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Asia

A year and a half after Fukushima

One and a half years after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, a change of heart in the country's energy policies is underway - at least partially.

"Radioactivity has not yet been found outside of the reactors. There is no danger to the environment at the moment. Please remain calm and follow instructions provided by your township, police or fire department."

On the evening of March 11, 2011 the former spokesman of the Japanese government was still trying to comfort the public. Not long after, residents living within a large radius were ordered to evacuate due to high levels of radiation.

The meltdown in reactor 1 had already started and reactor blocks 2 and 3 could not be sufficiently cooled. A total of three inquiry panels have investigated the incident at the stricken Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. The findings: the earthquake and ensuing tsunami were responsible for triggering the disaster. But the responsibility lies with the plant operator, TEPCO, as well as with the politicians for initially blocking any discourse on the matter - over the decades, politicians, scientists and bureaucrats had created a kind of nuclear cartel that was able to block all questions.

Smoke billows from the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Fukushima Prefecture on March 21, 2011 (Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Co./ Kyodo/ MaxPPP)

The crisis at the Fukushima plant forced mass evacuations

"The greatest risk lies in the question what we will do with the water that has been used to cool off the reactor blocks. That remains a very difficult task."

That is how Hidehiko Nishiyama, then spokesman of the Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, described the situation on April 9, 2011. A solution to said water problem has yet to be found a year and a half later. Around 200,000 tons of highly radioactive water is sitting in tanks at the Fukushima 1 plant. Within the next three years, TEPCO plans to build more containers for another 470 thousand tons of water. Despite the decontamination machines, which have been set up by now, around 400 tons of lightly radioactive water is collected each day.

Indecisiveness

What will happen to that water has not yet been decided. The question of where to put highly radioactive waste also remains open. A disposal site is due to be set up as an interim solution in a nearby township. The radiation there is so high that the township's residents will not be able to return for years.

But many years will also pass before workers at the plant can begin with the disposal of the fuel rods, as the level of radioactivity in reactor buildings 1 to 3 is so high - 3,000 millisieverts per hour - that people cannot work there.

In addition to the two existing robots, a new one was constructed specifically for Fukushima in July. It is supposed to assess situation around the pressure tanks - it still cannot be said just how badly they were damaged.

At least temperatures have not risen significantly since last December, when the Japanese prime minister spoke of a cold shutdown - which, according to many experts, was announced far too soon.

Anti-nuclear protesters attend a rally in Tokyo (Photo: REUTERS/ Yuriko Nakao)

Anti-nuclear protest has not ebbed in Japan

Another example of just how difficult it is to collect reliable information about the condition of the plant is that only 16 of the 41 thermometers are working in block 2.

Not long ago, TEPCO removed two unused fuel rods from block 4. The operation was conducted as a test for the removal of the used ones, which are supposed to be removed by the end of the year 2013. The sanitation of the entire plant, on the other hand, is expected to take over 40 years.

A change of heart

Directly after the disaster, a phase-out from nuclear energy was not on Japan's political agenda. Now, a year and a half later, that has changed - the Japanese people now feel very differently about nuclear power. Over 50 percent of Japanese now demand a phase-out by 2030. Conservative politicians are still quite reluctant to make any concessions, though the ruling party has already put something to that effect in its election campaign.

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