Cheap Labor in the Hot Zone

Alternet posts this article from the site WhoWhatWhy.com The author, Russ Baker, cites a 1999 article from the Los Angeles Times exposing the unconscionable use of low-wage workers as a human resource to do the dirty and dangerous maintenance work that keeps nuclear power cheap.

Kunio Murai was a struggling farmer from the wrong side of the tracks when he was recruited to work as a day laborer in a nuclear power plant near this farm town. The pay was triple what he could make anywhere else, and he was told that the work would be janitorial.

One day in 1970, he and a co-worker were ordered into a room to mop up a leak of radioactive cooling water. They wore ordinary rubber gloves, but no masks or additional protection. Murai recalls wrapping a cleaning cloth around a pipe that was spewing steam. They worked for two hours, and afterward the needle on Murai’s radiation meter pointed off the scale.

“I thought it was broken,” Murai said. It wasn’t. Within six months, he said, his joints swelled painfully and his teeth and hair fell out.

Murai is one of tens of thousands of people who have worked over the years as subcontractors in Japanese nuclear power plants, doing the dirty, difficult and potentially dangerous jobs shunned by regular employees.

In the wake of Japan’s worst nuclear accident, a nuclear fission reaction Sept. 30 [1999] at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, ugly allegations have surfaced of labor abuses, lackadaisical attitudes toward safety, inadequate worker training and lax enforcement by regulators in the country’s nuclear industry.

Workers at the JCO Co. plant in Tokaimura, about 80 miles northeast of Tokyo, were mixing uranium by hand in stainless steel buckets to save time. The ensuing nuclear reaction exposed as many as 150 people to radiation, according to the final report issued this month by Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission. One worker died from a lethal dose of radiation, and another remains hospitalized.

As Russ Baker notes, this quote from the LA Times calls the accident in 1999 ‘the worst’. The accident has all the elements– expedience, exploitation of workers and neglect of safety– that took the life of Robert Peabody fifty years ago in Rhode Island. In fact, it is the same type of accident, a critical reaction caused by unwarned workers, leading to severe radiation exposure.

The proponents of nuclear power cite multiple safety systems, and the necessity for these systems is a measure of how potentially deadly the technology is– as we see today in Fukushima.

After Chernobyl, Russians who lived in the vicinity of the disaster were prey to panic and despair. They had not been honestly informed by the authorities, and had no way to measure the risk to themselves and their families. Substance abuse, abortion and even suicide followed. The people of Japan, whose suffering is so great, deserve an honest assessment of the damage. Measuring the effects of the accident on the population will require years of tracking a cohort of millions, and that is assuming that there is political will to obtain that information. The cancer statistics from Chernobyl and from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggest that the increase in cancer risk is real, but so variable and affected by other factors that it takes groups of hundreds of thousands to measure. There’s reason to be optimistic that most individuals who live in the track of the radiation release will not personally suffer health effects.

And of course, there’s no immediate risk.

In our fifteen-minute news cycle the nuclear industry just has to hope nothing more blows up. As in the case of the top scientists who assured the public that the tobacco industry would never put an unsafe product on the market, the nuclear industry is keeping a narrow focus on the health effects so far. Hey, it’s not as bad as Chernobyl– that’s the new safety standard.

Reading about the heroic efforts of workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, I wondered why top scientists, trusted authorities, and people much smarter than me, could get workers into the most dangerous areas, but not bring in food, blankets or protective equipment for them. Even in this dire emergency there are priorities. Perhaps you’ve read about the Fukushima Fifty, who expect to give their lives, now or later, to save the public.

A complete and honest accounting will reveal that the nuclear industry, like all human enterprises, is subject to human error, expediency, shortsightedness and corner-cutting. There have been accidents and near-misses since the beginning. Human nature is not something we can change. We have no business creating radioactive hazards that will last for thousands of years, or putting cities in harm’s way. And this, for lack of will and imagination to find better answers.

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One response

  1. well, there is an inevitable conflict of interest between corporate owners seeking maximum progits and their own pay, and worker safety. This is in all industries (think coal, construction, railroads, the triangle clothing workers, etc) not just the nuclear industry. The usual solution to get the right balance is to have countervailing powers to corporate interests, but most such powers have now been substantially eroded, most notably unions to present (all) workers interests, and government regulators. The latest budget crisis has beem an excuse to further weaken the EPA, and OSHA that is supposed to look after workplace safety. I think the one remaining serious control on corporate abuse is the trial lawyers, but they too are under attack (caps on awards, lawyer jokes) I wonder how much longer they will be an effective (if sometimes irritating) force.

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