MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Three years ago today, a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed thousands of people. It also triggered the meltdown of reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The cleanup is ongoing and has been problematic, with power failures and leaks of contaminated water. And the technical difficulties involved in closing the facility are compounded by serious labor issues.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On a tour of the Fukushima plant last month, I saw a lot of workers in white coveralls, respirators and safety helmets. They were building huge metal containers to store contaminated water. Public relations officers with the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, or TEPCO, showed me around. OK. So about 100 out of the 4,000 people working in the plant every day are TEPCO employees. The rest are subcontractors.
In Japan, subcontracting out construction and other big projects is a longstanding practice. But analysts warn that it's affecting the quality of the work at Fukushima. Tokyo University professor Kazumitsu Nawata has warned for years that the subcontracting leads to a weak chain of command.
KAZUMITSU NAWATA: (Through Translator) When there's an accident, they can't react properly. Because of this system of multiple contractors, they can't give direct orders to the frontline workers.
KUHN: He says companies supplying labor to TEPCO are having difficulty hiring good workers because the pay is low, the work is dangerous, and there are limits to how much radiation each worker can absorb on the job.
NAWATA: (Through Translator) Soon, the experienced workers will not be able to work anymore, so there will be more inexperienced workers and very few experienced workers to direct them. This could lead to human error.
KUHN: Critics accuse the subcontractors of withholding workers' hazard pay and barring them from organizing unions or speaking to the media. One local labor organizer spoke about this on the condition that we not use his name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through Translator) Companies like TEPCO have big projects, but they don't want to guarantee employment or provide security or welfare benefits. It's a great system for TEPCO, and this is how they've been able to make big profits.
KUHN: I asked TEPCO's spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi about working conditions at Fukushima.
YOSHIMI HITOSUGI: (Through Translator) We set up a help center so workers can seek the advice of legal experts. When there is an issue, we also try to address it ourselves. It is very important for us to provide a good working environment during the decommissioning process, which will take 30 to 40 years.
KUHN: In Iwaki, the biggest city near the nuclear plant, I met a TEPCO worker who was on the job when the quake and tsunami hit three years ago. We sat and talked in his car in a rain-swept parking lot. He agreed to speak on the condition that we not identify him and disguise his voice. He says it's well known at the plant that shoddy work is being done by subcontractors.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) I'm concerned about my safety. For example, a lot of welding has not been done well. Water hoses are old and leak, and the maintenance is poor. That could lead to the injury or death of workers.
KUHN: He adds that many problems inside the Fukushima plant go unreported.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) They may not actively be hiding anything but there are things they feel they don't have to disclose. There are all sorts of troubles going on inside the plant. It's sort of like if President Obama spills his tea and scalds his secretary in the White House, it might not be reported.
KUHN: The worker says that the Japanese government now needs to step in and guarantee the welfare and safety of all the workers shutting down Fukushima. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.