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Nuclear nomads: a look at the subcontracted heroes

Gabrielle Hecht
University of Michigan

(Originally published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 9 January 2012)

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station last March, the international media celebrated the heroism of the “Fukushima 50”—the plant and emergency workers who exposed themselves to extremely high radiation levels to get the reactors under control. Their efforts, it seems, were doomed from the start. Three of the reactor cores melted down anyway. And the cleanup will take decades.

During much of this cleanup process – especially in its current phase –thousands of workers will be exposed to levels of ionizing radiation well in excess of internationally recommended annual limits. In fact, Japan raised exposure limits for both workers and the public, presumably in an attempt to reduce the number of cases that need to be documented as overexposures.

So how many emergency workers are there anyway, and who are they? Over 18,000 men had participated in cleanup work by early December. Some hailed the workers as “national heroes,” men willing to sacrifice their lives for the future of their nation. A few investigative reporters and scholars, however, uncovered a different story. The vast majority of these men are subcontract employees, recruited among local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster, or among the thousands of day laborers who eke out an existence in the notorious slums of Japanese cities. In other words, these are not salarymen.

To quote one such worker: “If [day laborers] refuse, where will they get another job?…I don’t know anyone who is doing this [cleanup work] for Japan. Most of them need the money.”

Cleanup workers are issued with dosimeters, and are checked at the end of each shift. Unskilled temps get paid about $130 a day. Many don’t have written employment contracts. When they reach their exposure limit, they lose their jobs, and are replaced, ideally, by non-exposed workers. Some have opted to prolong their employment by leaving dosimeters behind while working.

Arguably, someone has to do these jobs—this is just what must happen after a major accident. These are, after all, extraordinary circumstances.

By extraordinary, we usually mean out of the ordinary. But what if —following Charles Perrow’s work on “normal accidents” — we take extraordinary to mean super-ordinary? How does the nuclear cleanup at Fukushima shed light on the ordinary functioning of the nuclear industry, in Japan and elsewhere?

The reality of the super-ordinary. Ordinarily, reactors need to be shut down every 12 to 24 months for refueling and maintenance. During these times, spent fuel is removed from the core and new fuel is added. This is also the crucial time to inspect, clean, and repair valves, pipes, steam generators, electrical systems, control panels, etc.

The older the reactor, the more corroded and fragile its components, and the more radioactivity it emits. Maintenance thus gets more onerous, time-consuming, costly, and dangerous over time. In addition, reactors go off-line when they are shut down for maintenance; each day of a shut-down means a profit loss for the utility company. Thus, there are strong incentives to get through maintenance procedures quickly.

Starting in the early 1970s, the Japanese nuclear industry pioneered a system in which plant operators subcontract outside companies to maintain the reactors. In turn, these subcontractors hire short-term workers, who are employed until they reach their radiation exposure limit, and then let go. France – the only country in the world more heavily dependent on nuclear power than Japan – adopted the Japanese system in the late 1980s.

The subcontracting approach to reactor maintenance has several implications.

1) Greater exposure. As for the accident cleanup crew, the short-term financial incentive for the temps is to abandon their dosimeters for certain jobs, so that their radiation exposures are not officially recorded. This prolongs their employment – and increases their doses.

2) No occupational disease. Subcontract workers are often dubbed nuclear nomads because they move around from workplace to workplace, living out of trailers. There’s no compulsory centralized system for tracking cumulative exposure and health data for these temps. The absence of interactions among labor, information, and health infrastructures, means that workers’ health problems are not collected and recorded in a centralized database—thus, many severe health problems never qualify as occupational diseases. Workers rarely—if ever— benefit from compensation, because their diseases cannot be linked to past exposures in ways that are scientifically or legally persuasive.

3) Collective dose. Utilities don’t include the exposures of temp workers in their own data. That, in turn, means that data for any given nuclear power plant vastly under-reports the true collective dose (i.e., the total exposure received by the sum of both utility and subcontract workers).

Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about a small portion of Japan’s nuclear workforce. Since the late 1980s, some 90 percent of nuclear power plant workers in the country have been subcontracted. Estimates suggest that on average, during any one subcontracted job, a worker receives two to three times the annual dose absorbed by a regular plant worker.

