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:
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.
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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
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