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

Since the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the power plant's operator TEPCO has relied on temporary workers to help bring the reactors under control. Many of the workers, whose radiation levels are measured daily, say they are not doing the work for Japan, but for the money. SPIEGEL visited J-Village, which is strictly off-limits, and met the unsung 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.

Workers Pushed to Their Limits

TEPCO is preparing to spend decades in J-Village. Workers have spread gravel around the large soccer stadium and in a number of adjacent areas. Here they have placed row after row of gray trailers. There are 40 per row and they sit two stories high, extending right up to the blue plastic seats in the stands.

The stadium's large scoreboard still hangs behind this makeshift community. The stadium clock has stopped at 2:46 p.m., which was the moment when the earthquake cut off the electricity here and at the power plant 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. Now, the power is on again and white neon lights illuminate the rows of trailers.

In one room the workers can pick up bento boxes. Next door TEPCO has built a laundromat with more than a hundred washing machines. Behind the main building in J-Village, buses are parked on the former soccer fields and debris is stored in large plastic bags on the tartan track.

Stacks of Contaminated Suits

In the courtyard of the main building, TEPCO has had a small store built, where workers can purchase cigarettes and tea. Some of them, still wearing their work overalls, have gathered around a number of ashtrays and are smoking in silence.

There is an Adidas advertisement glued to one of the doors and an obsolete warning sign: "No SPIKES!" An exhausted worker is asleep on the floor in the hallway.

In the window of the atrium hang huge banners for TEPCO Mareeze, the soccer team that belongs to the energy company. In the center of the building stands a panel with a large white and green map of J-Village. There was a time when this was there to help athletes find their way around. Now, a man in a TEPCO uniform stands here and uses a red felt pen to post the current radiation levels for over a dozen different places on the premises.

Three TEPCO employees are sitting nearby with their laptops. The workers hand them their daily dosimeters. In return, they are given a receipt that resembles a cash register sales slip and shows the dose of radiation that they have received that day.

In the corridors hang large framed photographs of famous moments in soccer history.

One of them shows German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer during the match between Germany and England at the 2010 World Cup. Outside on the covered playing field, eight goal posts have been pushed aside and are nestled together. Workers' underwear has been hung out to dry on one of the crossbars.

At the entrance someone has used pink tape to attach a sign to the bare concrete: "Caution! Contaminated material." Behind this sign, used protective suits and masks are stacked in piles that are 4 to 5 meters high.

Three Shifts Around the Clock

A stooped-over man in a white and blue uniform leads the way to the far corner, where radioactive dirt is lying in a kind of rubber pool. The man says the dirt was washed off cars that had been close to the reactor. Nearby, someone has taped markers to the artificial turf, much like the ones that runners use to gauge their run-ups. Here, however, workers have written radiation levels on the tape. With every meter that you approach the pool, the radiation levels increase: 4.5 microsievert, 7.0 and then, finally, one meter away: 20 microsievert.

The men from the radiation detection team bring new bags full of refuse from the gym out onto this field every few minutes. The work here at J-Village is less dangerous than at the reactor.

"There are two types of jobs," says Sakuro Akimoto. "Either you work in J-Village for many hours with less radiation or in Daiichi for fewer hours, but at radiation levels that are 10 to 100 times higher." Akimoto is tall and wiry. He wears his hair short and loves casual jeans. He started working 30 years ago, right after leaving school, for a company that does maintenance work for TEPCO.

There are hardly any other jobs in the village where he comes from, which is located near the power plant. On March 11, he was working at the plant and was able to flee in time to escape the tsunami. His village was evacuated. A few weeks later, he says, he received the order to come to J-Village, "whether I wanted to or not." But he says he also felt a sense of responsibility because the plant had brought so many jobs to the region.

The members of the radiation detection team are now working in three shifts around the clock. He has often seen workers "at their limit -- not only physically, but also mentally."

Most jobs are simply dirty work, he says. According to Akimoto, many of his co-workers who work for subcontractors had no choice but to come here. "If they refuse, where will they get another job?" he asks. "I don't know anyone who is doing this for Japan. Most of them need the money." Whenever possible, highly qualified workers like Akimoto are only exposed to comparatively low levels of radiation. After all, they will be needed later.