The invisible worker. The reality of the subcontractor employment system is invisibility – of the subcontracted workers, of their exposures, and of the collective dose received at power plants.

Such systemic invisibility permeates the nuclear industry in both ordinary and extraordinary times, at all levels, and around the world. For example, uranium-producing African countries—which, during the Cold War, provided between 25 and 50 percent of the capitalist world’s uranium—remain contaminated from uranium mine debris. Today, regional poverty is so extreme in Niger (the largest of these uranium producers) that people refashion radioactive trash barrels into basins for collecting water.

In the hyper-polarized public debates about the world’s nuclear and climate future, a favorite argument among the supporters of nuclear energy is that coal causes many more deaths than nuclear power. Changing labor patterns, the transnational distribution of flexible work regimes, and the terrible precariousness of workers across the globe certainly do have severe consequences in many industries. But such parallels shouldn’t allow us to dismiss the social and health consequences of nuclear labor.

Proponents focus on narrow statistics (such as death in the workplace) to claim that the nuclear industry does not carry exceptional risks. A single statistic like this, however, discounts many other measurements and hides complex social and physiological realities. The banalization of hazards, furthermore, renders certain jobs, places, or people insufficiently “nuclear” to qualify for attention, counting, mitigation, compensation, or care.

Most recently, this banalization was seen with the Fukushima 50. Or– perhaps more accurately–the Fukushima 18,000. But it is important to remember that this invisibility isn’t just a problem in Japan. It’s a problem everywhere. And when no one is counting, there are global consequences.

Gabrielle Hecht is professor of history at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (MIT Press, new edition 2009) and the forthcoming Being Nuclear: African and the Global Uranium trade (MIT Press, 2012). She thanks her colleagues Pär Cassel and Hitomi Tonomura for their insights and engagement during the preparation of this essay.


  1. Craig D. Nelson permalink

    Thank you, Professor Hecht, for this essay, which touches on some very important issues. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your book, The Radiance of France, which has heavily influenced me as I work on my dissertation on the origins of civilian nuclear power in Japan.

    I have found the comparisons between fatalities in the nuclear and coal industries to be quite interesting. I have often heard that nuclear deaths are underreportes, but have not received a satisfactory explanation as to how or why; your essay offers a partial explanation. Estimates for annual deaths in the United States from coal power based pollution vary greatly, with most figures I’ve seen ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 premature deaths per year from coal pollution, quite aside from coal mining deaths, power plant accidents, and the effects of byproducts like mercury.

    I think you are quite right to point out that nuclear statistics are skewed by ignoring issues like nuclear contract workers. Although you point out that no one is counting these people who are part of the ordinary operating procedure of the nuclear regime, can you give us an idea of what kind of health effects the workers experience? For example, are you aware of any studies (whether in Japan, France, or anywhere else) that might give us some idea what kind of cancer rates among this population? If there are no such studies, can you offer an explanation or guess as to why? Even if the industry and governments were keen to avoid including these workers, I would imagine at least some NGOs would want to raise these issues.

  2. On the employment issue…. NHK and other Japanese television channels have been showing documentaries with profiles of people in the various disaster zones, and two nights ago I was watching one about people living in Minami-Soma, a town that sits partially in the no-go zone around Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Even the areas outside this zone are largely empty of residents now. In one household with a father and adult son living together, the two of them had been searching for employment for many months. Even though they knew that they could fairly easily get a job at the nuclear plant, they resisted. At the end of the documentary, the son is shown going to the new job that he has finally settled upon, and it turns out that he did end up taking a job at the plant. There simply were no other viable options in the area, at least for those with his skills and background. In the last scene, he is shown being packed into a van with many other men in masks and protective clothing and being shuttled past a sign saying “Tachi-iri Kin-shi” (“Entry Prohibited”). Indeed, to Professor Hecht’s point about invisibility as the salient feature of these workers, in this scene the man seems to lose his individual identity and join with a mass of de-individuated workers, their faces obscured as they are carried into a forbidden zone.

