JAPAN | Nuke workers toiling under intense heat

Posted on July 17, 2011


JAPAN | JAPAN TIMES | 17 July 2011

News photo

Workers are struggling under intense heat at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, with as many as 31 having fallen sick with heatstroke symptoms as of Friday, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co.

While the utility has taken steps to ease working conditions, such as by shifting work hours, the measures have apparently been insufficient. Perspiration begins to build up inside masks, for instance, within seconds of putting them on. Workers also appear to feel pressured and refrain from taking sufficient breaks for fear of slowing down work to contain the crisis.

Mitsuo Sakamoto, 57, of Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, is operating heavy machinery to remove rubble in a room several meters away, controlling it through a TV monitor as the machine picks up highly irradiated rubble and moves it to containers.

Because of manpower shortages, he said he works 3½-hour stretches without a break.

The operations room, made from a truck rear deck, has walls made of lead that shield it from radiation but turn the room into a sauna during the day. An air conditioner was installed only recently, but even after it was set up it is still sweltering, Sakamoto said.

“Concentration is needed for my work, but I tend to get distracted because of sweat that runs down to my eyes and the heat,” Sakamoto said. “It’s also tough psychologically.”

Satoru Hayama, 39, of Kaukabe, Saitama Prefecture, is using a crane to set up tanks to store water that will be injected into reactors to cool them down. His work starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m., with a 1½-hour designated break at 9 a.m.

Because he can’t remove his mask during work, he can’t use a towel to wipe away perspiration.

“Sweat trickles down from the mask,” he said. “You can’t understand what that heat is like until you experience it.”

He wears a “cool vest” that contains a refrigerant, but it gets warm quickly, he said.

Though his supervisor urges him to take a break, Hayama said he is hesitant to do so because if he does, other workers engaged in the installation of the tanks will also have to stop.

Some subcontractors dispatching workers to the plant have established strict criteria to determine the risk of heatstroke depending on temperature and humidity, with the aim of securing breaks for workers.

They may even suspend employees from engaging in work when they think the risk is high. They have also moved up the start time by one hour for summer, which means workers have to leave their lodgings earlier.

“Assignments were sometimes canceled (because of heat) even after I changed to protective gear and was ready to work,” said a 59-year-old employee from Sendai, who wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning. “It doesn’t really help us make progress. If you want to stick to the operation timetable, outdoor work should be done during the night.”

Tepco has provided around 1,500 cool vests and set up rest areas within the plant’s premises where workers can take refuge whenever they feel sick.

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