News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Japan’s Fukushima Faces Long Road to Repair

Repost This

By Paul Brown, Climate News Network

The cleanup after the catastrophic nuclear accident two years ago at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is not going well. Radioactive cooling water is leaking into the ground from at least three vast storage tanks, and the vulnerability of the plant to further accidents was revealed when a rat chewed through an electric cable, cutting off vital cooling.

Those setbacks came as a 12-man team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna toured the stricken plants to assess the country’s efforts to make safe, clean up and eventually dismantle the crippled reactors.

An imminent International Atomic Energy Agency report is expected to make depressing reading – for Japan and for other nuclear energy states.
Credit: flickr/IAEA Image Bank

Within Japan there is alarm at the situation and criticism of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tepco. Even government safety officials say the company is not demonstrating that it is competent in dealing with a problem that will probably take decades to solve, judging by other serious nuclear accidents.

Spent nuclear fuel melted into lumps of unknown size will remain dangerous for hundreds of years, and so far no one has devised a method of retrieving it.

Tepco admits only that the leaks are a “crisis” but says has it has kept the stricken reactors stable by injecting water continuously.  Without the water the spent fuel inside the reactors could overheat, causing another potential radioactive release.

But it is the massive amount of radioactive water that is becoming part of the problem, because it cannot be discharged into the sea without breaching international law and risking contamination of fish stocks.

Instead it is pumped into reservoirs that have been inadequately lined, and it is from three of these that the radioactive leaks of thousands of gallons are continuing. Pumping the reservoirs dry to solve the problem will take weeks.

Still seeking safety

Comments by Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, summed up the current situation: “The Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in an unstable condition, and there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident. We have instructed Tepco to work on reducing some of the biggest risks, and we as regulators will step up monitoring.”

Washing down a potentially-contaminated U.S. aircraft carrier’s flight deck off Japan, 2011.
Credit: U.S. Navy

Even without the leaks and the rats, just keeping the plant safe following the damage inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami two years ago is keeping 3,000 laborers busy. They work in difficult contaminated conditions in an area isolated from normal life. A large perimeter round the plant is off limits.

The 160,000 people who used to live nearby and were evacuated when the scale of the disaster became apparent are unlikely to be allowed to return for years, if at all. There is still little information about the extent of the contamination.

Even without the safety fears, the costs of dealing with the problem will be enormous and a drain on Tepco’s finances for decades. How to bring the reactors to a safe, stable state remains an unsolved problem.

The last serious nuclear accident, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, is still causing concern, and international efforts to make the reactor safe are continuing. That reactor exploded, spilling radioactive dust over a vast area of Europe. Again an exclusion zone was established while emergency repairs were carried out.

Today there is still a huge area known as the dead zone around the reactor while the international community pays for a scheme to try to keep the reactor safe for another 100 years or so. The initial cap or sarcophagus built to cover the reactor is in danger of crumbling and causing another radioactive release.

50 years of uncertainty

The latest plan to avoid this happening involves building a giant concrete arch that will be moved on rails over the stricken reactor to contain any further collapse. The arch is being constructed away from the sarcophagus to avoid the continuing radiation and will be wheeled over it.

The 160,000 people who used to live nearby and were evacuated when the scale of the disaster became apparent are unlikely to be allowed to return for years, if at all.
Credit: flickr/IAEA Image Bank

At 270 meters across, 150 meters long and 100 meters high it is the largest moveable structure in the world.  There are hopes that it will be completed in 2015, but even this is seen as only a temporary solution. The cost is estimated at around $1.5 billion.

How long completely cleaning up a nuclear accident on the scale of Fukushima will really take is anyone’s guess. In 1957, before Chernobyl had even been built, there was a serious fire at Windscale in the United Kingdom at a reactor built to provide plutonium for Britain’s first generation of nuclear weapons.

The fire burned out of control for only three days before being extinguished. Fifty six years later, the melted fuel remains inside the reactor, or Pile Number One as it is called. Over the years several attempts to remove it and make it safe have been started and abandoned, on safety grounds.