    I also want to add a comment on one point that keeps coming up in discussions here in Japan, whether it relates to living near the power plants (and thus assumed to be exposed to some measure of excessive radiation), or to reconstructing tsunami-decimated towns and fishing villages: the differential effect of age. It is widely acknowledged among disaster scholars in the social sciences that certain groups tend to be more vulnerable in such events — e.g., women, the elderly, ethnic and other minorities, and those without financial or other resources — and that their post-disaster recovery can be much more problematic. But what I am seeing is something new, or at least something I have not noticed before. As I mentioned in my piece on this forum, some people in the tsunami-devastated villages are questioning whether it is worth rebuilding since their economies and populations were already trending toward rapid aging and decline, and there would be few young people to perpetuate the village into the future. At the same time, the area of perceived radiation risk is viewed as too risky for young people in particular. On the NHK documentary, some older residents were saying, “Hey, what difference does it make if I die of cancer in 10 years?” Meanwhile, younger couples were talking about leaving, or staying but not having children. It is too early to say, but if this kind of discourse is reflected in policies and local population trends, it would seem that the overall aging of at least some disaster areas is likely to accelerate substantially, as the elders stay and the young head for Tokyo, or perhaps Sendai.

  3. Hi Gabrielle,

    Thanks a lot for this very revealing essay. I was just wondering what role IAEA plays in covering the truth about the subcontracted workers. Are not they aware of such a situation or they simply choose to ignore it?


  4. Hi Dr. Hecht,

    This essay was really interesting and informative about the plight of subcontract workers in the Japanese nuclear industry. I would enjoy learning more from you about the implications of this practice of hiring “nuclear nomads” for nuclear industries in other countries that you mentioned such as France (and perhaps the US?).

    I am developing a syllabus on “Race, Sex and the Global Stem Workforce” and I would love to use this essay (or a published version whenever it is ready) to help students discuss labor and social justice issues in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers.



  5. Gabrielle,

    Like any stimulating piece of writing, this essay leaves scope for others to take it in different but complimentary directions. For my purposes, I read it as another argument that could be piled on to all the other arguments against a nuclear renaissance.

    The World Nuclear Association has for about the past 4 or 5 years used a glossy, digitally savvy presentation to push the proposed nuclear renaissance. The talk itself is a bit of an immutable mobile, remaining unchanged through probably dozens of conferences. You can find it on the WNA website under future of nuclear power. One feature of that presentation is an interactive global map, constructed to showcase – and I choose the word deliberately – global poverty and inequality. Like any publicly under-written industrial enterprise, to facilitate private profiteering you have to sell it, and the nuclear industry has been employing public relations groups to sell it as much as possible. And one of their arguments is to sell the nuclear renaissance as addressing global economic inequalities.

    I thus take this essay as one argument that can be mobilized against such anti-inequality arguments. Not only is the economic situation of casual nuclear labour akin to the dire troubles of casual labour globally, but clearly there are ethical issues involved as well, with the casual status of much nuclear labour a recipe for lax health and safety standards. The glossy claims of the nuclear industry, again, do not stand up to informed scrutiny.

    If I can conclude this comment with an irony. While Gabrielle is correct to note the invisible labour problem, the irony embedded in nuclear renaissance claims surely has to be the fact there are very visible shortages of nuclear labour. The production of skilled technicians capable of conducting nuclear-related tasks has been dwindling to dangerously low points over the past decade or so, and this is a statistic that pro-nuclear groups admit and bemoan. Political-economists analyzing the nuclear renaissance comment on the implications, for both continuing to staff operating nuclear facilities and also for staffing projected growth in nuclear capacity, by noting the visible shortage of skilled labour constitutes a huge obstacle to both sustaining and growing nuclear power. Here in my own discipline of Science & Technology Studies we are often nowhere near as sophisticated with the visible as we can be with the invisible. We too often congratulate ourselves for exposing the invisible while being rather blasé about the visible. Maybe because we think the visible can be deconstructed in ways the invisible is immune too? Or maybe because exposing the invisible tears down, while dealing directly with the visible runs the risk of building up, and building up seems so prescriptive? But for my purposes, a bit of prescription goes a long way, and so when dealing with nuclear labour, we should pay as much attention to visible labour as we do invisible labour.

