work for more than 20 minutes without being swapped out, it would have made the process faster and cheaper. Again, safety regulations are clearly being enforced.
Since the mid-1970s, about 50 former workers have received workersÃ¢â¬â¢ compensation after developing leukemia and other forms of cancer. Health experts say that though many former workers are experiencing health problems that may be a result of their nuclear work, it is often difficult to prove a direct link. Mr. Kawakami has received a diagnosis of stomach and intestinal cancer.
There are different schools of thought on offering compensation to those who suffer from cancer after working in the nuclear industry. One is that they deserve it since there is always the off chance that they may have gotten cancer as a result of their work. However, despite what these unnamed “experts” say, the level of radiation that a worker is exposed to is very very unlikely to cause even the most minor health problems.
Upwards of one third of the population will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Aside from heart disease and stroke, it is the number one killer in the industrial world. It’s not exactly an unusual thing for a man in his 60’s to be diagnosed with cancer, and stomach and intestinal cancer has not been shown to be especially radiation-related (unlike leukemia or thyroid cancer). Within this context, having 50 workers out of a pool of tens of thousands, develop cancer that might be (but probably was not) job-related is not exactly compelling.
News of workersÃ¢â¬â¢ mishaps turns up periodically in safety reports: one submitted by Tokyo Electric to the government of Fukushima Prefecture in October 2010 outlines an accident during which a contract worker who had been wiping down a turbine building was exposed to harmful levels of radiation after accidentally using one of the towels on his face. In response, the company said in the report that it would provide special towels for workers to wipe their sweat.
So? All industries have accidents. Nuclear industry workers also fall and scrap their knee or get dehydrated when working outside on a hot day. Most accidents in most industries never show up in the media.
A worker wiping sweat with a towel that had come in contact with pieces of equipment in the turbine building of a BWR is not exactly a dangerous situation. It’s possible the towel may have been slightly above background. Small amounts of fission fragments may be deposited on turbines and its possible that somehow a leak or maintenance work could transfer some of that minute amount to other parts of the building.
The worker was not hurt. The only reason this was noticed at all is that regulations require any accidental exposure to radioactive substances from a reactor to be reported. Wiping sweat with a towel that has come in contact with a BWR reactor turbine is not going to cause radiation poisoning or any serious health consequences.
And really, does a company really need to provide “special” towels for workers to wipe their sweat with? Don’t they have a paper towel dispenser in the lavatory?
Day laborers are being lured back to the plant by wages that have increased along with the risks of working there. Mr. Ishizawa, whose home is about a mile from the plant and who evacuated with the townÃ¢â¬â¢s other residents the day after the quake, said he had been called last week by a former employer who offered daily wages of about $350 for just two hours of work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant Ã¢â¬â more than twice his previous pay. Some of the former members of his team have been offered nearly $1,000 a day. Offers have fluctuated depending on the progress at the plant and the perceived radiation risks that day. So far, Mr. Ishizawa has refused to return.
Well, yeah, I’d imagine they’d be paid more. They have to work in the horrible conditions of an area that has been decimated by a tsunami. Still, that’s not exactly bad pay for unskilled labor.
Tetsuen Nakajima, chief priest of the 1,200-year-old Myotsuji Temple in the city of Obama near the Sea of Japan, has campaigned for workersÃ¢â¬â¢ rights since the 1970s, when the local utility started building reactors along the coast; today there are 15 of them. In the early 1980s, he helped found the countryÃ¢â¬â¢s first union for day workers at nuclear plants.
The union, he said, made 19 demands of plant operators, including urging operators not to forge radiation exposure records and not to force workers to lie to government inspectors about safety procedures. Although more than 180 workers belonged to the union at its peak, its leaders were soon visited by thugs who kicked down their doors and threatened to harm their families, he said.
Call me skeptical, but I’ve heard this song and dance before. Most big companies would never expose themselves to the liability presented by such tactics, which would be their end if ever discovered. 180 workers is not exactly a lot either, so it strikes me as a bit strange that a big nuclear company would really be afraid of the power of such a tiny group.
Despite what you may have seen in movies, using thugs to break down doors and threaten families is just not how things work in the corporate world, even in the corrupt corporate world. It’s too difficult to keep wraps on, it requires dabbling in areas that could completely destroy a company and there’s too much risk that one of those thugs might turn state’s evidence. If a corrupt company wants silence, they will usually buy it, sometimes by getting workers to sign confidentiality agreements for a big fat check. If that does not work, they may resort to lawyers and legal intimidation or they may even try to publicly discredit you.
I’ve heard of groups fabricating these kind of intimidation tactics to gain attention. I’d be very interested to see the police reports of these supposed incidents.
Last week, conversations among Fukushima Daiichi workers at a smoking area at the evacueesÃ¢â¬â¢ center focused on whether to stay or go back to the plant. Some said construction jobs still seemed safer, if they could be found. Ã¢â¬ÅYou can see a hole in the ground, but you canÃ¢â¬â¢t see radiation,Ã¢â¬ one worker said.
(my bolding, not theirs)
Am I the only one who sees extreme irony here?
Look, if you want to smoke tobacco, then that’s your deal and you can do it. Far be it from me to object to your free will to destroying your own health. However, it takes a special kind of idiot to claim that they are afraid of the long term dangers of low-level radiation exposure (namely cancer) while they stand around sucking down smoke that is proven to increase the probability of cancer more than any other environmental factor!
By the way, you can’t see radiation but you can actually detect it at levels well bellow harmful. That’s why they have dosimeters and other equipment for assuring that dose limits are not exceeded.
It’s pretty clear that the guys being interviewed here are nothing more than grunt workers who clean, move boxes or do other non-skilled work, because, to put it bluntly, they know nothing about radiation and don’t seem to be that bright either.
Mr. Ishizawa, the only one who allowed his name to be used, said, Ã¢â¬ÅI might go back to a nuclear plant one day, but IÃ¢â¬â¢d have to be starving.Ã¢â¬ In addition to his jobs at Daiichi, he has worked at thermal power plants and on highway construction sites in the region. For now, he said, he will stay away from the nuclear industry.
Ã¢â¬ÅI need a job,Ã¢â¬ he said, Ã¢â¬Åbut I need a safe job.Ã¢â¬
Working at a thermal power plant (in this context meaning a fossil fuel plant) is most certainly not safer than working in a nuclear power plant. Working on highway construction sites is much much less safe.
This guy is no loss to the nuclear power industry.
In my own experience I’ve spoken with many people who have worked in the nuclear power industry, though most were in the US. In general, most seem to find the industry to be a very good place to work at all levels. Even for unskilled laborers, the workplace conditions and compensation are significantly better than most industries. General workplace safety tends to be quite good. Wages are also quite good. If you live in a community with a nuclear plant you’ll normally find it is very highly supported by locals who have friends and family working there.
Of course, there will always be former employees who can be found with an ax to grind. It may not be about anything about the operations of the nuclear plant itself, but there will always be workers who hold a grudge about their pension plan, being fired or denied a promotion. If you look for them, you can find them and they’ll always have plenty of negative things to say. The safety record, however, speaks for itself.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 at 10:44 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Nuclear, Obfuscation, Politics, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions