Rows of storage tanks hold radiation-contaminated water on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
April 18, 2019
Tokyo Electric Power Co. plans to use the new visa program to deploy foreign workers to its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, sparking concerns that language barriers could cause safety hazards and accidents.
The specified skills visa program started in April to alleviate labor shortages in 14 different industrial sectors. TEPCO says it has long lacked enough workers for decommissioning work at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
At a March 28 meeting, the utility explained its plan to hire foreign workers to dozens of construction and other companies that have been contracted for decommissioning work.
TEPCO officials asked the companies to be aware that workers sent to radiation monitoring zones must wear dosimeters and receive special education about the dangers they will face.
The new work visa program requires the foreign workers to have a minimum level of Japanese language ability needed for daily life.
But TEPCO officials reminded the company representatives that Japanese language skills would be even more important at the Fukushima plant because of the need to accurately understand radiation levels and follow instructions by superiors and colleagues regarding work safety.
TEPCO officials said they would ask the contracting companies to check on the Japanese language skills of prospective foreign workers.
But at least one construction company has already decided not to hire any foreign workers.
“The work rules at the No. 1 plant are very complicated,” said a construction company employee who has worked at the Fukushima plant. “I am also worried about whether thorough education can be conducted on radiation matters. It would be frightening if an accident occurred due to a failure of communication.”
According to TEPCO officials, an average of about 4,000 people work at the nuclear plant each day, mostly in zones where radiation levels must be constantly monitored.
To stay within the legal limits on exposure levels, workers often have to be replaced, leading to difficulties for TEPCO in gathering the needed number of workers.
Between April 2018 and February this year, 11,109 people worked at the Fukushima plant. Of that number, 763 were found to have levels of radiation exposure between 10 and 20 millisieverts, while 888 had levels between 5 and 10 millisieverts.
The legal limit for radiation exposure for workers at nuclear plants is 50 millisieverts a year, and 100 millisieverts over a five-year period.
The Justice Ministry has disciplined companies that used technical intern trainees for decontamination work without adequately informing them of the dangers. The ministry has also clearly stated that such trainees are prohibited from doing decommissioning work at the Fukushima plant.
However, Justice Ministry officials told TEPCO that foreigners with the new visa status could work alongside Japanese staff at the nuclear plant.
Although their numbers are small, foreign workers and engineers have been accepted at the Fukushima plant. As of February, 29 foreigners had been registered as workers engaged in jobs that expose them to radiation.
A construction company official said such foreign workers were hired after their Japanese language ability was confirmed.
But concerns remains on whether the new foreign workers will be able to properly understand how much radiation exposure they have experienced.
“Even Japanese workers are not sure about how to apply for workers’ compensation due to radiation exposure,” said Minoru Ikeda, 66, who has published a book about his experiences in decommissioning work at the Fukushima plant until 2015. “The problem would only be exacerbated for foreign workers.”
Kazumi Takagi, a sociology professor at Gifu University, has conducted interviews with nuclear plant workers.
Noting the need for special protective gear to work at the Fukushima site, Takagi said: “Unless workers can instantly understand the language when minor mistakes or sudden problems occur, it could lead to a major accident. That, in turn, could cause major delays in the work.”