Subject: [cwj 96] Nuclear power plant workers in Japan
From: Richard Wilcox <>
Date: Thu, 7 Sep 2000 23:39:47 +0900
Seq: 96

[Prof. Miura has given his permission to distribute this article on the
net, thanks...RW]


September, 2000

                               Genpatsu Gypsies:
                The Hidden Tragedy Of Japan's Nuclear Labor Force


                                Nagamitsu Miura

              Professor of Philosophy, Department of International
              and Cultural Studies, Tsuda College, Tokyo, Japan

     Radiation exposure of nuclear power plant workers in Japan is a fact
that is suppressed from public consciousness. While people sit in their
homes and enjoy the comforts of modern living due in part to the
electricity that is supplied by nuclear energy, most remain relatively
unaware of the darker side of the process which goes into lighting their
cozy dwellings.

     In September, 1999, an accident occurred at the JCO uranium processing
facility in the town of Tokai, Ibaragi prefecture, Japan. The accident
occurred when nuclear fuel suddenly rose to a critical temperature because
of it's improper handling by workers. Of the three men who worked in the
nuclear plant and were exposed to radiation, two of them, Hisashi Ouchi and
Masato Shinohara, died several months later. The workers had not been
properly trained by their employers for the necessity of dealing with
nuclear fuel with utmost caution due its extreme danger during processing.

     This nuclear power related accident was the worst in Japan's history
and revealed to the world that dangerous nuclear substances are routinely
being handled by careless and unskilled employees who are often ignorant of
the consequences of their tasks. But due to the mainstream media's
obfuscating coverage of the issue, still unknown to the Japanese public is
the fact that the deaths of Ouchi and Shinohara were not the first suffered
by nuclear plant workers due to radiation exposure. And they will probably
not be the last.

     Since the first nuclear power station in Japan began operation in
1966, nuclear plants have been maintained not only by engineers but by  a
variety of other workers. According to the Central Registration Center of
Radiation Workers, the number of nuclear plant workers in Japan in the
fiscal year 1999, amounted to 64,922. About 10% of them are full-time
workers employed by nuclear companies while 90% are subcontracted workers.
Thus, the vast majority of the nuclear industry's labor force is comprised
of temporary employees who work at plants for between 1-3 months at a time.
These people are mostly farmers, fishermen or day laborers seeking to
supplement their incomes or simply to get by. Some of them are homeless.
They work mainly at nuclear power plants, but they also find jobs at
nuclear fuel facilities (refining, processing, reprocessing and using
plants), and at nuclear waste burial and storage facilities. The workers
work twice or thrice a year at the same nuclear plant or move about to
other plants. Thus, the nickname they have been tagged with by journalists,
"genpatsu gypsies" (ie.,  nuclear nomads).

     The question that would immediately come to mind for most people
before working around nuclear materials is "how safe is it"?
Admittedly, as many of the workers' backgrounds are in farming or fishing,
they are less educated as to the workings of high-tech, industrial society,
and at any rate, they need the money. Some may be naive in regards to
trusting the government and the nuclear industry, who they think would
probably never intentionally mean to cause them harm.

     Concerning the maximum permissible exposure to radiation, the Ministry
of International Trade and Industry formerly rated safe levels of radiation
exposure at 1 milli-Sievert a day, 30 mSv per three months and 50 mSv a
year for nuclear plant workers while setting 5 mSv a year for   the general
population. However, it relaxed these limitations in 1990 to:  50 mSv a
year and no limitations for the period of three months or a day for nuclear
plant workers, while it tightened the ceiling for radiation exposure for
ordinary citizens to 1 mSv a year. Bear in mind, there is much controversy
about whether there is any safe dose of nuclear radiation whatsoever.

     The purported reason MITI gave for changing the maximum permissible
radiation exposure is obscure. But the hidden meaning is not hard to
decipher-- the restrictions of 30msv per three months and 1msv a day are
too rigid and ineffective for the nuclear industry to abide by. If they had
to record radiation exposure doses for workers at daily and tri-monthly
intervals, it would be far more difficult to falsify data than under the
mere limitation of exposure over a year's time.

