Photo/IllutrationWorkers check the advanced liquid processing system used to treat contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in December. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced May 22 it was backtracking on plans to use foreign workers at its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the health ministry urged extreme caution.

The utility said it will not hire foreign workers at the plant “in the immediate future” as it will need “much more time to put a system in place to ensure their safety.”

The company noted that hiring foreign workers at the nuclear plant under a new specified skills visa category that took effect in April could result in work-related accidents and long-term health problems due to their lack of Japanese language skills and understanding of Japanese labor practices.

The announcement followed a health ministry caution May 21 for TEPCO to carefully reconsider its policy of using foreign workers at the complex.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare noted that TEPCO was keen to take advantage of a new specified skills visa category and hire foreign workers, but urged the company to exercise “extreme caution.”

The ministry was concerned about foreign nationals with a limited command of Japanese being in an environment contaminated with radioactive substances.

The ministry had said that if TEPCO went ahead with hiring foreign workers, the company and its contractors involved in decommissioning had to take at least the same level of protective measures that apply to Japanese workers to ensure that they fully understand safety sanitation and avoid the health risk of excessive radiation exposure.

Even though eight years have passed since the triple meltdown, radiation levels remain high in many areas of the Fukushima plant, especially around the reactor buildings.

The decommissioning process that is expected to take years will involve a range of gargantuan tasks, one being the removal of melted nuclear fuel debris from the reactors.

Under the recently revised immigration control law, foreign workers with specified skills are permitted to work at nuclear power plants.

The ministry acknowledges that it is ultimately up to individual employers to decide whether or not to accept foreign workers on their payrolls.

But experts in Japan and overseas who are keen for the new visa program to be a success have also voiced concerns about foreign workers at the Fukushima plant developing radiation-related health issues and being able to manage them after they return to their home countries.

Foreign workers arriving in Japan in one of the two categories of specified skills can stay in the country for up to five years.

“Since there are no legal constraints, the ministry moved one step ahead of TEPCO,” said a senior ministry official, referring to the request for a rethink of the policy.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga referred to the ministry's caution at a May 21 news conference, saying that TEPCO should be prepared to fully address a range of health-related problems that may arise in the future.

The utility notified dozens of its contractors at a meeting in late March that it will accept foreign workers at the Fukushima plant.

Currently, about 4,000 people toil at the plant each day. Most areas of the complex are categorized as controlled areas to guard against radiation exposure.

Under the law, workers at a nuclear facility must not be exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation over five years and 50 millisieverts a year.