By David McNeill
26 July 2011
Atsushi Watanabe (not his real name) is an ordinary Japanese man in his 20s, about average height and solidly built, with the slightly bemused expression of the natural sceptic. Among the crowds in Tokyo, in his casual all-black clothes, he could be an off-duty postman or a construction worker. But he does one of the more extraordinary jobs on the planet: helping to shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
That job, in a complex that experienced the first triple-reactor meltdown after Japan's 11 March earthquake and tsunami, means he will never marry or raise a family for fear of health problems down the line, and may not even live to see old age. But he accepts that price. "There are only some of us who can do this job," he says. "I'm single and young and I feel it's my duty to help settle this problem." […]
It paid 180,000 yen (£1,400) a month. Since April, when he agreed to go back inside the Daiichi plant's gates, he has been paid the same amount – plus Y1,000 a day that he calls "lunch money".
On 11 March, when the quake disabled the plant, he watched in terror as pipes hissed and buckled around him. He spent a week in a refugee centre, waiting for the inevitable call from his boss to come back to work. When the call came, he said yes immediately. Everyone was given a choice, although there was, inevitably, unspoken sympathy for the married men with children. […]
Initially, he says, some day labourers got big money for braving the lethally poisoned air at the plant. "At 100 millisieverts a day you could only work for a few days, so if you didn't get a month's pay a day, it wasn't worth your while. The companies paid enough to shut them up, in case they got leukemia or other cancers later down the line. But I have health insurance because I'm not a contract worker, I'm an employee."
Mr Watanabe says it is too early yet to draw a line under the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The government last week announced that its January timetable for bringing the Fukushima plant back under control is on target, but the plant is still leaking one billion becquerels of radiation an hour, according to Tepco, and the state of the uranium fuel inside its three crippled reactors remains a mystery.
"The fuel has melted, but melted through or not – we don't know," Mr Watanabe says. "It's at the bottom of the reactor. If it melts out, and meets water, it would be a major crisis. The engineers are working very hard to get it under control."
Researchers have already started arriving in Fukushima Prefecture, home to two million people, to measure the impact of this radiation on local life. Tim Mousseau, a University of South Carolina biological scientist who spent more than a decade researching inside the irradiated zone around the ruined Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, was there last week. "What we can say is that there are very likely to be very significant long-term health impacts from prolonged exposure," he says.
Whatever happens, Mr Watanabe has abandoned any hope of getting married. "I could never ask a woman to spend her life with me," he says. "If I told her about my work, of course she will worry about my future health or what might happen to our children. And I couldn't hide what I do." […]