The world is looking anxiously on as the Japanese attempt to prevent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from melting down. The effects will be far-reaching for many, but the workers themselves are in the most dire situation, risking extreme radiation poisoning as they attempt to control the reactors. Their tragic situation makes one wonder about the status of workers’ compensation and labor laws in extreme circumstances.
It seems that their dangerous job is made all the more risky by a lack of legal resources and oversight. As Washington D.C.-based investigative journalist Tim Shorrock posted on his blog, the majority of the workers exposed to radiation in nuclear accidents over the years have been subcontracted workers, hired for “brief periods to do the most dangerous work in the nuclear industry,” not just working for the power plant but for the nuclear fuel facilities and waste burial sites. These workers are called “genpatsu gypsies” because they often move from plant to plant throughout the year, and in reports as far back as 1992, they made up nearly 89 percent of the employees in the industry and receive “more than 90 percent of all radiation exposure.”
While the American nuclear power industry does not have “nuclear nomads,” it similarly has a two-tiered system of employment.
Because the workers are not directly employed by the power companies and move around so often, it’s nearly impossible to keep tabs on their health, and to any event the power companies like Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are not obligated to cover their heath care costs. Attempts in the 1980s to unionize were unsuccessful, and it is unclear whether there is a movement to change that.
Many workers accept the conditions and risks of the work because of the pay. One of the anonymous “Fukushima 50,” the workers currently working on rescuing the damaged plant, told the Mainichi Daily News that he decided to work at the plant even after the disaster not only because he wanted to do this important job, but because he wanted to continue working for the company. “I want to keep supporting myself with this job,” he said. “If I turned it down, I would be put in a bad position. I want to continue this work for the company. I want to cooperate with the company and do what I’m told as much as possible.”
It should be noted that the individuals dealing with the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi are not all contractors. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on March 17 that of the 17 people who suffered from radioactive material deposits on their faces, eight were subcontractors while the other nine were TEPCO employees.
Considering that the Fukushima 50 have shouldered the burden of saving the plant and that all eyes are on them, it is likely that their health care will be taken care of if, not by the company and the government then by international donations.
Unfortunately, it seems that there will be health costs. The Japanese Health Ministry announced recently that it would raise the legal radiation exposure limit from 100 to 250 millisieverts. This is five times the legal limit at American power plants. Then again, 20 percent of people already die of cancer, and this new exposure would increase the workers’ cancer risk by 1 percent; considering the scope of the disaster at stake, workers may think their job is worth the risk.
It is troubling that there are no unions and no workers’ compensation in place for many nuclear power plant laborers. At the same time, some think that regardless of the legal rights of the workers, people should not be put in such extreme situations.
Slate writer William Saletan talks about the existence of radiation-resistant robots for just these sorts of catastrophic events, particularly in France, where a system exists to deploy robots and operators anywhere in the country within 24 hours of a nuclear disaster. However, few nuclear power companies are willing to spring for the time, research and cost of machines that hopefully are never used.
Japan has been asking the international community for any robotic assistance possible, but until then, human workers will struggle to contain the damage. One can only hope there will be a compensation system in place for them once the crisis is averted.