HIRONO - Almost a year after Japan pledged to double hazard pay at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, workers are still in the dark about how much extra they are getting paid, if anything, for cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Under pressure to improve working conditions at Fukushima after a series of radioactive water leaks last year, Tokyo Electric Power Co President Naomi Hirose promised in November to double the hazard pay the utility allocates to its subcontractors for plant workers. That would have increased the amount each worker at the nuclear facility is supposed to earn to about $180 a day in hazard pay.
Only one of the more than three dozen workers interviewed by Reuters from July through September said he received the full hazard pay increase promised by Tepco. Some workers said they got nothing. In cases where payslips detailed a hazard allowance, the amounts ranged from $36 to about $90 a day - at best half of what Hirose promised.
In some instances, workers said they were told they would be paid a hazard bonus based on how much radiation they absorb - an incentive to take additional risks at a dangerous work site.
One worker interviewed by Reuters said he was told he would get an additional $45 per day every time he was in so-called "hot zones" near Reactors No. 1 and No. 2. Another worker was told he would receive an hourly rate that worked out to $4,500 extra in hazard pay for being exposed to the radiation limit for Japan's nuclear workers over a five-year period. And a third worker said he was told the payout for that same exposure would be $36,000.
Assessing how much Fukushima workers are being paid is complicated by Tepco's insistence that pay is a private matter for its contractors. The power utility, which runs Fukushima and has been nationalised, sits at the top of a contracting pyramid that includes construction giants such as Taisei Corp. Tepco has declined to disclose details of any of its legal agreements with its subcontractors.
The top Tepco official at the plant conceded during a July press tour of the complex that he did not know how much of the increase in hazard pay was being disbursed. "When it comes to the pay rise, I don't have an exact understanding of how much money is getting directly to the workers," said Akira Ono, the Fukushima plant manager.
Tepco said in a statement to Reuters that it instructs subcontractors to ensure workers' pay is included in all contracts and it also asks companies working at the plant to submit documentation for all the subcontractors they use. The power utility said it had recently begun random checks of some of the smaller contractors to determine how much of the hazard pay is reaching workers. A worker who filled in a Tepco survey told Reuters in September that one of the questions was directly related to hazard pay.
Tepco still relies on some 800 mostly small contractors to provide workers for the cleanup after the tsunami that swamped the plant on March 11, 2011 sparked meltdowns at three reactors. Subcontractors provide almost all of the 6,000 workers now employed at the plant. Tokyo Electric employs only about 250 on its own payroll at the facility.
The workforce at Fukushima has almost doubled over the past year, mostly as part of an effort to protect groundwater from being contaminated and to store water that comes in contact with melted fuel in the reactor buildings.
Some of the workers who arrived recently at the plant have been building bunkers to store highly radioactive sludge, which is a by-product of the process whereby contaminated water is treated. Others are installing equipment to freeze a ring of earth around four reactors at Fukushima to keep water from reaching the melted cores, an unprecedented effort directed by Kajima Corp and expected to cost nearly $300 million.
Kazumitsu Nawata, a professor in the University of Tokyo's department of technology who has researched conditions inside Fukushima, said that if workers do not receive pay that is commensurate with the risks they are taking, they will ultimately look elsewhere for employment. If more experienced workers leave for safer jobs in Tokyo where construction projects are accelerating ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, it will also increase the likelihood of accidents at the plant, Nawata said in an interview.
"Until now, we have relied heavily on the goodwill of workers. But it's already been three years since the accident. This is no longer sustainable," he said.