The delicate decommissioning of Fukushima's power plants

By Daniele Pestilli on November 2, 2013
Image credit: IAEA Imagebank (CC)

Upon the International Olympic Committee's decision to let Tokyo host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a great amount of pressure has been placed on TEPCO and the Japanese government to hasten its efforts of cleaning up the aftereffects of the disastrous Fukushima triple meltdown.

Whereas Prime Minister Abe insisted that the nuclear plant, 240km (150mi) from Tokyo, “has never done, and will never do any damage to Tokyo,” many remain skeptical.

Following the 2011 earthquake that crippled the nuclear plant, the Fukushima disaster has been cursed by an endless stream of blunders.

In April this year, TEPCO lost power to cool uranium fuel rods for 29 hours after rats caused an electrical switchboard to short-circuit. In July, Masao Yoshida, TEPCO's plant manager during the nuclear meltdown died from esophageal cancer aged 58 (although this was officially pronounced unrelated to the power plant disaster). In August, 300 tons of contaminated water laced with radioactive strontium and cesium reportedly leaked into the Pacific Ocean. Around the same time, reports were coming out of mutated butterflies near Fukushima. In October, 430 liters of highly radioactive water leaked into the ocean after workers overfilled one of the tanks. To top things off, during the same month, a Japanese fridge company created a cartoon character used to promote the regeneration of Fukushima Prefecture – the mascot's name, “Fukuppy” rings of misfortune.

The anxiety caused by this harrowing chain of events is becoming increasingly apparent.

On October 31st, Reuters wrote that lawmaker and anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto, gave Emperor Akihito a letter during a garden party expressing fear for the effects of the Fukushima disaster. Akihito reportedly took the letter and handed it to a nearby chamberlain.

When prompted as to why he did this, Yamamoto commented, “I wanted him to know about the children who have been contaminated by radiation. If this goes on, there will be serious health impacts.”

As the Emperor fills a symbolic and purely ceremonial role in Japanese society, Yamamoto was swiftly slandered. He was admonished by the Upper House for acting in defiance of common sense, triggering vehement protests both online and in political circles, from people such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhide Suga, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura – who asked for Yamamoto’s resignation – and Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo – who said this was a severe breach of etiquette. Yet some netizens have stepped up in Yamamoto's defence. Avaaz.org launched an online petition in support of Mr. Yamamoto's letter to the Emperor of Japan, which has received approximately 1,500 signatures to date.

However, Yamamoto's letter to the Emperor should be the least of Japan's concerns right now.

ABC News reports that within days, the most delicate and dangerous phase of the decommissioning process will be undertaken by workers at the TEPCO power plant: 1,331 fuel assemblies (bundles of rods) will be removed from one of the shattered reactors and transported to the common storage pool 50 meters away using a crane. The job is scheduled to end by the end of next year.

Although TEPCO's Yoshimi Hitosugi insisted the company's engineers were prepared, many, including Japan's nuclear watchdog, are urging to use utmost caution during this operation.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, commented: “Once a problem occurs, the risks will grow … I would like you to do this very carefully.“

Yale University Emeritus Professor Charles Perrow said one pool contains 10 times the amount of radioactive cesium present in the Chernobyl disaster. He warned that one slip-up could trigger a monumental chain reaction. “This has me very scared ... Tokyo would have to be evacuated because [the] cesium and other poisons that are there will spread very rapidly.”

The recovery process remains slow and confidence is rocked as the workers are reportedly starting to suffer form low morale and exhaustion.

According to the Japan Times, in 2012, TEPCO already removed two unused fuel rods out of the pool, confirming that no major corrosion or damage was found in them. However, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka stated this is a “totally different operation” because of the debris that fell into the pool during the explosions, and must therefore be handled extremely carefully.

In the meanwhile, the ruling party (LDP) has proposed that TEPCO split up in two organizations: one that can focus entirely on the clean-up, and one that can return to its core business of generating electricity for 29 million homes and businesses in and around Tokyo.

The Guardian writes that complete decommissioning of the plant is expected to take around 30 years and cost at least ¥100bn ($1bn).