A young man sacrificing his future to shut down Fukushima

David McNeill meets a nuclear worker who sees it as his duty to save the stricken plant – even if it means an early grave

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 more than a decade ago. By the time he was growing up in the 1990s, the intense discussions and protests sparked by the decision to build the plant in 1971 had faded. When he graduated high school, 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 because his employer does not permit its staff to give media interviews. "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 inevitable call from his boss to come back to work. When the call came, he said yes immediately. Everyone was given a choice, although there was, inevitably, unspoken sympathy for the married men with children.

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 white-collar 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."

Mr Watanabe says it is too early yet to draw a line under the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The government last week announced that its January timetable for bringing the Fukushima plant back under control is on target, but the plant is still leaking one billion becquerels of radiation an hour, according to Tepco, and the state of the uranium fuel inside its three crippled reactors remains a mystery.

"The fuel has melted, but melted through or not – we don't know," Mr Watanabe says. "It's at the bottom of the reactor. If it melts out, and meets water, it would be a major crisis. The engineers are working very hard to get it under control."

Researchers have already started arriving in Fukushima Prefecture, home to two million people, to measure the impact of this radiation on local life. Tim Mousseau, a University of South Carolina biological scientist who spent more than a decade researching inside the irradiated zone around the ruined Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, was there last week. "What we can say is that there are very likely to be very significant long-term health impacts from prolonged exposure," he says.

Whatever happens, Mr Watanabe has abandoned any hope of getting married. "I could never ask a woman to spend her life with me," he says. "If I told her about my work, of course she will worry about my future health or what might happen to our children. And I couldn't hide what I do."

Why do people do dangerous, potentially fatal jobs? Some, as Mr Watanabe does, might consider it a duty to "nation" or "society". No doubt there is an element of bravado too – he compares himself to the young wartime kamikaze pilots who saw themselves as the last line of defence against invasion and disaster.

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, an idea that makes him laugh.

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
Sport
Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
football
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis