A shuttle bus takes workers in deep sleep from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to J-Village, where their temporary dormitories are located.
A shuttle bus takes workers in deep sleep from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to J-Village, where their temporary dormitories are located. (Shigeta Kodama)
NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture–Despite the predawn hour, few people are sleeping on a bus that steadily makes its way north on National Route 6.
Some passengers are planning for the work ahead. One is looking forward to chatting with his colleagues. And a few wonder if today will be the day when their annual radiation doses reach the safety limit.
Every day, buses like this take 6,000 workers to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. And every day, the same buses take the exhausted and mostly sleeping workers back to their base at the Japan Football Village (J-Village) in Naraha.
Although the Fukushima plant is still decades away from being decommissioned, without this daily routine of the workers who toil amid an invisible danger, the situation at the site would be much more difficult.
407 DAILY BUS RIDES
One of them, the 49-year-old leader of a group of metal workers from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, has been working at nuclear plants, including the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station in Niigata Prefecture, for nearly 20 years.
He was at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the triple meltdown there in March 2011.
“Nobody can get close to the area where the melted nuclear fuel remains due to high radiation doses,” the man said. “Even if we could approach the area, we would have no way out if something happens. The situation is harsh.”
Those metal workers install tanks for the contaminated water that keeps accumulating at the plant.
Although there are plenty of empty seats, the young workers sit in front and the older workers take the back seats.
Thousands of workers are staying at temporary dormitories set up in J-Village, a soccer training complex.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., operator of the nuclear plant, hired a local bus company to transport the workers to the plant because securing parking areas near the site has been difficult since the 2011 disaster.
The company provides 407 services a day to and from the plant. Each trip takes about 30 minutes.
The first shuttle bus departs from J-Village at 3:30 a.m., while the last bus leaves the Fukushima plant at 9:45 p.m.
In mid-November amid torrential rain, one bus picked up a man taking shelter under the eaves of a bus stop.
He said he is in charge of managing data related to radiation doses of fittings and other equipment at the plant.
“We have many different types of work here,” the man proudly said.
Also on the way to the nuclear plant, a 53-year-old employee of a security company was thinking about personnel distribution.
Like other workers there, security guards must be replaced when their annual radiation doses reach a certain level set by the government.
He said he has difficulties making ends meet with a limited number of guards who have knowledge about radiation.
Suddenly, the man’s cellphone rings, and the caller orders the deployment of additional security guards to the plant.
A 52-year-old TEPCO employee was on the way to the nearby Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant to provide a safety training program for workers, many of whom are victims of the triple disaster.
“I want to convey to workers how precious their lives are and how important safety is in a way that doesn’t make me sound hypocritical,” the employee said.
The triple meltdown has been called a “man-made disaster” caused by the failure of both TEPCO’s management and the government’s regulatory authorities.
The TEPCO employee will use props, such as a ladder, and pretend to be a worker to explain dangerous cases at the No. 1 plant.
On the trip back to J-Village, a different atmosphere exists on the bus.
Although dazzling sunlight shines through the windows and stunning views of the ocean are available, most of the workers are fast asleep in their wrinkled uniforms.
“Few people stay awake. I don’t even switch on the radio. They must be tired after their work,” said Nobuyuki Kimura, 52, who has driven the shuttle bus for one-and-a-half years.
In Kimura’s bus that departed the plant at 2:30 p.m., all 50 seats and some of the auxiliary seats were filled. The few passengers who stayed awake remained quiet.
By early evening, fewer workers boarded the bus at the plant.
Window seats at the back of the bus are desirable on all rides because they have an enough room for the seats to recline, allowing passengers to cross their legs.
A 21-year-old worker from Iwaki went for a window seat at the back after standing at the front of a line waiting for the bus.
“I can relax sitting here. This is the premium seat,” said the man who collects waste materials, such as boots and socks, at the site.
Although he works in protective gear in an area with high radiation levels, he said he has never thought about quitting his job.
He said he became fed up with school as a junior high school student, and did not bother going to senior high school.
At the age of 18, he joined his current company, and his first assignment was at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“I became acquaintances with more and more people. It’s fun to speak with people at work,” he said.
Through his work at the nuclear plant, his weight has dropped from 115 kilograms to 93 kg.
Thirty to 40 years are needed to decommission the Fukushima No. 1 plant, according to the mid- and-long-term roadmap compiled by the government and TEPCO.
To reduce the groundwater flowing into the buildings housing the No. 1 to No. 4 reactors, TEPCO installed coolant pipes this year to create an underground frozen soil wall to divert the water into the ocean.
TEPCO announced in October that the ice wall on the sea side was nearly frozen, but groundwater is believed to be seeping through it.
The utility plans to start removing spent fuel from the No. 3 reactor building in fiscal 2017. It also has plans to begin the daunting task of removing the melted fuel from the No. 1 to No. 3 reactor containment vessels in 2021.
However, extremely high radiation levels have prevented workers from approaching and understanding the condition of the melted fuel. The removal method has yet to be decided.
The estimated cost of work for decommissioning and dealing with the contaminated water has ballooned to 8 trillion yen ($68.1 billion).