by Andrew DeWit / JapanFocus.org / August 16, 2013 / Japan’s ruined and radioactive reactor plant at Fukushima Daiichi has been an abiding source of concern among knowledgeable observers. There are a host of good reasons for this reemergence. As this Mainichi survey observes, it is now clear that several hundred tons of radiation-contaminated water is entering the ocean per day. Over the past week, it suddenly returned as an intense focus of concern in the Japanese and quality overseas press. There are a host of good reasons for this reemergence. As this useful summary of articles and expert statements reveals, it is now clear that several hundred tons of radiation-contaminated water is entering the ocean.
The usual suspects, including Tepco as well as various talking heads, have been assuring anxious observers that nothing untoward is going on, that health risks are minimal, and so on. But at the same time, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) was steadily ramping up its warnings to Tepco to be more pro-active and forthcoming on the crisis. And on top of that, Shinkawa Tatsuya, Director, Nuclear Accident Response Office at the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry’s (METI) Agency for Natural Resources and Energy is on record warning that the leaks may have been going on for two years and that there is a risk of the reactor buildings toppling.
Along with many other shocked observers, Neils Bohmer, nuclear physicist and general manager of the international environmental group Bellona, points out that what is happening at Fukushima Daiichi shows the efforts underway are still largely improvised. He adds that the “setbacks that have troubled Tepco in its efforts to bring the plant to heel would be nearly comical were it not for the gravity of the situation”. Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter, Director of the highly respected organization’s Reactor Oversight Project, argues in a very fact-packed and concise August 9 RT America broadcast that cesium 137, strontium 90 and “a full range of radioactive contaminants” is moving “which indicates that the damaged cores of these reactors…are now contributing to the contamination of the Pacific Ocean.” He describes in detail how Tepco’s installation of a temporary, “chemical” wall between Fukushima Daiichi and the ocean, in order to prevent leakage into the Pacific, became in effect a dam that has now been breached and overflowed.
Gunter describes the Japanese Government as “in chaos,” with a clear failure of command and control of Fukushima and a dangerous reluctance to turn to international assistance. If his depiction of the situation as chaotic seems overdone, consider the buck-passing going on among Tepco, the NRA, METI, and the Abe Government. And consider the incentives for it.
As to Tepco itself, it is far more interested in devoting its scarce financial and human resources to getting its reactors at Kashiwazaki Karuiwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, restarted as soon as possible. The site was heavily damaged by the 2007 Chuuetsu offshore earthquake, and Tepco needs restarts there in order to have any prospect of remaining a viable business entity. That possibility of getting back into the black is, of course, predicated on the Fukushima Daiichi crisis being taken over by the government and dealt with via public funds. Tepco clearly cannot do the job on its own, and has repeatedly argued that point. Current estimates of the total cost of clean up within Fukushima Prefecture alone amount to YEN 5.13 trillion (USD 50 billion),3 with total costs of decommissioning and compensation assessed (perhaps conservatively) by the Japanese Government as roughly YEN 10 trillion (USD 100 billion) at present.4 Tepco knows that it cannot restart any of the assets at Fukushima Daiichi, even the 2 reactors (Fukushima Daiichi Numbers 5 and 6) that remain operable. The more resources it pours into Fukushima Daiichi, the less it has to deploy elsewhere on projects where it has the prospect of making money. So Fukushima Daiichi is a black hole so far as Tepco is concerned.
As for the NRA, it is a new organization, and strapped for staff. It already has about 40 of its scant personnel deployed up at Fukushima Daiichi. It has an additional 80 staff divided into three teams currently assessing reactor safety upgrades (those that have applied for restarts) throughout the country. As noted, the NRA has been very public in insisting that Tepco be more forthcoming and forthright with information and efforts up at Fukushima Daiichi. But the NRA cannot force Tepco to act as it deems necessary. This was made clear by the fact that Tepco took its time in revealing the leakage of radiation into the sea, even though the NRA had been insisting on action for weeks. As for independent action, the NRA is limited in what it can do because it is a regulatory agency and lacks the human and financial resources to cope with the enormity of what is unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi.
Andrew DeWit is Professor in the School of Policy Studies at Rikkyo University and an Asia-Pacific Journal coordinator.