Fukushima clean-up faces labour shortage

8 March 2016

Five years after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, a large number of companies are involved with the decommissioning of reactors at the plant. However, half of the firms that responded to a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun, said they were concerned because of the insufficient number of employees for the work. The risk of radiation exposure from the decommissioning work means that the companies find it difficult to young people, the paper noted. Although a sense of calm has been restored at the NPP, the radiation exposure risks and the ageing of employees causes problems. The survey was sent to 246 companies connected with the reactor decommissioning work, including prime contractors, as well as additional firms whose names were included in construction work-related approval and licensing documents submitted local government offices. Responses were received from 42 companies, or around 20% of those contacted.

Half of the respondents (21 firms) said they had an insufficient number of employees while 20 firms said they had enough workers. Asked to name the reasons for the insufficiency (with multiple responses allowed), the answer with the highest number of responses was "Numerous employees are leaving the company due to retirement, and young people are not replacing them" (10 firms). The second- and third-highest answers, respectively, were "it's difficult to pass down the (required) technical skills," (seven firms); and "the number of aspiring employees is decreasing due to the high radiation levels" (six firms).

"Although people respond when we announce job openings, they do not have the necessary qualifications -- such as being able to hoist and lower suspended loads," commented the 52-year-old president of a construction firm in the Fukushima prefectural city of Iwaki. The firm is mostly contracted for on-site work where radiation levels are high. When the government-set figures of 50 millisieverts a year and 100 millisieverts over five years are exceeded, on-site work is not permitted, and the company has to hire extra employees. But because qualified individuals are not available, agreements are reached with other companies whereby its labour shortages are filled by hiring the other firm's employees as its own. This practice known as fake subcontracting, violates the Worker Dispatch Law and other regulations. "We are aware that this is illegal," the company president notes, "but everyone still does it."

According to a worker survey conducted by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco, some 20% of all workers at the plant had been hired via fake subcontracting. "With reactor decommissioning entering its most crucial stage, the national government should be taking the initiative to put measures in place that are aimed at securing workers for this purpose," points out Kazumitsu Nawata, a professor of econometrics at the University of Tokyo.

Over and above the labour shortage, there is the problem of radiation exposure. The estimated average monthly radiation exposure of workers was 32 millisieverts immediately following the nuclear accident, and has now decreased to 0.44 millisieverts. Workers no longer need to wear full-face masks, which made breathing difficult. Between the disaster in March 2011 and January 2016, however, the number of workers whose yearly radiation exposure level was greater than 5 millisieverts -- a figure that the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare uses as a criteria when determining the recognition of workers' compensation in cases of leukemia -- was around 20,000 from a total of 42,000 workers. When irradiated fuel from the used nuclear fuel pools begins to be transported, the dosage is expected to increase even further, the paper said.

Also troubling are the expected loss of experienced workers. According to Tepco, veteran employees in their 50s or older comprise 45% of the workers. With reactor decommissioning work -- including the collection of melted nuclear fuel -- expected to enter its main phase in 2021, this could prove to be a serious problem.



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