Tepco employees wait for a bus at J Village, a football training complex now serving as an operation base for those battling Japan's nuclear disaster. Photo: Reuters

By Justin McCurry
15 October 2013

FUKUSHIMA (The Guardian) – Dressed in a hazardous materials suit, full-face mask and hard hat, Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, left his audience in no doubt: "The future of Japan," he said, "rests on your shoulders. I am counting on you."

Abe's exhortation, delivered during a recent visit to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, was only heard by a small group of men inside the plant's emergency control room. But it was directed at almost 6,000 more: the technicians and engineers, truck drivers and builders who, almost three years after the plant suffered a triple meltdown, remain on the frontline of the world's most dangerous industrial cleanup.

Yet as the scale of the challenge has become clearer with every new accident and radiation leak, the men working inside the plant are suffering from plummeting morale, health problems and anxiety about the future, according to insiders interviewed by the Guardian.

Even now, at the start of a decommissioning operation that is expected to last 40 years, the plant faces a shortage of workers qualified to manage the dangerous work that lies ahead.

The hazards faced by the nearly 900 employees of Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco] and about 5,000 workers hired by a network of contractors and sub-contractors were underlined this month when six men were doused with contaminated water at a desalination facility.

The men, who were wearing protective clothing, suffered no ill health effects in the incident, according to Tepco, but their brush with danger was a sign that the cleanup is entering its most precarious stage since the meltdown in March 2011.

Commenting on the leak, the head of Japan's nuclear regulator, Shunichi Tanaka, told reporters: "Mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don't make silly, careless mistakes when they're motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems."

The radiation spill was the latest in a string of serious water and radiation leaks, which have raised fears over the workers' state of mind – and Tepco's ability to continue the cleanup alone.

According to sources with knowledge of the plant and health professionals who make regular visits, the slew of bad news is sapping morale and causing concern, as the public and international community increase pressure on Japan to show demonstrable progress in cleaning up the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

"Very little has changed at Fukushima Daiichi in the past six months," said Jun Shigemura, a lecturer in the psychiatry department at the National Defence Medical College who heads of a team of psychologists that counsels Fukushima plant workers. "Tepco is doing its best to improve matters, but you can see that the situation is severe."

Shigemura is most concerned about the 70% of Tepco workers at Fukushima Daiichi who were also forced to evacuate their homes by the meltdown. They have yet to come to terms with that loss and many live away from their families in makeshift accommodation near the plant.

"They were traumatised by the tsunami and the reactor explosions and had no idea how much they had been irradiated," Shigemura said. "That was the acute effect but now they are suffering from the chronic effects, such as depression, loss of motivation and issues with alcohol."

Their anxiety is compounded by uncertainty over the future of their embattled employer. Tepco is coming under mounting pressure to resolve the worsening water crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, which recently prompted the government to step in with half a billion dollars (£312m) to help contain the build-up of toxic water.

Its ability to stem the water leaks by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020 – as promised by Abe – could be hampered by a looming labour shortage.

As Tepco was reducing costs and attempting to calm public anger over its handling of the crisis, it imposed a 20% pay cut for all employees in 2011. From a total workforce of 37,000, 1,286 people left the firm, between April 2011 and June this year. The firm did not hire any employees in fiscal 2012 and 2013.

The utility plans to take on 331 employees next April, according to Mayumi Yoshida, a Tepco spokeswoman. "[The employment] system will change so it will be easier for talented employees to gain promotion and for unproductive employees to be demoted," she said.

But there is little the firm can do about the departure of experienced workers, forced to leave after reaching their radiation exposure limit.

Tepco documents show that between March 2011 and July this year, 138 employees reached the 100-millisievert [mSv] threshold; another 331 had been exposed to between 75 mSv and 100 mSv, meaning their days at the plant are numbered. Those nearing their dose limit have reportedly been moved to other sites, or asked to take time off, so they can return to work at Fukushima Daiichi at a later date.

Some workers have left because of exhaustion and stress, while others have decided to find work closer to their displaced wives and children.

"They are less motivated and are worried about continuing to work for a firm that might not exist in a decade from now," Shigemura said. [more]

Plummeting morale at Fukushima Daiichi as nuclear cleanup takes its toll

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