     Under MITI's new provision, a nuclear plant worker who was exposed  to
a radiation dose of 50 mSv in a short period (eg. a week) is judged as
"safe". But according to Kenji Higuchi, a photo journalist who has
investigated the situation of nuclear plant workers for nearly 30 years and
has observed the effects of low level radiation exposure, 50 mSv in a short
period is extremely dangerous. Again, while in former times the maximum
permissible exposure for nuclear plant workers was ten times that for
ordinary citizens (50 mSv : 5mSv), the new provision has	widened the
difference to 50 times (50 mSv : 1 mSv). Higuchi stated in an interview,
"This is an obvious policy of discrimination against nuclear plant workers."

     According to the Central Registration Center of Radiation Workers, of
a total of 64,922 nuclear plant workers in Japan in the fiscal year 1999,
those who were exposed to radiation doses of less than 5 mSv numbered
59,319 (91.4 % of the total); 5-10 mSv, 3,280 workers (5.1 %); 10-15 mSv,
1,514 (2.3 %); 15-20 mSv, 773 (1.2 %); 20-25 mSv, 26 (0.0 %); 25-30 mSv, 4
(0.0%); 30-40 mSv, 2 (0.0 %); 40-50 mSv, 4 (0.0 %); and those who were
exposed to a radiation dose of more than 50 mSv numbered zero. Therefore,
the maximum permissible exposure to radiation of 50 mSv set by MITI was
observed, concludes the CRCRW. The Center has published annual reports of
similar data every year since 1978 and demonstrated that there were no
problems about the safety of nuclear plant workers. The Center reports that
the total number of nuclear plant workers from 1977 to March 2000 amounts
to 352,888 people.

     According to Higuchi, however, the maximum permissible exposure of 50
mSv a year is too high, though this is also the limitation of radiation
exposure set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
Since 1974, he visited many nuclear power stations in Japan. Based on
interviews with approximately 80 workers at nuclear plants as of 1993, he
found that many of them suffered from skin inflammation, lymphatic
swelling, head balding, falling out of teeth, arthralgia (pain in the
joints), nose bleeding, rash on the skin of the whole body, cerebral tumor,
leukemia, cataract, glaucoma, diploid, and languor throughout the body.
These ex-employees could no longer work and could only lay in bed or
suffered from lingering illness.

     In addition to the deaths of Ouchi and Shinohara that occurred at the
JCO accident in 1999, Higuchi confirmed at least five other deaths of
nuclear plantworkers: Saburo Yamada, at age 20, by cerebral tumor in 1974;
Yoshimi Kitame, at age 49, by cerebral apoplexy in 1975; Shigeru Sato, at
age 68, by leukemia in 1977; an anonymous supervisor at a nuclear power
plant, at age 40, by an unknown disease in 1989; and Nobuyuki Shimahashi,
at age 29, by leukemia in 1991.

     According to an investigation report published in March 1977, by
Yanosuke  Narasaki, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives, the
deaths of nuclear plant workers numbered 106 at that time.

     According to an investigation made in 1983 by anti-nuclear groups in
Fukushima and Fukui Prefectures, the deaths of nuclear plant workers in
both prefectures from 1970 to 1983 numbered 200. These groups and Higuchi
estimated from this data the total number of workers in Japan's nuclear
plants who died as a result of exposure to radiation to be between 300-400.
In 1993, the researchers drew an inference based on the same data that
workers who died as a result of exposure had grown to approximately 700
individuals. Higuchi estimates based on studies from the atomic bombings
that anywhere from 1 to 17 persons per 10,000 subcontracted workers "are
sure to die by cancer" due to routine radiation exposure on the job.

