What’s in Store for Japan’s Embattled Nuclear Workers?

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As more details emerge from inside the evacuation zone in Fukushima, it’s becoming more and more evident that workers at the Daiichi power plant, feted as heroes since the early days of Japan’s nuclear crisis, will be bearing their burden for years to come.

Tepco gave its workers the option not to go to Fukushima days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, but most chose to, earning them accolades from across the globe for selflessly exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation to stop an international catastrophe in the making. The teams that went in during the first days to reestablish the electricity have now been replaced by workers faced with what is looking like an increasingly Sisyphean task of keeping the plant’s fuel rods cool. For these teams there is, quite literally, no end in sight.

As if that prospect weren’t bad enough, and as the dangers they face seem to get worse by the day, the basic conditions in which they’re living and working are also inexcusably bad – a high-stakes mirror of the larger state of affairs endured by hundreds of thousands of homeless and refugees in Japan’s triple disaster.

On Tuesday, Kazuma Yokota, a safety inspector at the plant, provided some information to CNN about the conditions of the 400 workers living in a building a little over a half-mile away from Daiichi. Sleeping with one blanket and a leaded mat intended to protect them from radiation, the employees work in 12-hour shifts on three-day rotations. They eat twice a day – a breakfast of vegetable juice and 30 crackers, and a pre-prepared meal for dinner. With few deliveries coming in, water — like food — is scarce. Yokota told CNN that Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) plans on improving conditions, but it’s hard to imagine how the rights of these workers will be prioritized on Tepco’s growing list of the things going very, very wrong.

The power company’s so-called “feed and bleed” approach, in which fresh water and seawater are being poured into a reactor and stored fuel pools, could go on for months or years. It’s already making workers’ bad conditions significantly worse: As more water goes in, more contaminated water pours out, collecting around the work site in trenches and pools that workers paradoxically must avoid and contain. Last week, three workers were hospitalized for radiation exposure on their feet and legs while working at reactor 3. As my colleague Eben Harrell wrote over on Ecocentric, the IAEA believed the workers had ignored the alarms on their dosimeters (instruments that read radiation levels), and continued to work in radioactive water. Yesterday, the IAEA reported that another three workers, also near reactor 3, spilled water on themselves, but after showering, no contamination was detected.

Hundreds more of these incidents will be recorded. It is far too early to say what the long-term health effects might be for the current and future workers;  cancers caused by radiation exposure can take decades to manifest. In 1973, Japan ratified Convention 115 of the International Labor Organization which outlines, in broad terms, protection requirements for workers exposed to ionizing radiation, including, among other things, requisite medical examinations and monitoring of radiation levels in the workplace. Being a signatory means that Japan has adopted its own set of national laws in compliance with the treaty. If workers feel some basic right outlined in 115 has been overlooked, they can appeal to Japan’s Ministry of Labor, and, if that fails, to the ILO itself.

Japan’s industrial history has helped establish up a fairly robust national system of dealing with workers compensation, says Seiji Machida, director of ILO’s SafeWork program. Workers can submit claims to a body within the Ministry of Labor, and, if their claim is rejected, are able to appeal the process up to Japan’s highest court. The system has taken a worker-friendly stance in the past; families of those who were suicide victims of karoshi, or death from overwork, have received compensation through the system. As Tepco says it is keeping records of the exposure levels of all of its employees and will be required to keep those records for several years, Machida believes that the nuclear power plant workers will be legally protected — from this initial emergency response phase through the longer processes of cleaning up the site. “There are no rules or guidance for this kind of process. No country has done this,” Machida says. “But in general, after the primary handling of the emergency, I’m sure worker protection will be properly taken care of. And we will watch it.”

For now, Tepco’s alternatives to continuing to expose workers to radiation are few. The power company could resort to using “jumpers,” which Reuters describes as “people who rush into a highly radioactive area, do one job, and then jump out within minutes. Some in the industry even refer to them as ‘gamma sponges’ or ‘glow boys’ because they can absorb a year’s worth of radiation in those few minutes.” In an arguably stranger twist, both Germany and the U.S. have also offered to lend Japan radiation-proof robots to take some of the burden off the flesh-and-blood workforce.

Come again? Is it really possible, given the nation’s famous obsession with artificial intelligence, that Japan doesn’t have its own? Japanese robots can shred the violin, play baseball, build cars and strut down the catwalk. In fact, when I was in Japan reporting on the disasters earlier this month, I saw a humanoid robot directing traffic away from a closed lane on the highway late at night. Sure, the bot robs somebody of a salary, but it also probably saves human lives. Get that traffic safety person — with the vision to apply Japan’s technological proclivity to real life — over to  disaster preparedness. Stat.