Worker: Japan nuke crisis crew not told of danger

Associated Press Modified: October 31, 2012 at 11:01 pm •  Published: October 31, 2012
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IWAKI, Japan (AP) — The operator of a Japanese nuclear plant that went into a tsunami-triggered meltdown knew the risks from highly radioactive water at the site but sent in crews without adequate protection or warnings, a worker said in a legal complaint.

The actions by Tokyo Electric Power Co. led to radiation injuries, said the contract worker, who was with a six-member team working at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's Unit 3 reactor in the early days of last year's crisis.

The worker gave a rare public account of what happened at the plant during the accident. He spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that he be identified only as Shinichi, his given name.

Shinichi, 46, described a harrowing scene of darkness and fear, wading with headlamps into a flooded basement through steaming radioactive water that felt warm even through workers' boots.

"It was outrageous. We shouldn't even have been there," he said.

He said his six-member team was sent to lay electric cables in the basement of the Unit 3 turbine on March 24, 10 days after its reactor building exploded, spewing massive amounts of radiation into the environment. Their mission was to restore power to pumps to inject cooling water into its overheating spent fuel pool.

Shinichi said TEPCO and its primary subcontractor never warned them even though water leaks had been found elsewhere at the plant.

Asked about Shinichi's allegations, TEPCO spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi said the plant was aware of water leaks elsewhere but couldn't anticipate the water problem in Unit 3's basement.

Shinichi's radiation exposure that day alone exceeded half the government's annual exposure limit, and he had to stop working on plant jobs soon afterward.

Out of fear of harassment of his family due to the tendency of some Japanese to stigmatize those perceived as different or as troublemakers, Shinichi agreed to speak with the AP and several Japanese reporters on condition his face not be photographed.

On Tuesday, he filed a complaint with a labor standards office in Fukushima, asking authorities to confirm TEPCO's safety violations and issue improvement orders. He also is seeking penalties — up to six months in jail or fines of up to 500,000 yen ($6,250) under the Industrial Safety and Health Act — against the company that supervised him.

Shinichi's direct employer — the subcontractor for TEPCO — stopped calling him for jobs in March, just telling him to stand by. He now works on radiation decontamination of "hot spots" in Fukushima prefecture.

"So I decided I've had enough of this unjust treatment. That's why I decided to come forward," he said.

On the morning of March 24, 2011, Shinichi's team gathered at Fukushima Dai-Ichi's emergency command center to be briefed about the day's work. They donned double-layer coveralls underneath waterproof hazmat suits, charcoal-filtered full-face masks and double-layered rubber gloves.

Each picked up a pocket dosimeter, with an alarm set to 40 times the dose detected the day before, expecting only a moderate increase of radioactivity. The actual reading was 400 millisieverts that day — high enough to cause a temporary, but not life-threatening, decline in white blood cells.

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami destroyed power and crucial cooling systems at the plant, sending three reactors into meltdowns and releasing massive amounts of radiation. Tons of cooling water were pumped into the overheated and damaged reactors and leaked right out, pouring into the basements of the buildings housing them and nearby facilities.

Shinichi recalls a simple instruction: Just go in and connect the first floor and basement electrical switchboards. The radioactivity might be a bit high, but shouldn't be a problem.

"There was no mention of the water," Shinichi said.

So the men wore whatever boots were available — only two wore knee-high rubber boots, and four others, including Shinichi, wore short ones.

With only headlamps on their helmets to light the way, they entered the building from a hole cut into the wall, since the electric door was still inoperable. Three men hired by two other contractors went into the basement, while Shinichi and his two colleagues waited on the first floor. Looking down, he saw water, with steam rising from the surface, and heaps of debris and mangled equipment.

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