Japan: A Nuclear Gypsy’s Tale

Before the Fukushima accident brought to light the parlous state of the Japanese nuclear industry, for years temporary workers have jumped in and out of remunerative short-term jobs at the power plants ignoring the risk of their profession.

Takeshi Kawakami (川上武志) was one of the so-called ‘nuclear gypsies’ and just like many other colleagues of his, for about 30 years he made a livelihood working at the different nuclear plants of the country for short periods. For years he earned money helping repair or replace malfunctioning parts of nuclear reactors and carrying out dangerous operations, with a high-risk of radiation exposure.

In his blog, Kawakami denounced the corruption and collusion between the government and the nuclear industry, focusing his coverage on the Hamaoka nuclear power plant. This power plant was recently shut down at the request of the Japanese government for remedial work after it was deemed dangerous to continue operating in light of its position on one of the major seismic faults lines in the Japanese archipelago.

In the post partly translated here, he tells of his experiences as a temporary worker when he worked for the first time inside a steam generator at the Genkai nuclear power plant in southern Japan.

Hamaoka nuclear power plant, by Hiroaki Sakuma. CC BY-SA license.

Hamaoka nuclear power plant, by Hiroaki Sakuma. CC BY-SA license.

The following post was originally published on December 26th, 2010 and translated with the author's consent:

I worked at Hamaoka nuclear plant for a little over 5 years, but it was not the only time I’d worked at a power plant. Before Hamaoka, I spent my 30s working at a nearby nuclear plant for about 10 years in the 1980’s. At that time, I did not work at just one site but was moving from one plant to another to do regular maintenance work. Recently, that kind of people are called “Nuclear gypsies” with a bit of contempt and in that period I was living as one of those.

Two years after I began the wandering life of a gypsy, I entered for the first time the core container of a steam generator. At the time I was working at the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant in Saga Prefecture. [Editor's note: In brief, there is a containment building within the plant. This houses the core and the steam generator.] The core is the part of the reactor where uranium fuel undergoes nuclear fission. It generates heat which is then passed to The steam generator which produces the steam to power the turbines which turn the generators elsewhere in the plant . The level of radioactivity in the containment building is very high compared to elsewhere [in the plant]. My job involved entering [the generator] and installing a robot monitor that would enable examination of whether there was any damage in the steam generator.

Actually what happened on the day was that another person replaced me and entered the steam generator to install the robot. After the installation was completed, there was a problem in that the robot wouldn’t respond and thus could not be operated from outside. There are many small holes in the walls of the central part of the steam generator and the six (I believe there were six) ‘legs’ of a robot, operated via a remote control, should be able to survey it through those holes. The employees in charge of supervising the installation concluded that there had been a problem in properly positioning the robot’s legs.

If the ‘legs’ are not completely inserted and the robot is left in that position, it could fall down at any time. If that happens, it spells the loss of a precision machine that's said to be worth several hundred million yen. That’s why I was sent in to enter the generator, on very short notice, to replace the robot back to its correct operating position before that happened. I started putting on the gear to enter the housing at a spot near the steam generator. Two workers helped me put it on. I was already wearing two layers of work clothes, and on top of those, I put on Tyvek protective gear made of paper and vinyl, and an airline respirator. Plus, I wrapped a lot of vinyl tape around my neck, my wrists and my ankles, to block even the slightest opening.

Once I finished putting on the protective gear — which honestly looks like an astronaut suit — I headed toward the housing. When I arrived at the area near the housing, two workers were waiting. They were employees of a company called the Japanese Society for Non-Destructive Inspection [JSNDI] and, to my surprise, despite the area being highly radioactive, they were wearing nothing but plain working clothes. They weren’t even wearing masks. The person who appeared to be in charge invited me over and, after a look at my eyes inside the mask, nodded his head a few times. I guess just looking into my eyes he was able to determine that I’d be able to handle working in the core.

He and I went to the steam generator together. That was the first time I saw the generator with my own eyes. It was I guess a spherical or oval shape, maybe 3 meters in diameter (I might not be remembering the size correctly), and was located at a position higher than the grating we were standing on. The base of the steam generator more or less reached my shoulder, at slightly less than 1.5m. At the bottom, there was a manhole. The manhole was open, and I immediately realized I would have to climb up into it.

The JSNDI employee in charge put his arm around me and together we approached the manhole. We looked over the edge and peered in. Inside was dark, and the air was dense and stagnant. It felt as though something sinister was living inside. My expression glazed over. A slight sensation of dread came over me. As I approached the manhole, I noticed a ringing in my ears and felt reluctant to go in. When I looked inside, I saw that the robot was attached to the wall indicated by the [JSNDI] employee. It was not properly attached, which is why I had been sent in. The atmosphere inside was ghastly and I had to desperately fight off the urge to flee. I might not have wanted to enter, but I was in no position to refuse.

The robot was square-shaped, 40 cm on each side and 20 cm deep. It was called a ‘spider robot’. The JSNDI employee put his face at the edge of the manhole, a third of his face peering in, and diligently explained what I had to do. There was little awareness at the time of the dangers to workers of radiation exposure, but even so I was concerned about the bold act of the employee, who looked inside the housing with me.

He continued looking inside, unfazed, and I remember wondering why he wasn’t scared. I was almost completely covered while he wasn’t even wearing a mask. […]

After receiving a very detailed explanation of the work that I was to do inside, it was time. I crouched beneath the manhole next to a stepping ladder that had been brought in, and the JSNDI employee gave me a deep nod. I stood up, climbed the ladder, and pushed my upper body through the manhole. In that second, something grabbed at my head and squeezed hard. A pounding in my ear started right away. Battling fear, I placed my hands around the rim of the manhole and used the momentum to launched my whole body inside. The pounding sound got bigger.

One worker said that right after he entered a nuclear reactor he heard a noise like a moving crab. “zawa,zawa,zawa…” He said that he could still hear this noise after he finished the work. Even after the inspection work, when he went back home, he couldn’t forget that noise. The man ended up having a nervous breakdown. A writer who heard this story spoke to this man and wrote a mystery novel based on that experience. The title of the book is “The crab of the nuclear reactor”. It was published in 1981 and was very popular among us.

In my case, I never heard such a crab-like noise but I had the feeling that my head was being tightly constricted and deep in my ears I heard very high-tempo echoes like a sutra “gan, gan, gan”. When I entered the steam generator I stood up all of a sudden and my helmet hit the ceiling. So I had to bend my neck and hold both the arms of the robot in the darkish room. “OK” I screamed. So the robot was unlocked and its feet jumped out of the hole. The entire robot was not as heavy as I had thought. After I matched its feet position in the holes I gave them another OK sign and so it was positioned in the hole. In the dark, when I verified that all the feet had entered into the holes I gave them another OK and jumped out of the manhole. […]

[Once outside,] I was almost in shock but looked at the alarm meter and saw that it had recorded a value equal to 180, when the maximum it can record is 200. In only 15 seconds, I was exposed to an unbelievably high level of radiation, 180 millirem. At that time the unit ‘millirem’ was used while now it’s different. Now everybody uses sievert. That time I was in charge of an inspection work that lasted about 1 month. After that I worked in another nuclear reactor but even on the second time I couldn’t get through the fear and experienced the same creepy noise.

Thanks to Tomoko Tsuchiya and Chris Salzberg for helping with this article.


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