Doubts rise on nuclear cleanup
In the small farming town of Naraha in Japan, in the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, small armies of workers in surgical masks and rubber gloves are busily scraping off radioactive topsoil in a desperate attempt to fulfill the central government’s vow one day to allow most of Japan’s 83,000 evacuees to return. Yet, every time it rains, more radioactive contamination cascades down the forested hillsides along the rugged coast.
Nearby, thousands of workers and a small fleet of cranes are preparing for one of the latest efforts to avoid a deepening environmental disaster that has China and other neighbours increasingly worried: removing spent fuel rods from the damaged No. 4 reactor building and storing them in a safer place. The government announced that it would spend $500 million on new steps to stabilise the plant, including an even bigger project: the construction of a frozen wall to block a flood of groundwater into the contaminated buildings. The government is taking control of the cleanup from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.
The triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 is already considered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. The new efforts, as risky and technically complex as they are expensive, were developed in response to a series of accidents, miscalculations and delays that have plagued the cleanup effort, making a mockery of the authorities’ early vows to “return the site to an empty field” and leading to the release of enormous quantities of contaminated water.
As the environmental damage around the plant and in the ocean nearby continues to accumulate more than two years after the disaster, analysts are beginning to question whether the government and the plant’s operator, known as TEPCO, have the expertise and ability to manage such a complex crisis. In the past, they say, TEPCO has resorted to technological quick fixes that have failed to control the crisis, further damaged Japan’s flagging credibility and only deflected hard decisions into the future. Some critics said the government’s new proposals offer just more of the same.
“Japan is clearly living in denial,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who led Parliament’s independent investigation last year into the causes of the nuclear accident. “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.” Problems at the plant seemed to take a sharp turn for the worse in July with the discovery of leaks of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.
TEPCO announced that 300 tonnes of water laced with radioactive strontium, a particle that can be absorbed into human bones, had drained from a faulty tank into the sea. Contaminated water, used to cool fuel in the plant’s three damaged reactors to prevent them from overheating, will continue to be produced in huge quantities until the flow of groundwater into the buildings can be stopped — a prospect that is months or even years away.
At the same time, delays and setbacks in the enormous effort to clean up the countryside are further undermining confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on its promises and eroding the public’s faith in nuclear power. Officials and proponents of the cleanup say difficulties are inevitable given the monumental scale of the problems.
The cleanup efforts to date, critics said, were grandiose but ultimately ill-conceived public works projects begun as a knee-jerk reaction by the government’s powerful central ministries to deflect public criticism and to protect the clubby and insular nuclear power industry from oversight by outsiders.
The biggest public criticism has involved the government’s decision to leave the cleanup in the hands of TEPCO, which has seemed incapable of getting the plant fully under control. Each step TEPCO has taken seems only to produce new problems. The recent leaking tank was one of hundreds that have been hastily built to hold the 4,30,000 tonnes of contaminated water at the plant, and the amount of that water increases at a rate of 400 tonnes per day. The discovery of high radioactivity at other spots near the tanks raised the possibility of still undetected leaks.
Scientists have played down the current threat from contaminated water, saying the new leaks are producing small increases in radioactivity in the Fukushima harbor that remain far lower than immediately after the March 2011 crisis.
“This continued leakage is not the scale of what we had originally,” said Ken O. Buesseler, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod who has long studied the disaster. “But it’s persistent.”