TOKYO â€” They sleep with just one blanket apiece anywhere thereâ€™s space â€” in a conference room, in the hallway, near the bathroom. Because deliveries of supplies are limited, they get by on very little food: Breakfast is packages of high-calorie emergency crackers and a small carton of vegetable juice; dinner consists of a small bag of â€œmagic riceâ€ (just add bottled water) and a can of chicken, mackerel or curry. There is no lunch â€” handing out a noontime meal would be too complicated in the crowded two-story building.
These are the grueling, spartan living conditions for Fukushima nuclear power plant workers racing to connect electric cables, repair machinery and check equipment in order to avert a meltdown at the facility 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.
A Japanese nuclear regulatory official, speaking to reporters Monday, offered the first detailed look at what life is like for the hundreds of workers remaining at the power plant after he spent five days there as an observer.
When they are pumping radioactive water from basements or repairing machinery in control rooms, the workers breathe through respirators and dress in white suits with hoods that cover them from head to toe, which offer substantial protection but are not foolproof. Even the short periods that they spend near the reactors â€” they work in one-hour shifts â€” can expose them to dangerously high radiation levels. Hundreds of workers sleep and eat in one giant (24-by-24-meter) room on the second floor of a building a short distance from the reactor facilities.
â€œI donâ€™t think the workers have the energy they need to work under these extremely tough conditions,â€ warned Kazuma Yokota, who heads Japanâ€™s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agencyâ€™s local office in charge of inspections at the plant.
The plantâ€™s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., did not immediately respond to Yokotaâ€™s comments.
Health and safety measures for the Fukushima workers have come under increased scrutiny after three were exposed to highly radioactive water last week. TEPCO has admitted it did not adequately warn the men about the potential danger of the water in stricken reactor No. 3, even though it had known about highly radioactive water days earlier at reactor No. 1. TEPCO apologized for the lack of communication but at the same time said that the men, who have placed their lives at risk, had themselves ignored alarms alerting them to the radiation levels.
The company came under new criticism Monday after it retracted data indicating it had detected radioactive materials 10 million times normal levels. Not that the correction was reassuring: The levels, TEPCO said, were actually about 100,000 times those at a normally functioning reactor.
â€œThese things are an indication that they donâ€™t have good control on radiation protection,â€ said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. â€œIf you canâ€™t make accurate measurements, if you ignore alarms … itâ€™s a sign of chaos, and it means that there is pressure to keep going.â€
Nineteen workers have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation since the facility was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Mainichi newspaper reported Monday, quoting TEPCO. In the U.S., normal annual radiation exposure limit for nuclear power plant workers is 50 millisieverts per year; Japan has raised its legal limit to 250 millisieverts because the work is considered so urgent and critical.
â€œIf radiation levels continue to increase, workers are going to have their dose limits challenged even at this emergency level,â€ said Lyman. â€œWorkers could get saturated within a few weeks or even less. Or they will have to raise the limits again.â€
In the days immediately after the quake, two explosions rocked the plant. TEPCO evacuated 750 workers but 50 stayed behind to prevent the crisis from worsening; they quickly became folk heroes, with some referring to them as â€œthe Fukushima 50â€ or modern-day samurai. Reinforcements have since boosted their numbers to 400, and workers are being rotated in and out to limit their exposure to radiation.
Twice a day, a bus packed with fresh workers and supplies drives into the heart of the Fukushima plant. The workers are divided into working groups of specialists, such as electricians, or control room operators, and their daily routine depends on the tasks at hand, how many workers are available and the level of radiation exposure.
Yokota, the nuclear safety agency official, said that during his five days at the plant, he was exposed to 883 microsieverts of radiation, the equivalent of about nine chest X-rays (1,000 microsieverts is 1 millisievert). Even inside the building where workers stay to avoid radiation, they are constantly exposed to low levels, he said.
Skilled workers will be needed for months, if not longer, to repair the plant.
Dr. Robert Peter Gale, an American physician who is advising Japanâ€™s government on the health of staffers at the plant, said doctors there are â€œunder pressureâ€ and are weighing whether to begin harvesting and banking blood cells from hundreds of workers that could help save their lives later. Gale, who also advised on the Chernobyl disaster, said about 200 workers there were subjected to high levels of radiation, and 13 eventually got bone marrow transplants.
As authorities consider how to cope in the long run, Yokotaâ€™s account indicates that deliveries of food and other basic supplies to the plant, as well as hygiene and communication with the outside world, remain a challenge.
The workers drink bottled water â€” they are each allotted 1.5 liters a day â€” but canâ€™t run the tap to wash their hands or bodies because the plumbing is broken. When they need to clean up, they use an alcohol spray.
â€œSome have expressed concern about not being able to change their underwear,â€ said Yokota, who himself looked haggard after his experience, with bags under his eyes and a patchy beard.
Thereâ€™s no way for workers to talk to their families because the quake toppled nearby cellphone towers, he added. The plantâ€™s phone lines are still down and so the only means of communicating with the outside world is via satellite phone, Yokota said. Thatâ€™s a direct line to TEPCO headquarters and is not available for personal calls. Some details about the conditions at the plant, however, have emerged through Twitter feeds and emails.
Masato Kino, a spokesman for the nuclear safety agency at Fukushima, elaborated Tuesday on Yokotaâ€™s observations, saying the employees are driven by a strong sense of mission and responsibility.
When the exhausted workers drop off to sleep they put down radiation-protection mats on any available space on the floor, Yokota said. â€œWe want to help as much as we can to improve their working conditions,â€ he said.