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Friday, Nov. 2, 2012
Nuclear crisis crew not told of danger
Worker files legal complaint against Tepco
By MARI YAMAGUCHI
IWAKI, Fukushima Pref. — Tepco knew full well of the risks from highly radioactive water at the Fukushima No. 1 plant following the tsunami-triggered meltdowns but sent in crews without adequate protection or warnings anyway, one worker has alleged in a legal complaint.
The actions by Tokyo Electric Power Co. led to radiation injuries, said the contract worker, who was with a six-member team working at the crippled power plant's reactor 3 in the early days of the nuclear crisis.
The worker gave a rare public account of what happened at the complex after the disaster struck, speaking on condition that he be identified only as Shinichi, his given name.
Shinichi, 46, described a harrowing scene of darkness and fear, wading by the lights from their helmets into a basement flooded with steaming radioactive water that felt warm even through boots. "It was outrageous. We shouldn't even have been there," he said.
He said his crew was sent to lay electric cables in the basement of the unit 3 turbine on March 24 last year, just 10 days after its reactor building exploded, spewing massive amounts of radiation into the environment. Their mission was to restore power to pumps to inject cooling water into the overheating spent-fuel pool.
Shinichi said Tepco and Kandenko, its primary subcontractor, never warned them even though water leaks had been found elsewhere at the site.
Asked about Shinichi's allegations, Tepco spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi claimed the utility was aware of water leaks elsewhere at the plant but couldn't anticipate the problem in the basement of reactor 3, which had suffered a meltdown.
Shinichi's radiation exposure that day alone exceeded half the government's annual dose limit, and he had to stop working at the plant soon afterward.
Out of fear of harassment of his family due to the tendency of some Japanese to stigmatize those perceived as different or as troublemakers, Shinichi agreed to speak with AP and several Japanese reporters on condition his face not be photographed.
On Tuesday, he filed a complaint with a labor standards office in Fukushima, asking authorities to confirm Tepco's safety violations and issue improvement orders. He also is seeking penalties — up to six months in jail or fines of up to ¥500,000 under the Industrial Safety and Health Law — against the company that supervised him.
Shinichi's direct employer, Kandenko, stopped calling him for jobs in March, just telling him to stand by. He now works on radiation decontamination of hot spots in Fukushima Prefecture.
"So I decided I've had enough of this unjust treatment. That's why I decided to come forward," he said.
On the morning of March 24, 2011, Shinichi's team gathered at the Fukushima No. 1 power station's emergency command center to be briefed about the day's work. They donned double-layer coveralls underneath waterproof hazmat suits, charcoal-filtered full-face masks and double-layered rubber gloves.
Each picked up a pocket dosimeter with an alarm set to 40 times the dose detected the day before, expecting only a moderate increase of radioactivity. The actual reading was 400 millisieverts that day — high enough to cause a temporary, but not life-threatening, decline in white blood cells.
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed power and crucial cooling systems at the complex, sending three reactors into core meltdowns and releasing huge amounts of radioactive fallout. Tons of cooling water were pumped into the overheated and damaged reactors and leaked right out, pouring into the basements of the buildings housing them and nearby facilities.
Shinichi recalls a simple instruction: Just go in and connect the first floor and basement electrical switchboards. The radioactivity might be a bit high, but shouldn't be a problem.
"There was no mention of the water," he said.
So the men wore whatever boots were available. Only two wore knee-high rubber boots, and four others, including Shinichi, wore short ones.With only lamps on their helmets to light the way, they entered the building from a hole cut into the wall, since the electric door was still inoperable. Three men hired by two other contractors went into the basement, while Shinichi and his two other colleagues waited on the first floor. Looking down, he saw water, with steam rising from the surface, and heaps of debris and mangled equipment.
"It was eerie," he recalled. "If you're a nuclear plant worker, you know that water on the floor is bad news. You just don't touch it."
The dosimeter alarms — set to beep five times before reaching a maximum — sounded several times shortly after they entered the site.
Seconds after the three workers started going into the basement, the dosimeters began ringing loudly and then went silent, a sign the intended limit had been exceeded, though the team's leader said it must be an error. The three workers in the basement waded through ankle-deep water to check the wall-mounted switchboard and came back up, saying the water felt warm through their rubber boots.
Another team sent in to do other tasks rushed back out without doing any work, ignoring Shinichi's team, after measuring dangerously high radioactivity in the basement.
But his group stayed, making several more trips into the flooded basement. Two workers wearing short boots got their feet soaked and suffered beta-ray burns that were not life threatening. The three men who stayed there the longest were exposed to about 180 millisieverts — nearly four times the annual safe limit, according to a government report released in July. Shinichi refused to help tie up the dangling cable in the basement because of his short boots, and a colleague wearing long boots volunteered to do the task instead, saving Shinichi from injury.
Tepco spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida said the team leaders later told officials they had decided to remain because they took their mission very seriously and might have been too occupied to think carefully about the water. But the utility should have thought more carefully, she conceded.
Shinichi's radiation exposure from 13 days of working at the plant was just over 20 millisieverts, not considered a serious health risk, though he still worries.
His lawyers, who are representing several nuclear plant workers in other cases, say Tepco and Kandenko illegally sent him and five other men into areas with radioactivity far exceeding the allowable limit without full protection.
"Just sending the workers into the harsh environment and putting them at risk of exposure to dangerously high radiation is a labor safety violation," said Taku Yamazoe, a lawyer representing Shinichi. "Even if Tepco didn't anticipate the consequences of all that water it had pumped in, it clearly lacked consideration for the workers' safety."
Shinichi's experience was typical of the inadequate protection received by workers laboring in the extremely harsh conditions at the plant, though Yamazoe said the multitiered subcontracting system used at nuclear plants can obscure who is directly responsible in the event of an accident.
Probes by the government, the Diet and private groups have faulted Tepco for its inept crisis management, inadequate emergency training and miscommunication with authorities.
The Diet investigation took Tepco to task for failing to deal with leaking contaminated water until the two workers suffered beta-ray burns in reactor 3, concluding the operator was fully aware of the consequences of massive spraying and pumping of water into the units and spent-fuel pools from the start.
Shinichi said that when he finished work at the nuclear plant each day, he would take off his clothes before entering his home to minimize the risk of exposing his 5-year-old son to radiation.
"I don't have education, and I'm already over 40. There is little choice," he said. "I was dumped. I worked hard, sacrificed my family and my child, and this is how I ended up."