A Visit to J-Village: Fukushima Workers Risk Radiation to Feed Families

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Since the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the power plant's operator TEPCO has reliedáon temporary workers to helpábring the reactors under control. Many of the workers, whoseáradiation levels are measured daily, say they are not doing the work for Japan, but for the money. SPIEGELávisited J-Village, which is strictly off-limits,áand met theáunsung heroes of Fukushima.

Milepost 231 now marks the end of the road. Barricades prevent traffic from proceeding farther north on Highway 6, a four-lane road that leads to the ruin of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Men in uniform are waving stop signs. In the evening twilight, a red illuminated sign flashes the following message: "No access… disaster law." Two policemen armed with red glow sticks vigorously turn away every lost driver.

Three of their colleagues are blocking the exit to the right. They yell at anyone approaching on foot.

A total of 20 officers guard this intersection, day and night. To the right of the road block, the highway leads to J-Village, a former training center for the Japanese national soccer team. Since March 11, Japan's largest soccer complex has been transformed into the base camp for Japan's peculiar heroes -- the workers who are trying to regain control of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

More than 1,000 of these workers prepare themselves for their shifts here, day after day. The TEPCO power company, which is the operator of the stricken nuclear power plant, sponsored construction of the sports facility years ago. Since it has become the hub for the nuclear cleanup workers, though, the company has sealed off the area to the media and the general public.

Only buses and vans with a TEPCO authorization on the front windshield are allowed to pass. The vehicles shuttle workers to the reactors and back to J-Village. The heads of the exhausted men are visible through the buses' windows: Many of them have fallen asleep during the over 30-minute trip home.

In one of the buses that struggles up the hill to J-Village sits Hitoshi Sasaki, 51, wearing a white Tyvek suit. The construction worker started here three weeks ago. His job is to surface a road to the destroyed reactor. The job involves laying down steel struts that will make it possible to support a 600-ton crane, which will be used to pull a plastic protective cover over the ruins.

Standing in Line for Radiation Checks

Sasaki's first stop in J-Village is the gymnasium to the right of the main building. Long lines of workers wearing protective suits and masks march up to the building.

There are boxes at the entrance of the gym, and Sasaki pulls the plastic covers off of his shoes and places them in the first box. Then the respirator, the white protective suits made of synthetic paper and the gloves are each placed in additional boxes.

A number of workers trudge toward the gym; hardly anyone speaks. Some stumble when they have to stoop over to strip off the plastic covers from their shoes. Others rip off their suits with both hands, as if every tenth of a second counts before they can finally remove the hot and sweaty suits from their bodies. Then they stand in line for radiation checks.

Most workers wear only long-sleeved dark-blue underwear under the suits. Those who have to spend particularly long periods in the oppressive heat and humidity are also allowed to wear turquoise vests under their protective suits. These vests contain a coolant designed to protect the men from heat exhaustion. Several workers have already collapsed. In August alone, 13 were admitted to an emergency room set up in front of reactors 5 and 6. A 60-year-old worker died in May, presumably of a heart attack.

A team of workers who have been quickly trained in radiation levels checks each man's exposure.

The inspectors are wearing protective suits, blue caps and paper masks. Under the basketball hoop at the end of the gym, folding tables have been set up with four mobile Geiger counters, and next to these are three permanently installed radiometers.

The inspectors are holding bulky instruments and gazing at the gauges. They move the sensors first over the head of each worker, then left and right along the arms, chest, abdomen and legs. During the check, the workers stand on a mat with an adhesive film designed to capture radioactive particles. Many of the men are young and look as if they are in their early twenties, but a number of weary old men are also among them.

Temporary Workers Doing the Dirty Work

One of the workers feels that the public has a right to know what is happening in J-Village. He has decided to speak with SPIEGEL, although he would prefer not to give his name. He will be referred to as Sakuro Akimoto here. On busy days, he says, more than 3,000 workers pass through the radiation detection station.

Every day a brigade is deployed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in an attempt to bring the stricken reactor under control. The workers toil in sweltering heat and dangerously high radiation levels. The maximum annual dose for workers in Japanese nuclear power plants is normally 50 millisievert. After consulting with the authorities, TEPCO has decided to raise the maximum allowed dose to 250 millisievert, high enough to significantly increase the likelihood of developing cancer.

Some 18,000 workers have helped manage the disaster since March 11. Most of them are not employed by TEPCO, but by subcontractors, who in turn recruit their workers from temporary employment agencies. Before the tsunami, many of these temporary workers had already done their fair share of the dirty work at other nuclear power plants.

Most of them are not doing this to save Japan, but to feed their families. Sasaki, the construction worker, has also come for the money. He was approached by a company from Hokkaido in northern Japan where he lives. As a young man, he had helped with major overhauls at other power plants.

Each morning, says Sasaki, he dons his suit and mask in J-Village, and makes a second stop behind the plant's gates. Here he has to put on a lead vest, and over this an additional protective suit made of especially thick material, safety glasses, a mask that covers his entire face, and three different pairs of gloves, one on top of the other. "It is so unbearably hot," says Sasaki. "I feel like pulling the mask right off my face, but that's not allowed anywhere." Nonetheless, there are reports of workers who take off their masks, sometimes to smoke a cigarette.

'It Looks Much Worse There Than on TV'

There are meetings in the morning where every worker finds out what he is doing that day, after which the buses head off to the reactor. Sasaki is only allowed to work one hour per day, or at most 90 minutes, otherwise he will receive an excessively high dose of radiation. Then he heads back to J-Village, and on to his boarding house in Iwaki- Yumoto, where he shares a room with three men. Days like this have him on the go for six hours.

Sasaki is a small but muscular man. His arm muscles ripple under his black T-shirt.

He vividly remembers how he saw the destroyed reactor for the first time in mid-August. "It looks much worse there than on TV," he says. "Like New York after September 11. Destruction everywhere." He hasn't told his family that he works at the plant. He doesn't want them to worry.

He has his own worries. He needs the money, which is just under €100 a day. But if things keep going like this, he says that he will only be able to do the job a few more weeks until he reaches his company's radiation limits.

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