Japan investigating if Fukushima workers hid radiation exposure

Fukushima

Japanese officials are investigating whether workers cleaning up in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster were pushed to shield their radiation meters so they could keep working for longer on the contaminated plant.

Under Japanese regulations, workers can be exposed only to a limited amount of radiation before they must be pulled off the job, a safety rule that has crimped the flow of workers to the disaster site. It is expected to take decades to salvage the Fukushima plant, crippled by a devastating tsunami last year.

Japanese media reported the company behind the alleged cover-up was Build-Up, a subcontractor for  Tokyo Electric Power Co. Its president, Takashi Wada, said another executive admits to telling nine workers to use lead shields to reduce their radiation readings, Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

Wada said the executive told him it happened only once. Labor officials are now investigating whether other workers were pressured or forced to underreport their radiation exposure at Fukushima, searching for lead plates that were reportedly hidden inside protective suits and later removed.

After shielding their meters with the lead covers, "we threw the plates away in grassy areas within the plant grounds. We thought it would be difficult to find because radiation levels were high there,” one of the workers told Asahi Shimbun.

Anyone who ordered workers to falsify their radiation reading could face up to six months in prison or a fine of roughly $6,300, according to Japanese media.

The revelations come as Japan continues to reckon with the failures behind the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In a final report issued Monday, a government panel found the disaster could have been avoided, urging “radical strengthening” of preventative measures to stop future accidents.

  The Japanese utility and the government "were bound by a myth of nuclear safety and the notion that severe accidents do not happen at nuclear plants in our country,” the final report found.

The government findings were more gently worded than a blistering recent report from an independent parliamentary commission, which accused the Japanese government and the utility of colluding to sidestep safety measures that would have prevented the nuclear disaster. Yet even the softer words of the government report are likely to be heralded by protesters pushing Japan to abandon nuclear power.

Most of the nuclear reactors in the country are idle, shut down for inspections and upgrades. Protests against nuclear power have swelled to include tens of thousands of people as the Japanese government has begun restarting reactors, arguing atomic power is crucial to avoid soaring prices and electricity shortages this summer. Celebrities and a former prime minister have joined the throngs.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Workers in protective suits and masks wait to enter the emergency operation center at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Okuma, Japan, on Nov. 12, 2011. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press

 
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