A Move to Raise Radiation Thresholds

In an internal paper, Japan's nuclear safety agency NISA warns that there will soon be a lack of technicians because too many have exceeded their radiation limits. As early as next year, NISA anticipates that there will be a shortage of 1,000 to 1,200 qualified workers, "which will severely affect the work at Fukushima Daiichi and at nuclear power plants throughout the country."

The nuclear safety agency's solution is simple: create higher thresholds. It recommends raising the limits to allow workers to be exposed within a few years to significantly greater amounts of radiation than before.

By mid-August, 17,561 men had been registered at the Health Ministry as radiation workers. There are plans to monitor their health in a future study. Six of them have been exposed to radiation levels exceeding the high limit of 250 millisievert. More than 400 people have been exposed to levels exceeding the normally allowed 50 millisievert.

And TEPCO simply does not know about some of its workers. Despite months of searching, the company can no longer locate 88 workers who were employed in the power plant from March to June. The company had merely handed out badges to contractors without meeting the workers in person. Worker IDs with barcodes and photos have only recently been introduced.

Earning €100 Per Day

Hiroyuki Watanabe is a city council member from Iwaki, the city that lies to the south of J-Village. For the past two years, he has been trying to determine where TEPCO recruits its workers. "The structure is dodgy," says Watanabe. "It is amazing that one of Japan's largest companies pursues such business practices."

In fact, TEPCO has been using shadowy practices to acquire its workers for a number of years. In 2008, Toshiro Kitamura from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum criticized the Japanese power company for "outsourcing most of its maintenance work of nuclear power plants to multi-layered contractors." The industry expert's main concern, however, was the safety risk, since these workers are not as familiar with the reactors as permanent employees.

According to Watanabe, TEPCO has budgeted up to €1,000 per person per day to pay the workers. But unskilled workers, he says, often receive only about €100 of that money. "These are men who are poor or old, with no steady job and limited employment opportunities," he says. Some of them don't even have a written employment contract, he contends. When they reach their radiation exposure limit, he adds, they lose their jobs and the employment agency finds a replacement.

Watanabe wants to ensure that all workers are paid appropriately. Even the lowest ranking workers should have a trade union, he says. "If we have a problem, we have nobody to turn to," says a young worker who is eating dinner along with seven co-workers at the Hazu restaurant in Iwaki-Yumoto. They are drinking beer and sake with their meal and smoking countless cigarettes. The men actually don't want to talk about the power plant -- but they go ahead and do it anyway. They also talk about their families and the fear of the radiation and its consequences.

'Somebody Has To Do It'

Next door in the laundromat, 24-year-old Yutaka is stuffing his socks and T-shirts into a washing machine. He is wearing plaid shorts and a polo shirt with a matching collar. Every night in his boarding house room, he calculates his current level of radiation exposure.

"To be honest, it makes my wife worried," he says. He has no intention of quitting, however. "Somebody has to do it," he says. Yutaka is in charge of the break room. His wife has been living far from here ever since they were evacuated. "I don't know if we will ever be able to return," he says.

The presence of so many workers has fundamentally changed Iwaki-Yumoto. This small town on the southern edge of the exclusion zone was known for its hot springs, which attracted large numbers of tourists. Now, there are no more tourists, and many residents have also fled. The hot springs are still very popular, though now it is with the workers. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of them live here now, says a hotel owner in the city. There are plans to move many of them soon to new trailers on the playing fields of J-Village.

One of the workers in Iwaki-Yumoto comes from the now-abandoned village of Tomioka in the restricted area. He smokes Marlboro menthols, and his arms and legs are covered with tattoos. During the day, he works in front of reactor 4, assembling plastic tubes for the decontamination system.

The hardest thing for him, he says, is the daily trip to work. The bus drives past his house twice a day, passing directly in front of the bar where he used to play pachinko, a Japanese game similar to pinball.

"I feel sad when I see it all so empty," he says. He says he dreams of returning there some day to play pachinko again.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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