Just How Tough Is It to Find Workers to Clean Up the Fukushima Reactor?

Japan's elderly have tried to step up in hopes of saving younger workers from potential radiation exposure, but harsh work conditions make recruitment for the cleanup a major challenge.
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Decontamination workers remove radiated soil and leaves from a forest in Kawauchi village, Fukushima prefecture. (Sophie Knight/Reuters)

Tokyo Electric Power Co., has acknowledged that an undersized and unstable pool of workers has led to a series of mishaps at the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant site. More than two years after an earthquake and tsunami led to the partial meltdown of the plant’s reactor, dangerous leaks continue to plague the site,compounded by worker errors such as removing the wrong pipe and spilling 7 tons (6.4 tonnes) of radioactive water.

“We are not sure about our long-term staffing situation during the upcoming process of debris removal, which requires different skills,”  Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) vice president Zengo Aizawa told reporters. Aizawa had been called on the carpet earlier in the day to answer for what Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka called “silly mistakes,” caused by declining worker morale.

Tepco president Naomi Hirose admitted to the difficulties in recruitment, but assured Tanaka that more staff would be sent from other sites to assist in the Fukushima plant’s decommissioning. Shifting staff is a short-term measure, which leaves the future of the long-term site remediation up in the air as long as the company continues to have trouble recruiting capable workers.

It’s not for lack of trying.

In the months following the accident, Tepco claimed to have secured 24,000 workers, but some 16,000 quit within months due to harsh working conditions and the fear of dangerous radiation levels. Japan’s elderly tried to step up in hopes of saving younger workers with decades of life ahead of them, but finding skilled labor continues to be a challenge. A web of labor brokers and subcontractors have given rise to pay skimming, corruption, and ties to organized crime, according to a Reuters investigation.

In past months, Tepco officials denied that there was any shortage of workers, but today’s admissions could mark a change, as Tanaka has never before challenged Tepco officials so directly. He urged Hirose to take “drastic steps” to solve the labor issues and put a stop to the spate of accidents and leaks.

Remediating the site is expected to cost $150 billion over the next 30 years, with at least 12,000 workers needed just to take the project through 2015. There are currently just over 8,000.

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Philip A. Stephenson is a lifestyle reporter for Quartz

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