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Asia

Problems persist at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors

Five years after the second-worst nuclear accident in history, contaminated water is still hampering efforts to gain control of the site. Local residents are reluctant to return to their homes. Julian Ryall reports.

It has been five years and five months since three of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were crippled by the biggest earthquake and tsunami to strike Japan in living memory. Work continues at the site to clean up the radioactivity that escaped into the atmosphere and to regain control of the reactors.

In its press releases, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) insists that steps taken since the accident are slowly but surely having an effect. But not everyone accepts their assurances - or those of the wider nuclear industry as it seeks public support to restart reactors across the country that have been mothballed since March 2011.

"There are numerous problems that are all interconnected, but one of the biggest that we are facing at the moment is the highly contaminated water that is being stored in huge steel tanks at the site," Aileen Mioko-Smith, an anti-nuclear activist with Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, told DW.

Local government officials and nuclear experts inspecting a monitoring well where high levels of radioactive materials were detected at Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture (Photo: JAPAN POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

TEPCO insists that steps taken since the accident are slowly but surely having an effect

"They are running out of space at the site to put these tanks, the water that is being generated on a daily basis means they have to keep constructing more, and the ones that are not welded have a history of leaking," she said.

'Ticking time bomb'

"The situation with contaminated water at the site is a ticking time bomb and they don't seem to know what they can do - other than to construct more tanks," said Mioko-Smith.

Environmental groups are calling for TEPCO and Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which oversees the industry here, to come up with a clear plan of action so that they do not simply run out of space and believe there is no option but to release contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.

TEPCO confirmed earlier this month that an estimated 10,000 tons of radioactive water had collected in underground trenches around the buildings that house reactors one, two, three and four. That was in addition to about 60,000 tons of water that had flooded the basement of the reactor and turbine buildings, according to an official at TEPCO.

"It is accumulating because around 100 tons of water are injected every day in order to keep the reactors in units one, two and three cool," the official told DW. "But we are also seeing about 150 tons of ground water seeping into those same areas each day."

While a portion of this water is being treated to remove the radioactivity, the sheer amount of water at the site makes it impossible to keep up with what is required, hence the need for storage tanks.

A panel of experts that is advising the NRA has also declared the effort to construct a frozen wall of earth around the four reactors to stop additional ground water leaking into the site to be a failure.

Frozen wall plan 'failing'

"The plan to block ground water with a frozen wall of earth is failing," Yoshinori Kitsuaka, a professor of engineering at Tokyo Metropolitan University and a member of the panel, said in a report. "They need to come up with another solution."

The TEPCO spokesperson disputes the suggestion that the 34.5 billion yen (307 million euros) ice wall scheme has failed.

"We are still in the process of freezing the entire length of the wall," the official said. "We started on the side closest to the ocean and now we are moving to the rest of the perimeter on the landward side, but we have to make sure that water levels remain constant so that contaminated water does not flow out from the area around the reactors. There are seven sections of the ice wall that are not frozen yet and we believe we will see the effects after we have completed the whole process."

These developments have largely failed to arouse the interest of the Japanese media or the public, who have been living with the consequences of the disaster since 2011, although one recent announcement did make the news.

On August 20, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirmed that it would provide compensation to a man who developed leukemia after taking part in emergency decontamination efforts at Fukushima immediately after the disaster struck.

The ministry recognized that the man, who is in his 50s but who has not been named, developed cancer due to exposure to radiation at the site, where he worked between April 2011 and January 2015.

The ministry is considering the cases of five additional workers who have applied for compensation to cover their health costs, while a former worker at the site was granted financial assistance in October of last year after contracting leukemia.

'Making best efforts'

The TEPCO spokesperson says the company is "making its best efforts" to move the recovery process forward to the point at which the final procedure - removing the melted fuel debris from within the reactors - can be achieved. The scale of that problem remains huge, however, as it has never been attempted before.

Japan Okuma Fukushima Daiichi Workers at new radiation contaminated water tanks

Work continues at the site to clean up the radioactivity

"We anticipate that it will take 30 to 40 years to reach that point as we are trying to do all the clean-up work at the same time as developing the technology to remove the fuel debris," the official said.

Yet at the same time, the national government is effectively forcing people who were evacuated from their homes close to the plant to return, saying that radioactivity levels are within permissible limits and that housing subsidies and other payments that they have been receiving while unable to work will be terminated.

"Many of these people - especially those with children - do not want to go back to areas that they have been told are safe," said Mioko-Smith, adding that there was a lack of trust in the government's promises.

"They feel that everything is being driven by the upcoming Olympic Games and that the government has to live up to its promise to the world that everything will be back to normal by 2020 and the Tokyo Games," she said.