An update from Fukushima, and the challenges that remain there

By Tatsujiro Suzuki | November 11, 2019

Workers stacking bags of soil. Workers stack bags of soil collected during Fukushima decontamination and cleanup operations, 2011. Photo credit Ricardo Herrgott for Global 2000.

After more than eight years, Japan is still struggling with aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Japanese government and nuclear industry have not solved the many technical, economic, and socio-political challenges brought on by the accident. More worrying, they continue to put special interests ahead of the public interest, exacerbating the challenges and squandering public trust. The longer these issues remain unsolved, the more difficult it will be to restore this trust.

Technical challenges. The most difficult challenge is, of course, the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. It would take too long to describe all of the technical challenges of the decommissioning operations, but two recent events are instructive of the overall difficulties.

The first is the dismantlement of the joint exhaust stack for units one and two. This stack stands 120 meters tall and is at risk of collapse because of fractures in its pillars. It was also heavily contaminated by the venting of radioactive gases during the accident. So the stack must come down, and the operation to deconstruct it must be done remotely from the stack itself to avoid exposing workers to dangerous radiation. According to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operation was supposed to be simple: cut down the top of the tower using special remote-controlled equipment, slicing pieces from the top of the chimney one by one and guiding them down by crane. Originally, the operation was supposed to start in March 2019, but TEPCO deployed an operation tower that was about three meters too short for the task, meaning it needed to rebuild the tower before starting. The cutting operation began on August 1, but the project has already faced numerous additional delays because of technical difficulties that include malfunctions of the crane, the camera on the cutting machine (which is needed to monitor the operation), the saws of the cutting machine, and both the main generator and sub-generators. The operation was supposed to finish by the end of 2019 but will now drag on until at least March 2020.

The second technical problem, which is much more serious than the first, is the management of contaminated water. The water is continuously injected into the reactors to cool the fuel debris, and then treated to remove most—though not all—of the radioactive materials. The so-called “treated water” is being stored on site and amounts to about 1.1 million tons, with several hundred tons being added every day. According to TEPCO, the total tank capacity to store treated water will be approximately 1.37 million tons by the end of 2020, but the volume of treated water will exceed storage capacity by 2022. A subcommittee of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry recommended that the treated water, which still contains tritium, should be released into the sea once the radioactive concentration is below the standard agreed beforehand. The agreed standard between TEPCO and the local fishing industry association is 1,500 becquerels per liter (Bq/l), which is far below the drinking water standard for tritium water of 10,000 Bq/l set by the World Health Organization. An additional condition of release, however, is that all other radioactive substances besides tritium must be removed below a detectable limit or in line with regulatory standards. Unfortunately, in August 2019 news outlets reported that some radioactive materials such as iodine 129 were not completely removed and that their concentration levels were above the regulatory standards.

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Most recently, the super typhoon Hagibis hit the eastern part of Japan, which includes Fukushima prefecture and the area affected by the nuclear accident. TEPCO reported irregular readings from sensors monitoring water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant but did not confirm whether any radioactive water leaked into the sea. In addition, according to the Tamura city government, some bulk bags filled with soil collected from decontamination operations were swept into a river during the typhoon on October 12. The bags were among 2,667 that have been temporarily stored at a site in the city. The Ministry of the Environment later confirmed that total of 11 bags were swept away and found downstream. Thankfully, there was no evidence that any of the contaminated soil leaked out. But this wasn’t the first time an incident like this has happened. In September 2015, several hundred bags were swept downstream during flooding caused by tropical storm Etau. The recurring close calls reveal the ongoing vulnerabilities of the Fukushima and associated sites. The contaminated soil will need to be stored for at least 30 years, and the risk of possible leakage remains if a larger and stronger typhoon, or a tsunami, hits the region again.

Economic challenges. In December 2016, the Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry’s committee for reforming TEPCO published its latest estimate for total accident costs, including decommissioning the reactors, compensation, and decontamination of the land. The total cost was estimated at almost 22 trillion yen ($188 billion), which was twice as much as the previous estimate of 11 trillion yen ($96 billion). More recent estimates have put the figure even higher—up to 80 trillion yen ($736 billion) over 40 years.

