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By Kevin Krolicki and Chisa Fujioka
FUKUSHIMA, Japan, June 24 A decade and a half
before it blew apart in a hydrogen blast that punctuated the
worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the No. 3 reactor at the
Fukushima nuclear power plant was the scene of an earlier safety
Then, as now, a small army of transient workers was put to
work to try to stem the damage at the oldest nuclear reactor run
by Japan's largest utility.
At the time, workers were racing to finish an unprecedented
repair to address a dangerous defect: cracks in the drum-like
steel assembly known as the "shroud" surrounding the radioactive
core of the reactor.
But in 1997, the effort to save the 21-year-old reactor from
being scrapped at a large loss to its operator, Tokyo Electric,
also included a quiet effort to skirt Japan's safety rules:
foreign workers were brought in for the most dangerous jobs, a
manager of the project said.
"It's not well known, but I know what happened," Kazunori
Fujii, who managed part of the shroud replacement in 1997, told
Reuters. "What we did would not have been allowed under Japanese
The previously undisclosed hiring of welders from the United
States and Southeast Asia underscores the way Tokyo Electric, a
powerful monopoly with deep political connections in Japan,
outsourced its riskiest work and developed a lax safety culture
in the years leading to the Fukushima disaster, experts say.
Special Reports on disaster: r.reuters.com/tec78r
Fukushima timeline graphic: link.reuters.com/myb98r
A 9.0 earthquake on March 11 triggered a 15-metre tsunami
that smashed into the seaside Fukushima Daiichi plant and set
off a series of events that caused its reactors to start melting
Hydrogen explosions scattered debris across the complex and
sent up a plume of radioactive steam that forced the evacuation
of more than 80,000 residents near the plant, about 240 km (150
miles) northeast of Tokyo. Enough radioactive water to fill 40
Olympic swimming pools has also been collected at the plant and
threatens to leak into the groundwater.
The repeated failures that have dogged Tokyo Electric in the
three months the Fukushima plant has been in crisis have
undercut confidence in the response to the disaster and dismayed
outside experts, given corporate Japan's reputation for
Hastily hired workers were sent into the plant without
radiation meters. Two splashed into radioactive water wearing
street shoes because rubber boots were not available. Even now,
few have been given training on radiation risks that meets
international standards, according to their accounts and the
evaluation of experts.
The workers who stayed on to try to stabilize the plant in
the darkest hours after March 11 were lauded as the "Fukushima
50" for their selflessness. But behind the heroism is a legacy
of Japanese nuclear workers facing hazards with little
oversight, according to interviews with more than two dozen
current and former nuclear workers, doctors and others.
Since the start of the nuclear boom in the 1970s, Japan's
utilities have relied on temporary workers for maintenance and
plant repair jobs, the experts said. They were often paid in
cash with little training and no follow-up health screening.
This practice has eroded the ability of nuclear plant
operators to manage the massive risks workers now face and
prompted calls for the Japanese government to take over the
Fukushima clean-up effort.
Although almost 9,000 workers have been involved in work
around the mangled reactors, Tokyo Electric did not have a
Japan-made robot capable of monitoring radiation inside the
reactors until this week. That job was left to workers,
reflecting the industry's reliance on cheap labor, critics say.
"I can only think that to the power companies, contract
workers are just disposable pieces of equipment," said Kunio
Horie, who worked at nuclear plants, including Fukushima
Daiichi, in the late 1970s and wrote about his experience in a
book "Nuclear Gypsy".
Tokyo Electric said this week it cannot find 69 of the more
than 3,600 workers who were brought in to Fukushima just after
the disaster because their names were never recorded. Others
were identified by Tepco in accident reports only by initials:
"A-san" or "B-san."
Makoto Akashi, executive director at the National Institute
of Radiological Sciences near Tokyo, said he was shocked to
learn Tokyo Electric had not screened some of the earliest
workers for radiation inside their bodies until June while
others had to share monitors to measure external radiation.
That means health risks for workers - and future costs -
will be difficult to estimate.
"We have to admit that we didn't have an adequate system for
checking radiation exposure," said Goshi Hosono, an official
appointed by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to coordinate the response
to the crisis.
'BROAD IS THE ROAD THAT LEADS TO DESTRUCTION'
Fujii, who devoted his career to building Japanese nuclear
power plants as a manager with IHI Corporation, was troubled by
what he saw at Fukushima in 1997.
Now 72, he remembers falling for "the romance of nuclear
power" as a student at Tokyo's Rikkyo University in the 1960s.
"The idea that you could take a substance small enough to fit
into a tea cup and produce almost infinite power seemed almost
like a dream" he said.
He had asked to oversee part of the job at Fukushima as the
last big assignment of his career. He threw himself into the
work, heading into the reactor for inspections. "I had a sense
of mission," he said.
As he watched a group of Americans at work in the reactor
one day, Fujii jotted down a Bible verse in his diary that
captured his angst: "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that
leads to destruction and many enter through it."
The basis for nuclear safety regulation is the assumption
that cancers, including leukemia, can be caused years later by
exposure to relatively small amounts of radiation, far below the
level that would cause immediate sickness. In normal operations,
international nuclear workers are limited to an average exposure
of 20 millisieverts per year, about 10 times natural background
At Fukushima in 1997, Japanese safety rules were applied in
a way that set very low radiation exposure limits on a daily
basis, Fujii said. That was a prudent step, safety experts say,
but it severely limited what Japanese workers could do on a
single shift and increased costs.
The workaround was to bring in foreign workers who would
absorb a full-year's allowable dose of radiation of between 20
millisieverts and 25 millisieverts in just a few days.
"We brought in workers from Southeast Asia and Saudi Arabia
who had experience building oil tankers. They took a heavier
dose of radiation than Japanese workers could have," said Fujii,
adding that American workers were also hired.
Tokyo Electric would admit five years later it had hid
evidence of the extent of the defect in the shroud from
regulators. That may have added to the pressure to finish the
job quickly. When new cracks were found, they were fixed without
a report to regulators, according to disclosures made in 2002
It is not clear if the radiation doses for the foreign
workers were recorded on an individual basis or if they have
faced any heath problems. Tepco said it had no access to the
worker records kept by its subcontractors. IHI said it had no
record of the hiring of the foreign workers. Toshiba, another
major contractor, also said it could not confirm that foreign
workers were hired.
Hosono, the government official overseeing the response to
the disaster, said he was not aware of foreign