Destination Fukushima: Two years on

March 7, 2013

Fukushima, Japan

By Issei Kato

“Let’s put our hearts together and keep going, Fukushima!” reads a large banner that hangs across a large steel structure that stands next to the No. 4 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The plant was overwhelmed by a massive tsunami and earthquake two years ago, triggering hydrogen explosions and a nuclear meltdown.

I was at the Fukushima site for the second time on Wednesday, ahead of the two year anniversary of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, as a pool photographer, taking pictures of the crippled plant on behalf of foreign media based in Japan. This time, I was struck by how many more workers were on-site and the large number of tanks filled with contaminated water scattered around the area.

Tepco let reporters get closer to the damaged reactor buildings, allowing me to photograph laborers in stifling protective gear, standing at the top of destroyed buildings. I was also able to photograph inside the Common Pool Building, a site where Tepco plans to transfer fuel rods from Reactor 4 later this year, the first step of a decades-long battle to decommission the plant.

Around 3,000 workers, all wearing multiple layers of protective suits and gas masks, are on site daily, constructing buildings, surveying the site and building water tanks. A recent Reuters story showed how some front-line workers at Fukushima are suffering stress and anxiety, amid decreasing pay. Around 70 percent of workers surveyed by Tepco late last year said they made more than 837 yen ($9) per hour, while a day laborer in that part of Japan can earn as much as 1,500 yen per hour.

It is difficult to say how Tepco and the government will continue to attract workers to the site. Tepco plant manager Takeshi Takahashi told reporters on Wednesday it will be a “considerable time” before the plant will be decommissioned and that requires thousands of laborers at a time when public opinion remains divided on the future of nuclear power.

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