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FOCUS: Subcontractor questions safety management at Fukushima nuclear plant

TOKYO, March 30, Kyodo

A worker who engaged in efforts to regain control of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has questioned safety precautions taken by the operator for workers, citing, for instance, a lack of supervision of radiation monitoring when three workers were exposed to high levels of radiation last week.

In a recent interview with Kyodo News, the man, hired by a sub-subcontractor of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., expressed surprise about the three workers who were working with their feet submerged in contaminated water, saying, ''We don't normally work in water.''

The man said he was tasked with laying cables to restore power at the No. 2 reactor of the nuclear power plant. Power supply was severed at the plant by the magnitude-9.0 quake and subsequent massive tsunami on March 11, crippling its critical function of cooling nuclear fuels.

The three workers suffered a high dose of radiation in the basement at the turbine building next to the No. 3 reactor of the six-reactor plant. Dispatched by a subcontractor and a sub-subcontractor, the three were given an assignment to also lay down cables.

It turned out that two of the men, from the subcontractor, were supervising the one from the sub-subcontractor who was actually handling the cable work, suggesting the possibility that sub-subcontractors are liable to handle jobs with greater risks. The three were taken to a hospital but were discharged March 28 and so far do not appear to have suffered serious health problems.

As of Wednesday morning, around 300 workers including those from TEPCO itself are engaged in work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, with 50 of these being from subcontractors.

The man told Kyodo News that a lack of radiation monitors nearby was at least in part conducive to the three men's radiation exposure. He has around 50 work colleagues including veterans of a few decades at Fukushima Daiichi. They work under the vigilance of a radiation monitor who constantly provides safety instructions, he said.

Under strict rules, workers are replaced by others when they reach close to an exposure limit, he said.

Within the plant's premises, rubble with highly radioactive materials was scattered after hydrogen explosions at reactor building in the days after the quake. ''If they are removed soon by heavy machinery, work will be a lot easier but the operator (of the machines) will inevitably be exposed to radiation,'' the man said.

Currently, daily work at the plant could extend up to eight hours if radioactivity levels are low. Workers all sleep at a building designed to be fortified against quakes within the plant's premises and have to endure frugal diet regimes including dried rice and canned foods, with only two meals given per day.

The man said he read one newspaper report that TEPCO is paying several hundred thousand yen per day to gather workers. ''That's not happening. Work takes years and a large number of people are required for it. Who would pay such amount of money?'' he said.

Given the severe damage done to nuclear fuel facilities, reactors Nos. 1 to 4 are likely to be decommissioned. The man, who has for years worked at Fukushima Daiichi, said he is planning to return to the plant. ''I would think it may probably take around 50 years until work to decommission them will end. I hope to continue working till the end,'' he said.

In Saitama city, another man, in his 40s, who has evacuated from Futaba town, which hosts the Fukushima nuclear complex, said his employer called him March 23, telling him that he may have to ask him to go to the plant.

The man is among around 1,300 residents who fled the town to Saitama Super Arena, a huge multipurpose indoor stadium, after the government issued an evacuation advisory.

He said the head of the company pleaded with him for help. The company is also a subcontractor of TEPCO, which prefers to call those subcontractors ''associate enterprises.'' Already, several of his colleagues have returned to Fukushima Daiichi to engage in restoration work.

On March 28, it was announced that a high volume of radiation, over 1,000 millisieverts per hour, was registered at locations such as at a tunnel stretching from below the No. 2 reactor turbine building to the Pacific Ocean. The man said it was ''a figure I've never seen before.''

The man is also planning to return to Fukushima Daiichi shortly. ''I am aware of the challenges. My colleagues are fighting at the site and waiting for replacements. I hope to go now if I can,'' he said.

Another man, also in his 40s, who was working at the No. 6 reactor, said his employer, also a TEPCO subcontractor, had contacted him. He was told some of his colleagues have returned to the plant on condition that they be paid 80,000 yen per day.

But the man declined the offer, he said, because he was asked to stay on by his wife and two children. He was also concerned how much radiation he would have to be exposed to if he decided to go. ''I may not be able to take up any work at all if I go,'' he said.

==Kyodo

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