     How is it that the reports published by the Central Registration
Center, MITI and nuclear power companies on radiation exposure of nuclear
plant workers are at variance with witnesses of the workers themselves? How
is it that the official position contradicts other well documented studies
on the dangers of low level radiation exposure?

     Higuchi heard nuclear power plant workers report that they worked in
temperatures ranging from 30 degrees centigrade to 50 degrees centigrade
inside the reactors during periods for inspection, maintenance and
decontamination. They work wearing masks and protection suits. But since
the face-glass on the mask soon becomes clouded in the high temperature and
humidity, they must take the mask off to finish their work in time. In
order to earn what is for most subcontracted workers-- a badly needed daily
wage-- workers prefer bringing their task quickly to fulfillment instead of
observing the regulations for protection against radiation exposure. As a
result, the workers inhale air contaminated with high levels of radiation.
This internal radiation exposure is more dangerous than external exposure
through the skin.

     Workers reported to Higuchi that they were scarcely warned about the
danger of radiation exposure before going on the job. They carry radiation
dose meters and pocket radiation alarm meters with them while working
inside the reactor. But they often take these off following the direction
of their overseer or of their own accord. Ironically, due to the insecure
nature of their jobs, they are afraid that they will be fired by their
employer if their radiation exposure dose exceeds the permitted level.
Under these circumstances, workers are in fact often exposed to far more
radiation than the dosage level their radiation meters record.

     Higuchi notes that nuclear plant workers who become sick and consult
doctors of the hospitals nearby nuclear plants are often pronounced to be
"not abnormal" and the doctors will not tell them their dosage level of
radiation exposure. It proved that after the death of Shimahashi as
mentioned above, the nuclear company for which he worked had tampered with
his medical records. Higuchi believes that such juggling of data regularly
occurs in regards to the health inspections of nuclear plant workers in

	When Kunio Murai and Ryusuke Umeda who suffered illnesses after
working at nuclear plants tried to bring suit against their employers, they
were threatened by gangsters and then were offered  6,000,000 yen and
1,060,000 respectively (about 60,000 USD and 10,600 USD each) for
settlements from their subcontracting companies. In each case they decided
to quit their law suits. Higuchi says these cases make apparent the way in
which the nuclear industry unscrupulously hinders workers from exposing to
the public the egregious lack of safety standards within the industry.

     While the deaths of Ouchi and Shinohara caused by the JCO accident
were from acute radiation sickness, some specialists in radio therapeutics
believe that radiation exposure also causes diseases such as cancers which
may arise many years after initial exposure. Higuchi decisively
states,"There is no such thing as a 'maximum permissible exposure to
radiation' for nuclear power plant workers. They are all more or less
exposed to radiation and will probably suffer from it, whether they are
conscious of its symptoms or not."

      The following month after the JCO plant accident, the Japanese
government announced that it would improve the system for emergency medical
service for helping to save victims of radiation exposure from accidents at
nuclear power plants. But both the government and nuclear power industry
are still a long way off from being determined to review the safety
standards of plants and the conditions for workers. Improvements will come
about only through public pressure. Concerned citizens from Japan and
abroad, labor unions, human rights, health care and environmental advocates
will need to focus attention on this problem and expose these dangerous and
inhumane policies being propagated by Japanese industry and the government.


A Note About Kenji Higuchi. He was born in 1937 and is a freelance
photo-journalist who has authored the following books which include his
original photographs: "Genpatsu" (Nuclear Power Station); "The Islands
Exposed to Radiation From Nuclear Power Stations" (Genpatsu Hibaku Retto);
"Nuclear Power Plant Workers Are Put Out Into The Dark" (Yami ni Kesareru
Genpatsu Rodosha); "Nuclear Power Stations in Asia and the Workers Exposed
to Radiation at Nuclear Plants" (Ajia  no Genpatsu to Hibaku Rodosha);
"This is a Nuclear Power Station" (Kore ga Genpatsu da). He was also
featured in a documentary film produced by the BBC called "Nuclear Ginza". 


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