via JapanFocus.org / Sep 1, 2013 / by Andrew DeWit and Christopher Hobson / Japan’s searing summer of 2013 saw the lid slide further off Fukushima Daiichi and its Pandora’s box of radioactive and political crises. The company in charge, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), already Japan’s most distrusted firm,2 was irredeemably exposed as dangerously incompetent. A slew of reports concerning leaks of high-level radiation led to increasingly concerned appeals, from within Japan and from overseas, for the Abe Shinzo government to take over at Fukushima Daiichi.
The most recent opinion poll, released by the Mainichi Shimbun on August 25, shows that no less than 91% of the Japanese public wants the government to intervene.3 Clearly, Abe’s August 7 gambit of publicly declaring “Tepco: shape up!” convinced few that he was doing enough. Indeed, while the Mainichi was in the midst of polling, Abe was being lambasted by an August 23 editorial in Nishinihon Shimbun. The editors demanded he act, expressing open dismay that he would call for decisive action from Tepco given its shameful record of endless mishaps and denials.4
From beyond Japan’s shores, The Economist depicted Fukushima Daiichi as a “nightmare” with “no end in sight,”5 and the editors of Bloomberg addressed Abe directly with stern warnings that the site is “ground zero” for his government, insisting that decisive intervention is crucial in order to “redeem Japan’s nuclear industry, jump-start its economy, and perhaps increase the odds of removing the radioactive pall over Tokyo’s bid to land the 2020 Olympics.”6 The August 28 Business Times Singapore spoke up from the East, and excoriatingly editorialized that “Mr Abe appears grudging in his occasional statements of ‘regret’ at the ongoing crisis but resentful that it continues to dent Japan’s international image. Certainly, it embarrasses a country anxious to promote overseas sales of nuclear reactors and to bring other idled reactors back on line.” The editors highlighted the proliferating “international dimensions” of the crisis and cautioned that if Fukushima Daiichi “is not an international threat, then it is difficult to see what is.”7
Indeed, as the Business Times Singapore warned, the foreign media are not alone in being alarmed by the Abe administration’s unwillingness to get a grip on Fukushima Daiichi. Japan’s neighbouring states and civil societies also evince increasing concern. South Korea’s Asiana Airlines announced on August 21 that, as of October, because of Fukushima Daiichi, they would discontinue charter flights to Fukushima City.8 The situation is in fact so grave in South Korean eyes that the August 8 minutes of the Bank of Korea’s 15th Monetary Policy Board meeting expressed concern that further mishandling of Fukushima Daiichi could make it a “black swan” in the larger context of economic uncertainty confronting the global financial economy in the fall.9 And results from the South Korean Gallup agency poll over the three days ending August 29 indicated that 78% of Koreans believe their country is already being impacted by radiation from Fukushima Daiichi. Moreover, whereas 70% of South Koreans regard New Zealand and Australian food as safe, and 75% see South Korean domestic food as safe, an astounding 90% now deem Japanese food products as unsafe.10
As for China, on August 21 the state officially expressed “shock” over the situation, with its Foreign Ministry calling for Japan to “take effective steps to put an end to the negative impact of the after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident.”11 But the government was also careful to declare domestically that the Chinese State Oceanic Administration’s survey results show radiation flows (including Cesium 134) from Fukushima Daiichi into the aquatic environment but not into areas under Chinese jurisdiction. They also stressed they were doing follow-up surveys of the marine environment, and have stated they reserve the right to request entry into waters near Daiichi to conduct to assess the impact the ongoing leaks were having on the ocean.12 While the official response has been measured, at the popular level – as expressed on Chinese twitter – there is what appears to be a rising magma of outrage.13 Given that China-Japan relations are already deeply troubled due to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute and the Abe government’s stance on Japan’s role in World War Two, Fukushima Daiichi’s ongoing leaks of contaminated water could further exacerbate tensions.14
The heightened concerns and calls for a change in the way Daiichi is being managed have been driven by Tepco’s woeful management of the stricken power plant, which continues to be a very grim comedy of errors, with the company lurching from one problem to the next. The accidents, pratfalls and post-obfuscation revelations just keep coming: a rat causing the whole plant to lose power; steam mysteriously appearing above the reactors; reports of questionable hiring and workplace practices, including contract workers not receiving sufficient safety gear; and, of course, the ongoing issues with large quantities of contaminated water leaking into the ground and ocean.15
The most visible crisis for the last week of August stemmed from an estimated 300 tons of highly toxic water, laced with such deadly radionuclides as Strontium-90, leaking from a tank hastily constructed in the months after the accident. This became a level-3 crisis on August 21, ‘serious’ on the UN’s 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale, and represents the most urgent reported problem at the plant since the initial meltdowns. There has been debate over whether the leak merited a level 3 determination. But Kathryn Higley, specialist in the spread of radiation, head of Oregon State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, and one of the few commentators who has actually spent time at the site, warns that it is a serious problem: “It’s one thing to have these radiation levels in areas of the plant that by design are going to be hot…This is not by design.”16
The most recent revelation at the time of writing – and it is difficult to keep up – is Tepco’s September 1 disclosure that it has found several more radiation hotspots, “one with levels so high it could kill a person within a few hours.”17 This new admission follows an August 28 confession that the leakage of 300 tons of highly radioactive water likely began about 6 weeks before its August 19 discovery.18 That it took Tepco weeks to notice any of this is no surprise: as Associated Press reporter Mari Yamaguchi notes, Tepco confessed that its monitoring of the 1,000 storage tanks consisted of two workers taking a two-hour walk, twice daily, without dosimeters and without compiling records.19 Indeed, the tanks themselves were so poorly monitored it remains unclear exactly how much contaminated water escaped. Tanaka Shunichi, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, has admitted that, “we don’t think the leak was exactly 300 tons. … It could be much more or much less”.20
Moreover, the latest leaks come in the wake of Tepco’s admission that contaminated water has been flowing into the ocean since the accident first occurred almost two and half years ago. Crises have popped up with such frequency that NRA Chairman Tanaka has described the plant as being like a ‘haunted house’ in which ‘mishaps keep happening one after the other’.21 The endless trail of problems, mistakes and obfuscations has left few doubts for most observers that Tepco is not up to the incredibly difficult and important task of decommissioning Daiichi. This awareness underlies the escalating calls for the Abe government to take a more hands-on role.
Source: The Asia-Pacific Journal