July 21, 2012
Workers at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant were ordered to cover their dosimeters with lead plates to keep radiation doses low enough to continue working under dangerous conditions, the Asahi Shimbun has learned.
Some refused the orders. Others raised questions about their safety and the legality of the practice. But the man in charge, a senior official of a subcontractor of Tokyo Electric Power Co., warned them that they would lose their jobs--and any chance of employment at other nuclear plants--if they failed to comply.
The pocket-sized dosimeters sound an alarm when they detect high radiation levels. A worker who has been exposed to an accumulated dose of 50 millisieverts within a year must stop working and stay away from the area for a certain period of time.
The 54-year-old senior official at Build-Up, a midsize construction company based in Fukushima Prefecture, worked out a system to ensure the dosimeters would not reach the limit, according to the workers. It included having the workers themselves build the lead cover that would prevent the radiation from reaching the dosimeters.
The president of Build-Up acknowledged on July 21 that the senior official had nine people work at the nuclear plant for about three hours on Dec. 1 with their dosimeters shielded by the lead plates.
The senior official, who acted as a site foreman, initially denied giving such instructions. But he later admitted to his actions over the phone to the Build-Up president.
A number of the workers explained the process in detail. And one of them provided The Asahi Shimbun with a recording of a meeting the Build-Up foreman had with defiant workers on the night of Dec. 2 at an inn in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, where the workers stayed.
The conversation shows the foreman growing increasingly agitated by the workers’ refusal to rig their dosimeters.
The workers’ job was to wind insulating material around hoses of a treatment system for radioactive water near the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 reactor buildings of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plant, assigned the task to Tokyo Energy and Systems Inc., a TEPCO group company, which then subcontracted part of the work to Build-Up.
The 10 or so workers organized for the task included Build-Up employees and others dispatched by brokers from various parts of Japan.
According to workers, about half of the team assembled in an area of the nuclear plant on Nov. 30, where the Build-Up foreman presented a lead plate about 1 square meter in size and several millimeters thick.
He ordered the workers to draw lines on the plate and cut out pieces using special scissors. The workers then used vises and hammers to reshape the pieces so that they would cover the front, sides and bottom of their personal dosimeters.
On Dec. 1, the Build-Up foreman instructed the team members to cover their dosimeters with the lead plates. But three of the workers refused, prompting the boss to hold a meeting with them on Dec. 2.
‘YOU CAN'T MAKE LIVING WHEN THE DOSE RUNS OUT’
The Build-Up foreman denied the conversation took place. But the defiant workers said the recording of the meeting is accurate.
According to the recording, the foreman said, “Everybody who works for nuclear plants know that the limit is 50 millisieverts per year. If you get exposed to a lot of radiation, you will reach that limit in less than a year. It could run out in three or four months."
He continued: "You can't live by nuclear plants around the year unless you take care of your own radiation doses. You simply can't go and work somewhere else when you are not allowed to work for nuclear plants. You can no longer make a living when the dose runs out. Do you understand that? The 50 millisieverts just keeps running out."
One of the workers tried to interject, saying, "As for me, this is something that we shouldn't do ... ."
But the foreman interrupted, saying: "I know only too well that we shouldn't do that. If you don't want to do so, you don't have to."
Another worker gave his opinion: "I think this is almost a crime."
The foreman retorted: "Did I ever coerce you? I am just saying, 'Please do it if you can convince yourself to do it for your own sake.'”
The foreman also supervises work projects at other nuclear plants in Japan. He said in the recording that he could not allow all the doses at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to be used up.
The workers said the foreman likely wanted all of the workers to use the lead shields to prevent wide variations in the readings on the dosimeters.
At the meeting, they continued to demand an explanation on why they had to use the lead covers.
"Unless you use a lead shield, you can no longer work when the dose is up," the foreman emphasized.
"YOU ARE NOT CUT OUT FOR WORKING AT NUCLEAR PLANTS"
The foreman also recalled a preliminary inspection made in late November by Build-Up staff near the No. 1 through No. 4 reactor buildings. The area was still littered with debris from the hydrogen explosions of March last year, and the foreman said his personal dosimeter began beeping.
"I realized at once that (the radiation levels) were high. I decided, at my own discretion, that we should do that when we work in that area."
The workers said they were convinced that "do that" meant rigging the dosimeters.
The foreman also indicated he had faked his own radiation dose readings in the past. "I have done so before in order to take care of my doses," he said.
His words were still not enough to persuade the workers, so he adopted a tougher tone.
"Perhaps you are not cut out for working at nuclear plants," he said. "Go back to your hometown and do some other job."
Both sides remained far apart during the one-hour talk. The three workers quit their jobs and returned to their hometowns the following day.
But the other workers complied.
‘MAKE SURE NOBODY SEES WHAT YOU ARE DOING’
TEPCO records show that one Build-Up worker was exposed to more than 10 millisieverts of radiation in December alone, placing him near the top percentile among the approximately 5,000 people who worked at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant at the time. However, he was believed to have used a lead shield over his dosimeter, meaning he was likely exposed to even larger doses of radiation.
According to the Build-Up workers, on Dec. 1, they changed into protective suits at the J-Village, a soccer stadium 20 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that is used as a relay base for workers. They said the Build-Up foreman then issued instructions.
"Today, we will enter areas of high radiation levels. We will wear the lead boxes," he said.
The foreman told the workers to take a bus to the Main Anti-Earthquake Building on the premises of the nuclear plant, where they would receive TEPCO's dosimeters. They were to put the devices in their breast pockets beneath their protection suits and change into a vehicle for exclusive use by Build-Up staff.
Once inside the Build-Up vehicle, each worker would be given a lead cover. The workers were to rip their protection suits, cover their personal dosimeters with the lead sheaths and cover the tears in their protective suits with tape.
"Make sure nobody sees what you are doing," he told each worker. "Did you understand? You'll do so, won't you?"
However, the three workers surprised the foreman by rejecting his orders.
"I am not forcing you. Go back if you don't want to do so," he said. He walked toward the bus bound for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant with the other workers who agreed to follow his instructions.
The foreman picked one man from the team and told him to drive the defiant workers to the lodging in Iwaki.
"No other company wants to work in areas with high radiation levels," the driver told the workers during the ride. "That's why that kind of work ends up in the hands of Build-Up. But you can make good money that way."
(This article was written by Jun Sato, Chiaki Fujimori, Miki Aoki, Tamiyuki Kihara and Takayuki Kihara.)