    Darrin Durant
    Department of Science & Technology Studies
    York University

  6. Chigusa Kita permalink

    As Tyson pointed out, Japanese media have been covered this labor issue, though not in the academic way, and it has been pretty visible for Japanese public from early on.
    Actually to deal with “Fukushima 50” as heroes was foreign to Japanese scene, as the view point was just from foreign media, not from domestic media. Even in the major news coverage, the shortage of labor and labor division has been one of the serious issues in Japan.

  7. Kenji Ito permalink

    As Professor Kita’s post suggests, the issue of subcontract nuclear workers has studied by journalists, and has not been entirely invisible. It has been receiving more attention after 3.11. For example, Horie Kunio’s work, _Genpatsu Rōdōki_ comes to my mind. It was originally published as _Genpatsu Jipusī_ in 1979, reprinted as a book of _Kōdansha Bunko_ 1984, and revised and reprinted after 3.11 under the current title. This book is an in-depth reporting of actual working conditions of nuclear subcontractors, describing daily experience of the author who actually worked at nuclear plants as one of them.

  8. Dear Professor Hecht, thank you for your concern for nuclear plant workers.

    May I address two remarks:

    – I think the figure of 18,000 only includes the levels 1 to 4 (1 is Tepco, 2 are Hitachi, Toshiba, GE..; 3 and 4 are qualified workers), but not the levels 5 to 8 who might be the most exposed to radiations.

    – Since 1991, I have counted 14 NP workers who have been recognized for occupational hazards, mostly cancers or accute irradiation.

    You can take a look at my articles here: “Back to Fukushima”

    Best regards

    Paul Jobin

    (I am French, currently living in Taiwan, and previously in Japan; in 2002, and also after 311, I conducted a survey among contracted workers in Fukushima and other plants. A STS interpretation of this fieldwork is forthcoming in a book that will be edited by Richard Hindmarsch for the Routledge STS collection)

    Paul JOBIN


    Paul JOBIN 彭保羅 ジョバン •ポール
    Director, CEFC Taipei
    Associate Professor, University of Paris Diderot

    CEFC Taipei (French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, Taiwan Branch)
    RCHSS, Academia Sinica, 11529 Taipei TAIWAN
    Administration: M.Wei-jeune SU Tel: 886 2 2789-0873

  9. I appreciate Chigusa and Kenji’s reminder (and also Tyson’s, more subtly) that we need to be sufficiently reflexive in any analysis of disasters that are “distant” to us. The phenomenon of “invisibility” may in fact be more about our own historiographic traditions (analytic categories we’ve created in labor history, or the history of science) or else as embedded within Western practices of media reporting (especially about foreign disasters) that work more to highlight issues that are the most important to us. In Japan, a longstanding concern about denying the existence of an underclass (and perhaps also of real versus idealiized/romanticized rural experiences), and the felt moral obligations to report on them when the injustices of class relations that are normally left unspoken of are made so manifest, perhaps contributes to the different ways in which the ‘nuclear nomads’ have been spoken about in Japan and the United States.

    This being said, knowling Gabrielle’s more recent work, namely her book-length study of uranium mine workers in South Africa, I know that Gabrielle doesn’t approach these issues lightly. Perhaps there is some level at which analytical categories that Gabrielle found to be useful in the South African case were transported a bit too quickly to the situation in Japan. (But we should keep in mind that this was a quick talk, and then essay, that Gabrielle pulled together, no doubt at various people’s request, to help us begin to interpret the disaster; it was published in the /Bulletin/, not an academic journal… yet!) But it seems to me that Gabrielle’s essayand the articles that Chigusa, Kenji, and Tyson report of address, at their core, very similar conern about the fate of nuclear workers.

    What this essay has me thinking about is the social “geography” of disaster and suffering. At Rensselaer, Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun have something called the /Asthma Files/,a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project in experimental ethnography that is working to make visible the complex etiology of Asthema as a disease entity. Asthma rates, as I understand it, correlate with race and class. So one of the rather creative ethnographic probes into the race/class dimensions of the disease has been based on tracking the distribution and re-sale of the trailers that FEMA distributed to victims of Hurricane Katrina. These trailers apparently had issues with formaldihyde, which triggers or exacerbates asthma; and these trailers have, through their resale, circulated through Southern and Southwestern United States in a virtual map of poverty in the United States. The Asthma Files has been using this as one method of visualizing network of poverty in the United States.

