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Human Trafficking Center

Scratching the Surface of a Fukushima-Sized Problem


Feb 2015



by Leah Goldsmith, Guest Blogger

On March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi facility. As the fourth anniversary of the accident approaches, little has been accomplished. The international media has largely ignored the recovery effort and the continuing challenges at Fukushima, giving the false impression that the worst is over and that the situation is under control – even improving. Tokyo’s nomination to host the 2020 Olympic Games further promotes the feel-good narrative of a nation bouncing back from an unimaginable disaster. In reality, however, the nuclear situation remains hazardous and unstable. Today, the lingering question is: who’s cleaning up the mess?

Finding enough workers to manage three destroyed reactors and scrape the topsoil from an area roughly the size of Connecticut is no small task. According to an October 2013 Reuters special report, a labor pool of at least 12,000 workers will be needed at the Fukushima Daiichi compound simply to continue current operations through the end of 2015. At the time the report was released, there were only about 8,000 registered workers at the facility and there are frequently 25 percent more job openings than applicants. Granted, no sane, informed civilian wants a temporary, minimum wage job without benefits doing hazardous nuclear clean-up work. There are few working environments on earth as onerous and risky as the front lines of a nuclear accident. In addition to being challenging and dangerous work, it is an utterly thankless job. Workers are often targets of public backlash against TEPCO and radiation exposed individuals frequently face discrimination in Japanese society.

The massive need for labor has led to a flourishing of exploitation and trafficking. A murky system of subcontractors and organized crime is currently supplying labor to the nuclear cleanup effort and they frequently target vulnerable populations such as the urban poor, debtors, the homeless, and the mentally ill. But these seemingly recent labor developments are nothing new. The Japanese nuclear industry has always relied heavily on a temporary workforce obtained through this system of contractors. These groups have a history of exploiting vulnerable populations for hazardous, low-skill nuclear work. The scale of the disaster coupled with lax oversight has allowed this deeply embedded system to explode. The most heavily exploited workers frequently have at least eight layers of subcontractors involved in their employment, each taking their cut of wages along the way. Wages are depressed even further when food and housing costs are forcibly deducted from paychecks at inflated prices. At the end of the day, the most exploited workers are left with very little and may even go into debt. Labor violations are so rampant that criminality is the normal state of doing business: according to a Japanese Ministry of Labor report, 70 percent of contractors involved in decontamination projects violated labor laws.

Moreover, the presence of ionizing radiation is a unique occupational hazard that imposes finite limits on the exploitability of an individual. The human body is physically unable to operate indefinitely in a highly radioactive environment. All exposure to ionizing radiation carries at least some potential, if not serious, health risks that are cumulative over time. Individuals regularly exposed to excessive levels of radiation for extended periods will eventually suffer a deterioration in health and possibly death. Internal exposure through the inhalation or ingestion of highly radioactive particulates is also especially dangerous to human health.

Given the reality of radiological hazards, a constant stream of fresh workers is needed. As the recovery effort burns through the pool of available workers, the workforce at Fukushima Daiichi will increasingly be made up of heavily exploited, poorly trained, and badly managed individuals. This problem will accelerate rapidly as the nation’s surviving reactors go back online. These facilities will directly compete with Fukushima Daiichi for temporary laborers. Finally, the labor pool will be further strained as construction begins in earnest for the 2020 Olympic Games.

More than likely, these problems will continue well into the future, as the dismantling of the ruined reactors will take upwards of 40 years. In light of this fact, it is important to draw both the attention of the international community and of domestic policy makers, as though to create legislation that will protect vulnerable workers and regulate employers.


Photo: Translation– “This month’s safety slogan: Be sure to check everything and do a risk assessment. Zero disasters for this end of a fiscal year. TEPCO Fukushima-1 Nuclear Power Plant Safety Committee,’ April 13, 2011.” Via Wikimedia Commons.


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