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Staffing at Japan nuke plant is a challenge

TOKYO -- Keeping Japan's meltdown-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in stable condition requires a cast of thousands. But increasingly, the plant's operator is struggling to find enough workers, a trend that many expect to worsen and hamper progress in the decades-long effort to safely decommission it.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant that melted down in March 2011 after being hit by a tsunami, is finding that it can barely meet the head count of workers required to keep the three broken reactors cool while fighting power outages and leaks of tons of radiated water, said current and former nuclear plant workers and others familiar with the situation.

Construction jobs are already plentiful in the area due to rebuilding of tsunami-ravaged towns and cities. Other public works spending planned by the government, under the "Abenomics" stimulus programs of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is likely to make well-paying construction jobs more abundant.

And less risky, better paid decontamination projects in the region irradiated by the Fukushima meltdown are another draw.

Some Fukushima veterans are quitting as their cumulative radiation exposure approaches levels risky to health, said two longtime Fukushima nuclear workers.

Utility spokesman Ryo Shimizu denied any shortage of workers, and said the decommissioning is progressing fine.

"We have been able to acquire workers, and there is no shortage. We plan to add workers as needed," he said.

The discrepancy may stem from the system of contracting prevalent in Japan's nuclear industry. Plant operators farm out the running of their facilities to contractors, who in turn find the workers, and also rely on lower-level contractors to do some of their work, resulting in as many as five layers of contractors. Utilities know the final head count -- 3,000 people now at Fukushima Dai-ichi -- but not the difficulties in meeting it.

Hiroyuki Watanabe, a city assemblyman for Iwaki in Fukushima, who talks often to plant workers, believes the labor shortage is only likely to worsen.

"They are scrounging around, barely able to clear the numbers," he said. "Why would anyone want to work at a nuclear plant, of all places, when other work is available?"

According to Watanabe, a nuclear worker generally earns about $100 a day. In contrast, decontamination work outside the plant, generally involving less exposure to radiation, is paid for by the environment ministry, and with bonuses totals about $160 a day, he said.

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