01/09/2012 - 18:01

Nuclear nomads: A look at the subcontracted heroes

Gabrielle Hecht

Gabrielle Hecht

Hecht is professor of history at the University of Michigan. She is the author of...

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In the days after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station last March, the international media celebrated the heroism of the "Fukushima 50" -- the plant and emergency workers who exposed themselves to extremely high radiation levels to get the reactors under control. Their efforts, it seems, were doomed from the start. Three of the reactor cores melted down anyway. And the cleanup will take decades.

During much of this cleanup process -- especially in its current phase -- thousands of workers will be exposed to levels of ionizing radiation well in excess of internationally recommended annual limits. In fact, Japan raised exposure limits for both workers and the public, presumably in an attempt to reduce the number of cases that need to be documented as overexposures.

So how many emergency workers are there anyway, and who are they? Over 18,000 men had participated in cleanup work by early December. Some hailed the workers as "national heroes," men willing to sacrifice their lives for the future of their nation. A few investigative reporters and scholars, however, uncovered a different story. The vast majority of these men are subcontract employees, recruited among local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster, or among the thousands of day laborers who eke out an existence in the notorious slums of Japanese cities. In other words, these are not salarymen.

To quote one such worker: "If [day laborers] refuse, where will they get another job?... I don't know anyone who is doing this [cleanup work] for Japan. Most of them need the money."

Cleanup workers are issued with dosimeters, and are checked at the end of each shift. Unskilled temps get paid about $130 a day. Many don't have written employment contracts. When they reach their exposure limit, they lose their jobs and are replaced, ideally, by non-exposed workers. Some have opted to prolong their employment by leaving dosimeters behind while working.

Arguably, someone has to do these jobs -- this is just what must happen after a major accident. These are, after all, extraordinary circumstances.

By extraordinary, we usually mean out of the ordinary. But what if -- following Charles Perrow's work on "normal accidents" -- we take extraordinary to mean super-ordinary? How does the nuclear cleanup at Fukushima shed light on the ordinary functioning of the nuclear industry, in Japan and elsewhere?

The reality of the super-ordinary. Typically, reactors need to be shut down every 12 to 24 months for refueling and maintenance. During these times, spent fuel is removed from the core and new fuel is added. This is also the crucial time to inspect, clean, and repair valves, pipes, steam generators, electrical systems, control panels, etc.

The older the reactor, the more corroded and fragile its components, and the more radioactivity it emits. Maintenance thus gets more onerous, time-consuming, costly, and dangerous over time. In addition, reactors go off-line when they are shut down for maintenance; each day of a shut-down means a profit loss for the utility company. Thus, there are strong incentives to get through maintenance procedures quickly.

Starting in the early 1970s, the Japanese nuclear industry pioneered a system in which plant operators subcontract outside companies to maintain the reactors. In turn, these subcontractors hire short-term workers, who are employed until they reach their radiation exposure limit, and then let go. France -- the only country in the world more heavily dependent on nuclear power than Japan -- adopted the Japanese system in the late 1980s.

The subcontracting approach to reactor maintenance has several implications.

Greater exposure. As for the accident cleanup crew, the short-term financial incentive for the temps is to abandon their dosimeters for certain jobs, so that their radiation exposures are not officially recorded. This prolongs their employment -- and increases their doses.

No occupational disease. Subcontract workers are often dubbed nuclear nomads because they move around from workplace to workplace, living out of trailers. There's no compulsory centralized system for tracking cumulative exposure and health data for these temps. The absence of interactions among labor, information, and health infrastructures means that workers' health problems are not collected and recorded in a centralized database -- thus, many severe health problems never qualify as occupational diseases. Workers rarely -- if ever -- benefit from compensation, because their diseases cannot be linked to past exposures in ways that are scientifically or legally persuasive.

Collective dose. Utilities don't include the exposures of temp workers in their own data. That, in turn, means that data for any given nuclear power plant vastly under-reports the true collective dose (i.e., the total exposure received by the sum of both utility and subcontract workers).

Let's be clear: We're not talking about a small portion of Japan's nuclear workforce.  Since the late 1980s, some 90 percent of nuclear power plant workers in the country have been subcontracted. Estimates suggest that on average, during any one subcontracted job, a worker receives two to three times the annual dose absorbed by a regular plant worker.

The invisible worker. The reality of the subcontractor employment system is invisibility -- of the subcontracted workers, of their exposures, and of the collective dose received at power plants.

Such systemic invisibility permeates the nuclear industry in both ordinary and extraordinary times, at all levels, and around the world. For example, uranium-producing African countries -- which, during the Cold War, provided between 25 and 50 percent of the capitalist world's uranium -- remain contaminated from uranium mine debris. Today, regional poverty is so extreme in Niger (the largest of these uranium producers) that people  refashion radioactive trash barrels into basins for collecting water.

In the hyper-polarized public debates about the world's nuclear and climate future, a favorite argument among the supporters of nuclear energy is that coal causes many more deaths than nuclear power. Changing labor patterns, the transnational distribution of flexible work regimes, and the terrible precariousness of workers across the globe certainly do have severe consequences in many industries. But such parallels shouldn't allow us to dismiss the social and health consequences of nuclear labor.

Proponents focus on narrow statistics (such as death in the workplace) to claim that the nuclear industry does not carry exceptional risks. A single statistic like this, however, discounts many other measurements and hides complex social and physiological realities. The banalization of hazards, furthermore, renders certain jobs, places, or people insufficiently "nuclear" to qualify for attention, counting, mitigation, compensation, or care.

Most recently, this banalization was seen with the Fukushima 50. Or -- perhaps more accurately -- the Fukushima 18,000. But it is important to remember that this invisibility isn't just a problem in Japan. It's a problem everywhere. And when no one is counting, there are global consequences.

Editor's note: The author would like to thank her colleagues Pär Cassel and Hitomi Tonomura for their insights and engagement during the preparation of this essay.