Fukushima – the trouble when regulators and operators are too close. Guest blogger: Walter HamiltonSep 24, 2013
Speaking in support of Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on 7 September that the situation at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station was ‘under control’. Recent disclosures, however, about leaks of radioactive water from storage tanks at the site and the contamination of ground water flowing into the ocean make his claim appear brave at best and dishonest at worst. The ‘everything is fine’ stance means the government is still relying primarily on the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to see through the clean up and decommissioning process. Though TEPCO might be expected to know more than anyone else about the situation at Fukushima, its performance so far does not inspire confidence.
The problems associated with making safe a large and severely damaged nuclear power station, containing six reactors, are obviously highly technical in nature as well as being unprecedented in scale. I am no expert on the nuclear physics or the engineering involved, but given what has happened so far it seems prudent to pay attention to warnings that are emanating from those who prudently opposed ever allowing a nuclear power industry in such an earthquake-prone country. I do have some knowledge of the way regulators and corporations interact in Japan – often so cozily it is hard to tell them apart – and this is another reason for listening to critics who say TEPCO must not be left to its own devices.
When the earthquake and giant tsunami struck two years ago, three of Fukushima’s six nuclear reactors were on line. The fuel rods in all three subsequently melted down releasing high-level radiation that contaminated a vast area of land around the plant. Two other reactors, units 5 and 6, were in cold shutdown for maintenance. That left unit 4, which was offline, with all its fuel rods transferred to the spent fuel pool. The building housing this unit was badly damaged and still lacks a roof. In order to make it safe the fuel rods inside must be removed – an operation that itself poses serious risks.
TEPCO all along has maintained a sanguine commentary about the situation at unit 4. On 14 February it reported that the temperature of the spent fuel pool was stable at 25-30 degrees Celsius and that the fuel rods were ‘secured inside the rack’ and well covered by water. The building, it said, was standing upright and not on a lean. On 26 April TEPCO reported that a structural analysis had confirmed that the building, including the spent fuel pool, which is raised above the ground, would not collapse even if struck by another earthquake of seismic intensity 6. It restated this opinion on 29 June.
But if TEPCO is the government’s main source of information, there is evidence that even members of the government are struggling to achieve an understanding of the real situation. Doubts about Abe’s grasp of the facts have been aired in various quarters, including in the Asahi Shimbun of 20 September. It noted that, after a visit to the Fukushima plant, Abe told reporters: ‘The effects of contaminated water have been completely blocked within a range of 0.3 square kilometres within the harbor’. The newspaper commented that ‘although Abe used the term “blocked”, the silt fences in the harbour cannot prevent all water from flowing out into the ocean. Radioactive materials pass through the silt fences and mix with the ocean, becoming so diluted that they are difficult to detect. Even Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said the measures at the Fukushima site were not stopping all of the water within the harbour.’ Experts also criticized the outdated sampling methods being used, which can result in a tenfold variation in measures of radiation.
So who really knows and who is telling the truth?
Various anti-nuclear blog sites are sounding the alarm. Harvey Wasserman, a journalist-activist writing at www.globalresearch.ca claims the world is ‘within two months of what could be human kind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis’. He goes on: ‘Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own. Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima’. Wasserman’s claims, as we have seen, directly contradict TEPCO’S public statements, but he is not the only voice questioning the operator’s credibility. The website www.fukuleaks.org cites concerns about the rods having shifted out of alignment, and thus being difficult to grasp and remove, and corrosion of their protective casings. The greatest danger would arise if the fuel rods came into contact with each other or were exposed to the air. Some activists are calling for an international task force of experts to take over control, though there are no concrete moves in that direction. In the latest English-language update on the status of the power station provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority none of these specific concerns are addressed. It mere states that the removal of spent fuel from unit 4 will start in November and concentrates instead on the leaking water issue – in a sense, yesterday’s problem.
(The update is at www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2013/fukushimaupdate160913.pdf)
With so much conflicting information and so many compromising factors involved (the Japanese government now locked in to Abe’s ‘under control’ mantra and TEPCO keen to deflect further criticism and keep a lid on the spiraling costs of decommissioning) it would be foolhardy not to consider the situation at Fukushima both serious and unresolved. Insufficient progress has not been made towards building trust to justify any other conclusion.
Walter Hamilton, a former ABC Tokyo correspondent, is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story (NewSouth Books).