Standing in the dragon's mouth at Fukushima

David McNeill meets a worker risking all at the stricken plant

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The Independent Online

Atsushi Watanabe (not his real name) is an ordinary Japanese man in his 20s, about average height and solidly built, with the slightly bemused expression of the natural sceptic. Among the crowds in Tokyo, in his casual all-black clothes, he could be an off-duty postman or a construction worker. But he does one of the more extraordinary jobs on the planet: helping to shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

That job, in a complex that experienced the first triple-reactor meltdown after Japan's 11 March earthquake and tsunami, means he will never marry or raise a family for fear of health problems down the line, and may not even live to see old age. But he accepts that price. "There are only some of us who can do this job," he says. "I'm single and young and I feel it's my duty to help settle this problem."

Mr Watanabe has been employed as a maintenance worker at Daiichi since he left school. By the time he was growing up in the 1990s, the protests sparked by the decision to build the plant in 1971 had faded. When he graduated, there was little debate in his family about where he would work. "It was seen as a perfectly natural choice," recalls Mr Watanabe, who is using a pseudonym. "The plant was like the local air. I wasn't afraid of it at all."

His job was to check the pressure inside pipes, opening and closing the valves. He liked the work, which he felt was important. "I thought we were on a mission to provide safe power for Japan, for Tokyo. I was proud of that."

It paid 180,000 yen (£1,400) a month. Since April, when he agreed to go back inside the Daiichi plant's gates, he has been paid the same amount – plus Y1,000 a day that he calls "lunch money".

On 11 March, when the quake disabled the plant, he watched in terror as pipes hissed and buckled around him. He spent a week in a refugee centre, waiting for the call to come back to work. When it came, he said yes immediately.

As subcontractors to the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), he and his colleagues are well down the plant's employment food chain. Full-time Tepco employees are at the top, mostly university graduates with better pay and conditions. Tepco managers, including its president, Masataka Shimizu, who disappeared and became a national laughing stock during the nuclear crisis, are considered desk-bound eggheads; too much head and no heart, unlike the blue-collar workers who kept the plant running.

"[Mr Shimizu] had never worked onsite before or experienced any problems, so when trouble hit his instinct was to run away," Mr Watanabe says. He says he feels no contempt for the disgraced company boss, only sympathy. "If you pushed a guy like that too hard, he might commit suicide."

Initially, he says, some day labourers got big money for braving the lethally poisoned air at the plant. "At 100 millisieverts a day you could only work for a few days, so if you didn't get a month's pay a day, it wasn't worth your while. The companies paid enough to shut them up, in case they got leukaemia or other cancers later down the line. But I have health insurance because I'm not a contract worker, I'm an employee."

Whatever his reasons, Mr Watanabe displays infinitely more humility, concern for humanity and humour than the men who run his industry. For roughly the same take-home pay as a young office clerk, he and his workmates have sacrificed any hope of normal lives. He has never met the Prime Minister, the local prefecture Governor or even the boss of Tepco. He will never have children and may die young. In another world, he might be paid as much as a Wall Street trader.

"I'll probably get a pen and a towel when I retire," he says. "That's the price of my job."

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