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System of Disposable Laborers

Almost 90% of workers in Japan's nuclear power industry are subcontracted. Poorly trained, they often are assigned hazardous duties. Tokaimura accident triggers intensified scrutiny.


KINOMOTO, Japan — Kunio Murai was a struggling farmer from the wrong side of the tracks when he was recruited to work as a day laborer in a nuclear power plant near this farm town. The pay was triple what he could make anywhere else, and he was told that the work would be janitorial.

One day in 1970, he and a co-worker were ordered into a room to mop up a leak of radioactive cooling water. They wore ordinary rubber gloves, but no masks or additional protection. Murai recalls wrapping a cleaning cloth around a pipe that was spewing steam. They worked for two hours, and afterward the needle on Murai's radiation meter pointed off the scale.

"I thought it was broken," Murai said. It wasn't. Within six months, he said, his joints swelled painfully and his teeth and hair fell out.

Murai is one of tens of thousands of people who have worked over the years as subcontractors in Japanese nuclear power plants, doing the dirty, difficult and potentially dangerous jobs shunned by regular employees.

In the wake of Japan's worst nuclear accident, a nuclear fission reaction Sept. 30 at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, ugly allegations have surfaced of labor abuses, lackadaisical attitudes toward safety, inadequate worker training and lax enforcement by regulators in the country's nuclear industry.

Workers at the JCO Co. plant in Tokaimura, about 80 miles northeast of Tokyo, were mixing uranium by hand in stainless steel buckets to save time. The ensuing nuclear reaction exposed as many as 150 people to radiation, according to the final report issued this month by Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission. One worker died from a lethal dose of radiation, and another remains hospitalized.

From his hospital bed, at least one worker, a regular employee who was supposed to have undergone safety training, told investigators he had no idea that what he was doing was dangerous. But plant officials later admitted that they did know--and had created an illegal operations manual ordering the hand-mixing to save time and money.

The revelations shocked the public but did not surprise Murai, who tells horrifying tales of his brief stint in the Tsuruga nuclear power plant. And it did not surprise anti-nuclear activists, who allege that several thousand day laborers--no one knows exactly how many--continue to be recruited each year by the small subcontractors that supply manual labor for nuclear power plants.

Some allegedly are hired by shady labor brokers who drive trucks to the skid rows of Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, offering $100 for a day's work. The takers are drifters, the down-and-out, or foreigners willing to do whatever it takes to earn quick yen.

Government, Union Deny Knowledge

Government and union officials say they have no knowledge of such goings-on. They insist that Japan's nuclear power plants are clean, safe and well regulated.

But public trust in such statements had begun to erode even before the accident. Five nuclear-related accidents and mishaps and several failed cover-ups have occurred since 1995. And officials concede that supervision has been inadequate at nuclear facilities other than power plants, such as fuel reprocessing plants and laboratories. Those facilities were presumed to be safe before the Tokaimura accident.

After the accident, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi ordered an inspection of all such facilities, and the results made fresh and frightening headlines: 25 serious violations were found at nine locations. Lapses included improper handling of radioactive material and failure to conduct proper safety training, perform required medical checkups and report radiation exposure.

The Nuclear Safety Commission later recommended that Japan abandon its long-held attitude that nuclear power is "absolutely safe" and take stringent measures to prevent future accidents.

But activists also want the government to investigate the system of subcontracting for manual labor in nuclear power facilities--a system that they allege is discriminatory and dangerous.

The elite engineers and highly skilled unionized workers at the top of the labor pyramid, who work for the blue-chip giants that build and operate Japanese nuclear power plants, are carefully monitored and protected from radiation exposure.

However, the majority of nuclear plant workers are employed by subcontractors or their subcontractors, an arrangement that allows big corporations to avoid major layoffs of their own people in hard times. Critics say this system diffuses accountability, makes it impossible to keep tabs on the health of workers and places responsibility for safety with smaller, less visible and financially weaker companies.

The workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain--including those allegedly hired by the day from skid rows--receive the least safety education and the highest radiation doses.

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