Unresolved issues remain

March 11, 2016

Unresolved issues remain

Even five years after the accident in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear accident is not totally over. I have three major comments on the current situation.

Decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. There has been a significant progress in decommissioning process of the plant, such as removing the spent fuel from Unit 4 and construction of a “frozen wall” as one of the key measures to prevent further migration of contaminated water underground. However, the situation is still far from “under control,” as prime minister has contended since September 2013. Significant risk associated with contamination still remains, and the progress in investigation of “melted core debris” is very slow. There is still a risk that a large earthquake and tsunami or a large typhoon could hit again. The health and safety of local workers are sources of concern, too. Most importantly, the issue of transparency still remains. The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), of which I was a member at the time, recommended in December 2011 that a venue for regular and close communication between the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the government and local citizens be established, and that an independent third party be appointed to monitor and make recommendations for the decommissioning process. Neither one of these recommendations was realized. Transparency of the whole process should be improved further.

Decontamination and recovering areas of Fukushima prefecture. Fortunately, because of decontamination efforts and the natural decay of radioactivity, the radiation level in the evacuated area has declined significantly. It is expected that residents may be able to come back sooner than expected in some areas. But at the same time, there are areas where you cannot expect a decline in radiation level for 20 to 30 years, or possibly longer. The government should make every effort to provide adequate support for those who may not be able to come back for such a long time. Interim storage and final disposal of a huge quantity of contaminated land is another serious source of social concern. Unfortunately, citizen participation in the decision-making process in Japan is not a well established practice, and so far the decisions by the government are made without much consultation with the public. A more open decision-making process seems essential to recover the public trust.

Compensation and welfare of evacuated people. Finally, it is time to reevaluate the compensation plan for people evacuated from the Fukushima area, as some may be able to come back, but some may refuse to come back to the original homeland even if the radiation risk can be said to be “acceptable.” In Fukushima, there have been more deaths due to indirect causes, such as “stress,” than to the earthquake and tsunami. Here, lack of trust in scientific information on radiation risk is a serious source of concern. It is essential to establish an independent and trustworthy organization for scientific information.

As long as these three issues remain unresolved, the Fukushima accident will never be over.