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Fukushima plant (Associated Press/Photo from Air Photo Service)

Fukushima famine

Japan | Three-day shifts, scant meals, and a liter-and-a-half of daily water: Stress is taking its toll on workers in compromised nuclear site

For workers imbedded in Japan's embattled Fukushima nuclear power plant, living conditions carry some of the same challenges faced by quake victims along the country's devastated northeastern coast: Limited food, limited water, and close quarters for long stretches of time.

Kazuma Yokota, chief of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency in the Fukushima prefecture, described Fukushima's living conditions after spending five days at the plant last week. Yokota told reporters that the conditions are grueling for the hundreds of workers battling radiation leaks and contaminated water at the badly damaged plant, and underscore the complicated layers of Japan's multi-tiered crisis.

As many as 580 workers at a time pack the halls and offices of a two-story, earthquake-resistant building serving as emergency headquarters at the nuclear power plant. (The building stands about a half mile from Reactor No. 1. Meanwhile, Japanese officials have evacuated citizens living within 12 miles of the plant.) The workers pull three-day shifts, returning after one day off-site.

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Limited access to the site-where radiation levels are high-mean limited supplies for workers living in the building. A look at a typical day's menu offers a glimpse of the scant resources: Breakfast is a package or two of cookies and a small carton of vegetable juice. Dinner is usually rice with vegetables and a can of meat. No lunch.

Fresh water is also scarce: Since workers are limited to 1.5 liters of water a day, Yokota said they wash their hands with alcohol and usually don't bathe. With a limited amount of space in the building, workers travel light and rarely change clothes.

Cramped space also means cramped sleeping arrangements: Each worker has one blanket (and no pillow), and the workers sleeping on lead mats to reduce radiation pack into conference rooms, corridors, and stairwells. The rooms aren't ventilated (because of radiation threats), and workers wear masks at all times.

With no immediate end to the crisis in sight, the workers face a long haul in the difficult conditions. And though Yokota said the plant is working on plans to bring in more supplies, the stress is already taking its toll: Tokyo Electric Power Co.-the company that runs the Fukushima plant-announced this week that company president Masataka Shimizu had been hospitalized with bouts of high blood pressure and dizziness. The president's absence from public eye had already prompted speculation that Shimizu had suffered a breakdown.

Meanwhile, shelters still serve many of the thousands of Japanese citizens evacuated from their homes near the plant. Christian relief group CRASH (an acronym for Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope) sent an assessment team to Fukushima to assess relief needs. CRASH worker Scott Eaton formerly worked as a teacher in the region, and was a member of Fukushima Daiichi Seisho Baptist Church. He reported that seven of the church's members work at the power plant.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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