TOKYO (Reuters) - It’s a job that sounds too good to be true -- thousands of dollars for up to an hour of work that often requires little training.
But it also sounds too outrageous to accept, given the full job description: working in perilously radioactive environments.
In its attempts to bring under control its radiation-gushing nuclear power plant that was severely damaged by last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is trying to get workers ever closer to the sources of stubborn radiation at the plant and end the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Workers are reportedly being offered hazard pay to work in the damaged reactors of up to $5,000 per day -- or more accurately, a fraction of a day, since the radiation-drenched shifts must be drastically restricted.
A TEPCO official said this week that the beleaguered company has tasks fit for “jumpers” -- workers so called because they “jump” into highly radioactive areas to accomplish a job in a minimum of time and race out as quickly as possible.
Sometimes jumpers can make multiple runs if the cumulative dosage is within acceptable limits -- although “acceptable” can be open to interpretation.
In cases of extreme leaks however the radiation might be so intense that jumpers can only make one such foray in their entire lives, or risk serious radiation poisoning.
For three weeks the reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, have been explosive cauldrons of hydrogen blasts, radioactive steam and contaminated water that has apparently run off into the ocean, where levels of radioactive iodine have been found at several thousand times the normal level in recent days.
TEPCO said 18 employees and three contractors were exposed to 100 millisieverts of radiation on Friday. The average dose for a nuclear plant worker is 50 millisieverts over five years.
Last week two workers in Reactor 3 were admitted to hospital after their feet were exposed to 170-180 millisiverts, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The company said this week it will shut down permanently at least four of the six reactors at the plant. But it first must stabilize and then cool the fuel, and has been desperately trying to douse fuel rods with water, and now clean up the radiation-contaminated water that’s stagnating on reactor floors.
Asked on Monday how the contaminated water could be pumped out and how long it would take, a TEPCO official replied, “The pump could be powered from an independent generator, and all that someone would have to do is bring one end of the pump to the water and dump it in, and then run out.”
Translation: jumpers wanted.
In fact TEPCO and its contractors are already trying to recruit jumpers, according to reports in the Japanese press.
“My company offered me 200,000 yen ($2,500) per day,” one subcontractor in Iwaki city about 40 km south of the crippled plant told the Weekly Post magazine.
“Ordinarily I’d consider that a dream job, but my wife was in tears and stopped me, so I declined,” said the unidentified worker who is in his 30s.
“The working time would be less than an hour, so in fact it was 200,000 yen an hour, but the risk was too big.”
Ryuta Fujita, a 27-year-old worker also from Iwaki said he was offered twice that amount as hazardous duty pay to venture into Fukushima Daiichi’s Reactor 2.
But Fujita, who evacuated his 3-year-old son and 26-year-old wife to a shelter in a sports arena just outside Tokyo, said the 400,000 yen a day wasn’t worth it.
“I hear that guys older than 50 are being hired at high pay,” Fujita told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. “But I‘m still young, and radiation scares me. I don’t want to work in a nuclear plant again.”
The reluctance of workers to enter the stricken plant highlights one of TEPCO’s basic dilemmas -- it can’t get people close enough to see if its efforts to cool fuel rods are working; indeed, to confirm what the exact problems are in the first place.
Most of its efforts have involved pouring water on exposed fuel rods in a bid bring down their temperature and rein in their toxic emissions.
What TEPCO needs is surgical-strike jumpers.
Jumpers were common at U.S. nuclear power stations in the 1970s and 1980s. “It’s still a job that exists but it’s much rarer than in the past,” said Rock Nelson, a manager at Nelson Nuclear Corp in Richland, Washington.
These days such jobs are more commonly performed by robots, but the interiors of Fukushima Daiichi’s mangled reactor buildings are so filled with debris that using robots is too difficult.
Some workers have said they feel they are being pressured to take the high-risk jobs at the plant.
“It’s dangerous work there, I‘m sure, but if I refuse, I don’t think I would keep my job,” one 41-year-old contractor, who was asked by his employer to return to his job of scanning work areas to see if they are safe, told the Tokyo Shimbun. He said he will go back to work there this month.
So will another contractor in his 40s who is worried about putting food on the table.
“The reactors may be stopped, but I still have expenses,” he told the Weekly Post. “I have to support my family. And more than anything, if I refuse to go back I‘m genuinely afraid I won’t get work again.”
Editing by Jeremy Laurence