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System of Disposable Laborers

COLUMN ONE

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.

December 30, 1999|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"If you are still alive and working for a company, you are afraid of ruining your relationship with the company by raising these issues," Michiko Shimahashi explained.

Her son, Nobuyuki Shimahashi, died of leukemia at age 29 after working for nine years as a subcontractor at a nuclear plant. She won compensation only after a lengthy legal struggle.

Murai, the farmer turned day laborer, is not officially recognized as a radiation victim and receives no government benefits. Even after his teeth fell out, the doctor to whom the plant manager introduced him insisted that his medical problems were unrelated to radiation exposure.

Murai's wife ultimately accepted $60,000 from the plant, and he never filed a lawsuit. A co-worker apologized to him years later, confessing that he had received about $20,000 in exchange for a promise not to testify if Murai ever did sue.

Murai's story about life at the bottom of the nuclear labor pyramid shed an eerie light on industry practices that are under fresh scrutiny since the Tokaimura incident.

He recalls taking part in what amounted to radiation relay races. One by one, workers would run into a "hot" room for just five or six seconds each, turn a screw or perform another brief task and then rush back out, he said. A plant employee armed with a clipboard and a whistle made sure no one stayed in too long.

Workers were supposed to dispose of the rubber gloves used while cleaning up radiation but thought that a terrible waste. They sneaked the gloves home for their wives to use when washing dishes or working in the fields, Murai said.

"I hear things have gotten stricter since my day, but I'm not too sure," said Murai, now 66. "When I read the newspapers about Tokaimura, I get the impression that things haven't changed much in the last 30 years."

Others say overall safety standards have improved--but someone still has to do the radioactive dirty work.

Murai, a burakumin, or descendant of the outcast class in Japan, said these days the hired hands in nuclear power plants are no longer farmers. Rather, he said, they include Koreans--some of whom reportedly lack proper visas and thus are in no position to quit or complain--along with Brazilian immigrants of Japanese ancestry and others living on the economic margins.

A spokesman for the Tsuruga plant where Murai once worked, Yoshihiro Eto, said the plant does not monitor the status or health of its subcontractors' work force. However, union officials said even day laborers are required to undergo one day of safety training before they work inside the plants, and a registry system has been instituted in an attempt to prevent them from exceeding radiation limits even if they do wander from plant to plant.

The revelations of Tokaimura highlight the need to investigate the nuclear labor system, said lawmaker Tomiko Okazaki of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

In an unusually combative question-and-answer session in parliament in October, Okazaki grilled a Labor Ministry official about allegations made by former power plant worker Norio Hirai, who died of lung cancer in 1996.

Hirai was an engineer for a subcontractor who went inside reactors to supervise his workers. Before he died, Hirai alleged that nuclear plant workers slept through their required safety training videos; that many were so uneducated that they stripped off their masks or other protective gear when working in the fierce heat of the reactors; and that nuclear gypsies and men who already have had children were routinely given the most dangerous jobs.

The debate is not just about safety but also about the degree to which regulators have allowed the nuclear industry to operate on what amounts to the honor system. Regulators hadn't set foot inside the uranium processing plant in Tokaimura in 10 years.

In 1996, Okazaki forced government officials to admit to parliament that there was no such thing as a surprise inspection by regulators at a nuclear power plant. She thought that she had extracted a promise to institute such snap inspections, only to discover after Tokaimura that visits still are announced a day ahead of time. Ministry officials say they do not have their own radiation protection gear and must make prior arrangements to borrow it from the plant before they can enter the reactor.

Two Labor Ministry officials said they are studying whether more aggressive enforcement is needed. They said employers are responsible for reporting the radiation exposure their workers receive and conceded that regulators do not check whether the exposure reports are accurate, or whether company-sponsored medical checkups are adequate.

"To think that these companies want to kill their workers is hard for us to imagine," one of the officials said. "Of course, we must think of the possibility that they might lie, but we cannot regulate on the assumption that every one of these companies has evil intentions.

"There is work that exposes people to radiation that has to be done so long as you want to sustain the current energy supply," the official added. "They say it's discrimination, but there is freedom of work in our country, and if people don't want to do these jobs they can quit. If nobody wants to do the work, eventually the industry will have to be shut down."

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Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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Nuclear Power in Japan

Japan relies on 51 nuclear power plants scattered across the nations four main islands to provide 37% of its electricity. As many as 20 other plants are on the drawing boards.

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