FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Workers battling the crisis at Japan’s stricken nuclear plant suffer from insomnia, show signs of dehydration and high blood pressure and are at risk of developing depression or heart trouble, a physician who met with them stated Wednesday.
The crews have been fighting to get the radiation-spewing Fukushima Dai-ichi plant under control since it was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.
“The conditions at the plant remain harsh,” epidemiologist Takeshi Tanigawa told The Associated Press. “I am afraid that if this continues we will see a growing risk of health problems.”
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Tanigawa, the Public Health Department chairman at Ehime University’s medical school, stated he met and spoke with 80 of the workers over four days when he was granted into another nearby nuclear plant where many of them take their breaks. He stated he was not able to carry out full physical exams on the workers before leaving Tuesday because of time constraints.
Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant operator, stated 245 workers from the company and affiliated companies were stationed at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant Wednesday. Soldiers, fire fighters and police officers also were at the site.
No-go zoneOn Thursday, Japan declared a 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone a no-go zone, urging residents to abide by the order for the sake of their own safety.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano stated the order to take effect at midnight, was meant to prevent unrestricted entry into the mostly deserted area ordered evacuated after last month’s tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant’s power and cooling systems.
He gave no details of penalties for violating the order.
“We beg the understanding of residents. We really want residents not to enter the areas,” Edano said. “Unfortunately, there are still some people in the areas.”
Officials stated the order was meant to limit exposure to radiation leaking from the plant, and to control entry to prevent theft.
Edano stated authorities would arrange brief visits for residents, allowing them to return for about two hours to collect necessary belongings. Residents would be required to go through radiation screening, he said.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan was visiting the region Thursday to meet with local officials and evacuees to discuss the plans for strict enforcement of the evacuation zone.
Working around the clockThe nuclear workers have been toiling around the clock to stabilize the plant. Tanigawa stated they get tiny rest, no baths or fresh food and are under the constant threat of exposure to radiation, which remains so high in many places that robots are being used to take measurements.
In a telephone interview, Tanigawa stated the work conditions do not meet the basic rights guaranteed workers by Japan’s constitution. During their breaks at the Fukushima Daini plant, they often sleep on the floor of a gymnasium, “wrapped only in blankets and with no privacy,” he said.
Photographs of the gymnasium show workers in white radiation protection suits sitting on gold metallic mats laid in tight rows on the floor. Boxes of supplies are stacked nearby.
“Because they sleep so close to each other, snoring is a huge problem,” he said. “Normally, that might sound funny, but in this case it is denying people sleep and that can lead to bad performance on the job.”
The workers, most of them middle-age men, suffer insomnia and show signs of dehydration and high blood pressure, he said. One had gout. Tanigawa stated he is concerned they may develop depression or heart problems.
“Making sure they have a shower or a bath or a proper place to sleep is not just to make them comfortable, but to ensure good performance,” he said.
TEPCO stated the situation has become difficult as the crisis has become protracted.
“We think that we have worked to improve food, sleep hours and off days so that working conditions are improving,” it stated in a statement. “We would like to work on further improvements, taking Dr. Tanigawa’s views into account.”
Tanigawa stated that even though emergency conditions may have justified harsh working hours in the early days of the crisis, the situation has now “become chronic.”
“They have struggled for a month. But they have not gotten any rest,” he said.
“TEPCO and the government do not think about them. The workers must do a good job, but they do not have any support,” he said.
With the heat of summer approaching, the health risks could multiply.
The workers now have three meals a day, but no fresh meat or vegetables. “They get microwave food,” he said.
They put in four days, then have two off, but many feel they cannot leave, he said.
“They feel a deep sense of responsibility to be there,” he said. “I asked many if they wanted to stop, but they responded, ‘Who would do this if I didn’t?’”
An anonymous worker identified as having recently worked at the plant’s Unit 2 turbine building stated in an interview on TV Asahi late Wednesday that the site “is just like a battlefield.”
“We were shocked by the high level of radiation,” he said, adding that they were so afraid of radiation it was hard to concentrate.
“I work at the plant just because I want to save my hometown,” the worker said. “We are the ones who have worked at the nuclear plant all this time. Who else would take the job now if we don’t?”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Submited at Thursday, April 21st, 2011 at 5:00 am on World News by Shelton
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