Thinking outside Fukushima

By Charles D. Ferguson | August 23, 2013

This month—nearly two and a half years after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) finally admitted that it needed outside help to control the numerous problems at its stricken plant.

After news broke recently that at least 300 metric tons of contaminated water leaked from above-ground storage tanks into the surrounding soil, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), an agency formed after the Fukushima crisis, classified the situation as a serious incident—a three on the International Nuclear Event Scale (far from the highest level seven, a major accident, which was the scale of the Fukushima accident in March 2011). These events led Zengo Aizawa, the company’s executive vice president of public relations, to announce to reporters on August 21, “There is much experience in decommissioning reactors outside of Japan. We need that knowledge and support.”

Understandably, the Japanese public has grown skeptical over the past few years: A March survey of Japanese citizens showed that 94 percent believed that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was not under control, and a majority favored eventual elimination of nuclear power, according to a poll by a research team led by Hirotada Hirose, a professor emeritus of Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. Based on this and other polling data, it is clear that the future of Japan’s use of nuclear power hinges on an effective and transparent response to the problems at Fukushima Daiichi.

The knowns and unknowns. The contaminated water leak, of course, presents several known challenges at the Fukushima station. These challenges are, and will continue to be: preventing significant contamination of the land, water table, and sea; ensuring the stability of, and eventually removing, the spent fuel in reactor four’s storage pool; maintaining continuous cooling of, and eventually removing, the three damaged reactor cores; and expediting the cleanup of the surrounding regions and resettling tens of thousands of displaced residents.

Admitting the need for help from outsiders can be difficult for any country. But the next two major steps for Japan will be to determine the extent of the existing problems and to enlist the right expertise and decision making to solve the problems.

As is well known, the plant was susceptible to the massive tsunami on March 11, 2011: The plant was not only placed within 500 meters of the sea (a little more than one quarter mile) without an adequately high seawall, its emergency diesel generators, located just 10 meters above normal sea level, were also placed in a vulnerable location. Less well known is the fact that the plant sits atop an ancient riverbed. Tepco has estimated that about 1,000 tons of groundwater move daily under the plant; 400 tons is diverted into the reactor buildings and mixed with another 400 tons of water to keep the cores cool. Currently, the company recycles about half of the pumped-out water and stores the other half. Its plan is to treat all the contaminated stored water, which, so far sits in about 1,000 tanks, which are now filled to 85 percent of their storage capacity. After it is treated, the water is then of low enough contamination to be pumped into the ocean. Local fishermen, however, have objected to this plan for fear of jeopardizing their livelihood.

While formidable challenges, these might not be the only problems.

In May, Tepco detected elevated radiation levels in water wells. Following its pattern of denial, however, Tepco did not publish these findings until July. Upset by this, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka expressed concern that more undiscovered leaks could exist at the nuclear power station, but Tepco did little to assuage his fears. In late July, Tanaka took it upon himself to form an experts committee within the NRA, which first met at the beginning of this month. But both Tepco and the NRA, it seems, were too slow to act.

On August 22, the Japanese government announced that, possibly since 2011, radioactive water has been leaking from the plant into the ground and Pacific Ocean. By Tepco’s calculations, according to the Japan Times, this leak—10 trillion becquerels of radioactive strontium and 20 trillion becquerels of radioactive cesium—sprung as early as May 2011.

Yet the plant and the vast number of radioactive storage containers still remain vulnerable to major natural disasters. If another massive earthquake and tsunami—or even a tremendously violent storm—were to hit Fukushima Prefecture, there could be numerous damaged containers that would release large amounts of radioactive material. While such events are unlikely, over the course of the projected 40-year cleanup period, another event close to the magnitude of the March 11, 2011, tragedy is not too farfetched.

Next steps. The future of Japan’s use of nuclear energy is riding on an effective response to the Fukushima accident. Earlier this year, the government appointed a panel of 20 experts to make recommendations on next steps to be taken at Fukushima. The panel suggested constructing a giant wall of ice around the plant to freeze the ground and thus stem the flow of contaminated water. Not only is this idea highly risky (if the ice melts), it is very expensive (estimated to cost at least $400 million) and energy intensive (in an area where there are not reliable electricity supplies). This example illustrates why outside help is needed.

In early August, the Japanese government formed the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, which will involve more than 500 experts from 17 research organizations, as well as representatives from utilities and nuclear companies.  Chaired by Hajimu Yamana, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University, the concept is encouraging and is designed to inspire new thinking. Yet again, however, this might not be the fix that the public needs: Although the institute will reportedly be open to international participation, it is likely to be viewed by the Japanese public as too enmeshed in the Japanese domestic political environment to be valued as credible.

A smaller group of leading international experts who could give informed, reasonably quick advice could help assure the Japanese public that the complications facing Fukushima Daiichi are not just Japan’s problems, but the world’s problems. An international group could seek a comprehensive, expedited solution. But perhaps most crucial is that the Japanese public should be involved in this process. Without public input, without buy-in, the future for nuclear power will be bleak.

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