According to the legal scheme established by the ministry, TEPCO and other nuclear utilities will pay about 20 trillion yen of the total accident costs. But now the rest (2 trillion yen) will be footed by Japanese taxpayers. The 2016 report was the first time that the Japanese government admitted that tax money would be spent for the Fukushima accident costs.

The government’s lack of transparency in agreeing to this scheme is a source of ongoing concern, not least because the taxpayer burden could balloon if total costs go up, or if the nuclear utilities cannot pay off the debt. The government has given no clear explanation why and how much tax money will be spent to cover the total accident costs. To make matters worse, the power utilities are passing on part of the accident cleanup costs to customers by increasing their electricity rates, but without disclosing the amount.

This exceptionally high cost may have influenced the future economic competitiveness of nuclear power. At present, no utility has announced plans to build new reactors or to replace existing reactors.

Socio-political challenges. On September 19, 2019, three former top executives of TEPCO were found not guilty of criminal negligence for their roles in the disaster, which resulted in the death of 44 and the injury of 13 others. The Tokyo district court ruled that it was not realistic for the former executives to have prevented the triple core meltdown because they were not able to predict all possible tsunami scenarios. This was the only criminal case so far involving TEPCO officials and, although they were found not guilty, the case revealed new facts regarding the tsunami predictions. A 2008 TEPCO internal study, based on a 2002 report by a government panel, concluded that a wave of up to 15.7 meters could hit the plant after a magnitude 8.3 earthquake, overwhelming the Fukushima site, which sits 10 meters above sea level. The findings were reported to the TEPCO executives, but they did not act to take measures against such high-tsunami scenarios. The court decision was totally unsatisfactory to the public, especially for the victims in Fukushima who were forced to leave their homes. For them, it is now clear that the accident was preventable and that no one at TEPCO will be held accountable for their lack of action to prevent it.

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Although the criminal case was highly symbolic, it is not the only legal one involving TEPCO and Fukushima. More than 100,000 evacuees have filed about 30 different civil lawsuits seeking compensation from TEPCO and the government. Several district courts have ruled that TEPCO could have predicted and prevented the nuclear crisis and have awarded millions of dollars in damages to the evacuees.

TEPCO isn’t the only utility with a public relations problem. On September 27, 2019, the Kansai Electric Power Company held a press conference to disclose that 20 of its employees, including top executives, received inappropriate payments and gifts worth a total of $2.9 million from a senior local government official in Takahama, a town that hosts one of the company’s four nuclear power plants. This has become the biggest scandal since the 2011 Fukushima accident and has exposed the collusive relationship between the utility companies and local public officials as well as the connection between the utilities and local construction companies, which may have benefited from favorable contracts for necessary safety upgrades at the nuclear plants. In October, the chairman, executive vice president, and three executive directors resigned, while the president of the company stepped down from his position as the head of the powerful Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. Although Kansai Electric Power Company planned to restart units one and two of its Takahama nuclear plant earlier this year, that plan is now on hold indefinitely.

These two recent events show that social and political problems persist even eight years after the Fukushima accident. According to the latest public polling conducted in 2018 by Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, a utility-sponsored pro-nuclear organization, only 6.7 percent of the public think nuclear industry organizations are trustworthy or somewhat trustworthy (a decline from 7 percent in 2017), and only 7.9 percent of the public think the government is trustworthy or somewhat trustworthy (a decline from 9.2 percent in 2017).

Lessons not learned. The ongoing technical, economic, and socio-political problems demonstrate that the nuclear power industry and the Japanese government haven’t learned their lesson from the Fukushima accident, which is that transparency is the key to public trust. It is true that the quantity of information about cleanup has increased substantially over the years. But transparency means that the utilities and the government need to disclose information that the public needs, even when it is not favorable to them. One solution, which they have so far been unwilling to accept, would be to establish a truly independent third party to oversee their activities. Lack of such an independent oversight organization is one of the main causes for not taking alternative and possibly better, more appropriate measures over the last eight years.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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1 year ago

And yet the government of Japan and the IAEA seem to disagree with Mr. Suzuki:

Delmas 19
Delmas 19
1 year ago

Does anyone really think that the nuclear industry in the USA would handle this kind of disaster any better, or any differently?