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Decommission fail

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
August 27, 2013

With nearly every day bringing new problems at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. appears to have admitted defeat in its effort to decommission the reactors on its own.

An aerial view shows workers wearing protective suits and masks work at a construction site (C) of the shore barrier to stop radioactive water from leaking into the sea, at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 9, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo)
Image: Reuters/Kyodo

Nearly 30 months after a massive earthquake and tsunami roared through the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, triggering the uncontrolled melt-through of nuclear fuel in three of the facility's four reactors, TEPCO, the plant's operator, has essentially conceded that it does not have the capability to deal with the second-worst nuclear disaster in history.

On Monday, Toshimitsu Motegi, the minister of trade and industry, was given a guided tour of the plant by senior officials of the company to see for himself the scale of the problems that have yet to be solved.

"The urgency of the situation is very high," a stern-faced Motegi told reporters. "From here on, the government will take charge."

Motegi said the utility should have conducted more frequent and thorough checks on the tanks and replaced weaker units with more resilient welded tanks.

Tanks of radiation-contaminated water are seen at the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, in this file photo released by Kyodo March 1, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo/Files)
A leak was found in one of the water tanks in August; contaminated water may have reached the oceanImage: Reuters

'Serious incident'

The minister's visit came just days after Japan's Nuclear Regulation Agency classified the leak of an estimated 300 tons of highly radioactive water from a steel tank close to the reactors as a Level Three "serious incident" on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The leaks had gone unnoticed as the tank was not fitted with a gauge to monitor the level of the water inside.

The following day - after checks of other tanks holding hundreds of thousands of tons of water contaminated after being sprayed on the damaged reactors to keep their temperatures constant - two additional "hot spots" of elevated radiation levels were identified nearby.

Coupled with a series of earlier mishaps - from workers being sprayed with radioactive particles to the belated admission that radioactive water is leaking into the Pacific Ocean - combined with the sense that TEPCO is simply not equipped to handle the crisis, the admissions have prompted anger among the Japanese public and apparently forced the government's hand.

"As the government, we will appropriately implement measures that require advanced technology while working closely with the authorities on fiscal measures, including the use of a reserve fund," Motegi said.

'Deplorable' situation

That financial commitment echoed comments by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who said earlier in the day that the situation at the Fukushima plant was "deplorable" and that the government could step in with a portion of the Y350 billion (US$3.57 billion) set aside in this year's budget to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters or other emergencies.

Many here believe these decisions should have been taken long ago and that TEPCO should have been ordered to accept advice and guidance from nuclear experts and organizations immediately after the disaster struck.

This photo taken on August 6, 2013 shows local government officials and nuclear experts inspecting a construction site to prevent the seepage of contamination water into the sea, at Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture. (Photo: JAPAN POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
Recent accidents have exposed workers to higher levels of radiation than permissibleImage: Getty Images/Afp/Japan Pool

"Young people have long felt that TEPCO should have been taken away from the decision-making at Fukushima a long time ago," Hirofumi Nakano, a Tokyo-based radio show host and journalist, told Deutsche Welle.

"The older generation might feel differently as they still have a degree of belief in big companies that were behind the emergence of 'Japan Inc.', but I don't think anyone really trusts TEPCO any more," he added.

"They have not told us everything about the problems at the plant, so how can we trust them?" he asked. "But then again, this type of situation has never happened in the past and if you force TEPCO to step back, who are you going to put in their place?"

No public support

An editorial in Monday's edition of the Yomiuri newspaper underlined the sense that the company had lost the public's support.

"The utility's capability to cope with the crisis, however, is nearing its limits in terms of both financial and personnel resources," it said. "Under the circumstances, a wider range of assistance and cooperation from the government will certainly become more and more important to address the problem."

Tomoko Murakami, a nuclear energy expert with the Institute of Energy Economics Japan, defended TEPCO's actions and said it had done the best it could in the circumstances.

"The problem is that no-one knows the best thing to do in this situation as it has never happened before," she said. "But I agree; the Japanese people no longer have faith in TEPCO."

The company suggested that senior management at the utility may very well have reached the same conclusion and that it could be time to share the burden of decommissioning the reactors, a task that is conservatively estimated to take three decades.

An aerial view shows workers wearing protective suits and masks working atop contaminated water storage tanks at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 20, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo)
Japan's nuclear watchdog has recently voiced concern over the possibility that there could be further leaksImage: Reuters

"The idea is circulating that maybe the right thing to do is to separate the decommissioning effort, which would leave a company that was set up to operate nuclear reactors to get on with that side of its operations," a TEPCO official who wished not to be named told Deutsche Welle.

"TEPCO never designed this plant and was never meant to decommission it when it reached the end of its useful life, so it should focus on what it does, which is making electricity.

"I think the company just doesn't have the expertise that is required and they urgently need more outside experts," the official added. "One way to do this would be to hive the decommissioning into a separate government-funded entity and allow TEPCO to put all its attention onto safely operating power plants as we go forward."

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