(NaturalNews) Officials with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have shifted attention away from the energy producer's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in recent months, leaving a poorly trained, often unskilled and demoralized workforce to take care of the dangerous radiological cleanup there, multiple reports say.
Meanwhile, as reported by The New York Times, TEPCO continues to pour a wealth of resources into Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, another plant that the company hopes to restart later in 2014 as part of the government's plan to begin using nuclear-generated power again some three years after the world's second-worst nuclear disaster - a move that some on the country's nuclear regulatory board have criticized.
The shift in focus, the paper noted, has resulted in lower-paying jobs at Fukushima that are much more sporadic, which has resulted in a flight of qualified workers. In their wake, according to laborers and others at the crippled plant, "is a work force often assembled by fly-by-night labor brokers with little technical or safety expertise and even less concern about hiring desperate people," the Times reported, adding that police have said some of the most dubious labor brokers even have ties to organized crime.
'Workers at the Fukushima plant have been forced to do unreasonable tasks'
From the Times:
Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiation release.
"There is a crisis of manpower at the plant," Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric, told the paper. "We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire's still burning."
In recent days, frustration over the plant's working conditions has boiled over. On March 14, for instance, about 100 workers at the plant rallied outside TEPCO's headquarters in Tokyo, complaining that they have been forced to work in a harsh environment for meager wages, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
"Workers at the Fukushima plant have been forced to do unreasonable tasks with no decent safety measures," said one man in his 30s who did not give his name.
The man said he had been laid off from the plant after several months there due to inordinate radiation exposure.
"Workers are forced to handle contaminated water in such grim working conditions, where any human being should not be put to work," he told AFP. "They tend to make easy mistakes under the pressure, but it's not they who are at fault -- it's the conditions that force them to do terrible tasks."
Exposures should be avoided 'at all costs'
As the Times noted, such incidents took the shape of a particularly hazardous event one morning last October. At the time, a crew of contract workers had been sent to remove hoses and valves as part of a long-overdue upgrade to the Fukushima plant's water purification system:
According to regulatory filings by Tepco, the team received only a 20-minute briefing from their supervisor and were given no diagrams of the system they were to fix and no review of safety procedures -- a scenario a former supervisor at the plant called unthinkable. Worse yet, the laborers were not warned that a hose near the one they would be removing was filled with water laced with radioactive cesium.
The crew shuffled off in their bulky protective gear. As they left, their supervisor, who was managing several responsibilities at once, left them to check on another crew. When they arrived on the site, they chose the wrong hose and released a rush of radioactive water. In a panic, some of the workers shoved their gloved hands into the water in a bid to cut off the leak, spraying themselves and others who ran to assist in the process, the Times said.
Shigeharu Nakachi, an expert in the health effects of pollution, said that, though the workers received significant radiation exposure, it wasn't enough to cause them to be sick. Nevertheless, he told the Times, the goal is to avoid those kinds of exposures "at all costs."
AFP reported that the decommissioning process at Fukushima will take decades.