Japan's Fukushima nuclear cleanup: Are human workers cheaper than robots?

Science, technology, and life.
April 11 2011 7:59 AM

Fukushima's Bio-Robots

In Japan's nuclear cleanup, is human life cheaper than machines?

A month into Japan's nuclear crisis, no robots have been put to work at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Instead, the plant's operator is relying on a cheaper, expendable resource: humans.

According to the latest report, published yesterday in London's Financial Times, Japan has only two robots nominally designed for radiation, and they're sitting idle because  neither can do anything useful at Fukushima. How could such a robotically advanced country be so unprepared? The Times echoes Slate's previous report:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Japanese robotics researchers say efforts to develop robots for the nuclear industry have been held back by a lack of enthusiasm from utilities such as Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), operator of Fukushima Daiichi. Japan's government encouraged development of nuclear-response robots for several years after an accident at an atomic-fuel reprocessing station in 1999 released radiation that killed two workers. But with no large market to spur private investment, prototypes languished in the lab and research programmes have been scaled back.

In other words, TEPCO and other plant operators decided that robots were too expensive.

Workers near Fukushima are checked for radiation exposure. Click image to expand.
Workers near Fukushima are checked for radiation exposure
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Instead, the industry has relied on humans even for its most dangerous routine work, such as transferring waste and scrubbing radiation from spent-fuel pools and reactor buildings. Kyodo News and the New York Times say these jobs have been dumped onto temporary workers, who get lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security. Japanese regulators report that last year, the industry exposed contract workers to radiation levels about 15 times higher than the radiation levels TEPCO's own employees endured.

At Fukushima, the peril is much greater. Fifty of the 300 workers now at the Daiichi plant are contract laborers. They've been sleeping at the site under lead-lined sheets, sometimes in hallways or against walls, in an overcrowded building incompletely shielded from radiation. Until last week, they were getting only two meals a day. Many have been laying cables, clearing debris, or removing contaminated water. More than 20 have exceeded the traditional prescribed limit for daily radiation exposure. On March 24, two contract workers suffered burned feet from radioactive water.

One problem with this reliance on human workers is that in order to protect them from radiation, managers sometimes have to slow or suspend crucial on-site work aimed at mitigating the disaster. For example, a plan to seal the reactor buildings with radiation-blocking sheets has been delayed until September, when radiation levels are expected to have dropped.

The other problem is that managers sometimes choose the alternative: They continue the work and expose the workers to the radiation.

Since the crisis began, managers have bent at least three safety standards. Each worker is supposed to carry a dosimeter to track his radiation exposure. But after the tsunami, TEPCO couldn't find enough functioning dosimeters on hand. So it sent out work teams with a single dosimeter to cover multiple workers.

The company is also supposed to include in each team an employee who monitors the team members' radiation exposure and makes sure that anyone who has reached the recommended limit is immediately replaced. No such monitor accompanied the two workers  who ended up being burned by the contaminated water. They got considerably more radiation exposure than workers are supposed to be limited to each day.

Or perhaps I should say: They got more radiation exposure than workers were supposed to be limited to each day. Normally, the prescribed daily limit is 50 millisieverts. In emergency circumstances, workers are allowed to endure 100 millisieverts. But four days into the Fukushima crisis, Japan raised the limit to 250 millisieverts. Why? According to Kyodo News, "The increase was requested to enable workers to engage in longer hours of assignments and to secure more workers who meet the restriction." When safety rules got in the way, the government bent the rules.

Under the new standards, the workers who got overexposed and burned are no longer considered to have been overexposed.

How can TEPCO attract laborers under such dangerous conditions? By dangling money. TEPCO's contractors are offering double pay  or more. And many people are taking the deal. They need the money.

To put it crudely, TEPCO and the Japanese government have calculated how far safety standards must be lowered and how much money must be offered to deploy enough humans to clean up Fukushima. Robots were too expensive. But humans are cheap.

Humans were cheap at Chernobyl, too. Thousands were sent to clean up the catastrophe. Many died. They did the job because machines couldn't. For them, cynics coined a grim term: bio-robots.

That was 25 years ago. Robots have advanced considerably since then. But humans haven't. We'd still rather pay our fellow men to die in a nuclear cleanup than build machines to do the job.

(Readings I recommend: Martyn Williams of IDG News reports in PC World that a remotely operated excavator and transporter are removing debris around the Daiichi plant. Tim Hornyak at Cnet's Crave blog annotates a video taken by two journalists inside Fukushima's radioactive exclusion zone. David Wagner at the Huffington Post says Japanese corporate history offers little basis for trusting TEPCO's reports. Kiera Butler at Mother Jones assesses the post-Fukushima risks of eating seafood. Charles Barton at the Energy Collective defends a fact-based middle ground on nuclear safety. Kurt Cobb at Scitizen makes the case for molten salt reactors.)

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