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Nuke plant workers battle health problems

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- Workers battling the crisis at the stricken nuclear plant suffer from insomnia, show signs of dehydration and high blood pressure and are at risk of developing depression or heart trouble, a doctor who met with them said yesterday.

The crews have been fighting to get the radiation-spewing Fukushima Dai-ichi plant under control since it was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.

"The conditions at the plant remain harsh," epidemiologist Takeshi Tanigawa told The Associated Press. "I am afraid that if this continues we will see a growing risk of health problems."

Tanigawa, the Public Health Department chairman at Ehime University's medical school, said he met and spoke with 80 of the workers over four days when he was allowed into another nearby nuclear plant where many of them take their breaks. He said he was not able to carry out full physical exams on the workers before leaving Tuesday because of time constraints.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, said 245 workers from the company and affiliated companies were stationed at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant yesterday. Soldiers, firefighters and police officers also were at the site.

The nuclear workers have been toiling around the clock to stabilize the plant. Tanigawa said they get little rest, no baths or fresh food and are under the constant threat of exposure to radiation, which remains so high in many places that robots are being used to take measurements.

In a telephone interview, Tanigawa said the work conditions don't meet the basic rights guaranteed workers by Japan's constitution. During their breaks at the Fukushima Daini plant, they often sleep on the floor of a gymnasium, "wrapped only in blankets and with no privacy," he said.

Photographs of the gymnasium show workers in white radiation protection suits sitting on gold metallic mats laid in tight rows on the floor. Boxes of supplies are stacked nearby.

"Because they sleep so close to each other, snoring is a big problem," he said. "Normally, that might sound funny, but in this case it is denying people sleep and that can lead to bad performance on the job."

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