    Gabrielle’s discussion of the ‘nuclear nomads’ in Japan (and South Africa, and presumably France) suggests to me that something similar must be at work there. There are (likely, still) invisible networks that operate to constitute a particular class-segmented workforce that makes a certain industrial regime possible; much in the way that international networks of emigration contributed to the strength of the second industrial revolution in turn of the 20th century United States. It does seem that Japanese media has developed a solid understanding of this invisibility (much in the way that turn of the 20th century journalists brought attention to the “underclass” within the industrial labor force of the Untied States). This being said, I’m very interested in learning more about the cultural (national) specificity of class constructions and how this “invisibility” plays out in different contexts.

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

    • Kim Fortun permalink

      I write to note that I share Akera’s interest in “learning more about the cultural (national) specificity of class constructions and how this “invisibility” plays out in different contexts.” This is the goal and promise of what Scott Frickel and I look forward to in a comparative, synergistic disaster STS (see our essay in this forum). And, as Akera says, a goal of the The Asthma Files project at Rensselaer. In both, the effort is to know more about a given locale/event/phenomena through a comparative sensibility, which also produces insight on how broader, cross-cutting systems work — entangling both similar and different dynamics across sites. Comparative work promises to deepen understanding at/of different scales, while drawing out where various systems are open (even if not easily) to change. Comparison is a amazingly reliable way to really think about how things could be different. So it’s good for scholarship, and also in progressive intervention efforts.

  10. Many thanks to all for these engaging comments.

    As Atsushi kindly pointed out on my behalf, this essay was originally a brief talk, which got published as a commentary in the Bulletin for the Atomic Scientists. I wasn’t able to revise the Bulletin piece into a more academic format for the forum. So the first thing I must say is that the true experts on subcontracted workers in the nuclear industry are Paul Jobin and Annie Thébaud-Mony. My essay contains links to their scholarship by way of citation (following Bulletin style), and I urge those of you interested in learning more about this side of the industry to follow those links. I, for one, am greatly looking forward to the publication of Jobin’s book, which he mentions in his comments (but meanwhile there are essays). Thébaud-Mony’s excellent book deals with the French case.

    Let me briefly address some of the issues raised. The IAEA does not monitor worker exposures – whether this be the exposures of salaried workers or subcontracted workers. This is a matter of jurisdiction and mission. As an international agency, it cannot serve as a binding regulatory body on national territories. It barely has the funding or personnel to conduct weapons inspections (which, as you doubtless realize, are not binding either), let alone workplace monitoring. To my knowledge, it hasn’t conducted studies or sponsored conferences on this theme – but someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

    On the matter of invisibility. Yes, the Japanese media have published a great deal on the subcontracted workers – as have the North American and European media. In addition to the material cited by Kenji Ito, there’s been striking work by a photographer named Higuchi Kenji. And there’s even a wonderful little BBC documentary on the subject (linked in my essay). My argument, rather, is two fold:

    (1) that the exposures of these workers – and of others in the nuclear industry, such as uranium miners throughout the African continent (the subject of my recently published book) – have been invisible in scientific and medical registers, largely because systems of knowledge production, monitoring, and regulation have not been designed to detect such exposures. In some times/places/cases this is deliberate, in others it isn’t.

    (2) that “global” or “international” or “expert” knowledge production surrounding the political economy of nuclear power production does not take such workers into account. This invisibility, as Darrin points out, matters for how we think about the future of nuclear power.

    In other words, the work of activists, artists, and a few others hasn’t translated into visible knowledge production or active regulation… at least, not yet.

    I’ll leave it at that for now!

  11. Prof. Hecht,
    Thank you for this article. Clearly, you are enlightened about the abuse of labor, both in Japan and worldwide. So, I recommend to you a documentary by a British television station. It is available on YouTube. I think you will expand your awareness by watching it.

    Channel Four [UK]. “Nuclear Ginza – documentary.” (1995)
    Pt. 1.
    Pt. 2.

    Peace and best wishes,
    Hajja Romi Elnagar

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