The site remains guarded and monitored inside the Sellafield nuclear plant, as Windscale is now known, its future still uncertain, its lurking danger all but forgotten by the outside world.

That was one small reactor on fire more than half a century ago. The Fukushima accident involved four much larger reactors, but with similar problems – large quantities of melted fuel which have yet to be recovered. The present generation’s grandchildren may still be wrestling with the problem at the end of this century.

Paul Brown is a joint editor at Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.

Comments

By Curt Clay (Coos Bay, OR, 97420)
on May 5th, 2013

The sea around the plant is radioactive,  they are about to release even more radioactive water, and it continues to vent radioactive isotopes that make it across the sea and pass “in waves” over the west coast of America.

Perhaps there should be a moratorium on PhDs related to nuclear power unless they aim specifically to address the issue of what to do with the waste, still piling up and threatening the health of us all.

Reply to this comment

By Angelo Festa (San Francisco)
on May 6th, 2013

A well written book on this fiasco, is DEVIL’S TANGO, by Cecile Pineda.  Recent events have made her sordid depiction of the realities of Fukishima, somewhat dated.  In other words, as bad a picture she portrays, the situation has gotten far worse. 
Another good source is Dr. Helen Caldicott, who has been studying nuclear contamination since before Chernoble.

Reply to this comment

By Charlie Vaughan (Redwood Valley CA 95470)
on May 7th, 2013

A good article that relays some of the problems..there are so many at Fukushima. Not mentioned are the spent fuel pools (particularly Unit #4; 100 feet up in a damaged building) that have to have constant cooling water or the contained fuel rods will go critical, causing an uncontrollable nuclear fire, resulting in a radioactive, atmospheric release at least 80 times that of Chernobyl. If this were to occur, (perhaps as a result of another large earthquake/tsunami), the entire site would have to be abandoned due to extreme radiation…other fuel pools on site would then go critical as well. The result would be a global-environmental-genetic cataclysm. Japan evacuated 160,000….how do you “evacuate” tens of millions or more….to where?
This is not an exaggeration…we are truly in uncharted waters. We have never faced a situation this critical, ever…and the silence is deafening.
People must be informed - Check out fairewinds.com, fukushimaresponse.org, nuclearfreeplanet.org

Reply to this comment

By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on May 7th, 2013

The casualties from the tsunami which crippled the Fukushima reactors were huge. The nuclear aftermath is clearly very serious and ranks as one of the worst nuclear incidents in history as discussed in this report. But the fact remains that the greatest threat to human life in this entire thing was overwhelmingly from the tsunami. Logically that means that the focus of long range research there should be on tsunami defense. But the media and public reaction to the whole thing remains focused on the radiation threat. That is an acute issue in Japan and not to be downplayed either, but there is also an imbalance. There is a psychological aspect to the out-of-balance fear many people have of radioactivity and nuclear stuff in general versus other things. This makes it a hot button issue. For some the fear is truly palpable but out of all proportion. For example, many people used to be scared of having an MRI done back in the day when it was called NMR because the N stood for nuclear.  They changed the name but not the technology and now it is routinely acceptable.

Safety is of paramount importance and the Japanese Fukushima plants were also fairly old. All US nuclear power plants are old too with some far older than Fukushima. That is a looming issue in this country. Also US operators do not send spent fuel for reprocessing and it is therefore typically all stored on site in cooling ponds. So there is indeed just cause for concern over nuclear safety in the US.

On the other hand, from the perspective of carbon footprint, ultimately and ideally a combination of highly regulated and modern nuclear for baseload capacity along with wind and solar renewables makes the most sense. The point then is should the US and everyone else discard / phase out nuclear the way the Germans have in response to Fukushima?  Or should we invest in updating nuclear?

Some things to consider. Modern designs for nuclear power plants are far safer than earlier designs and some advanced designs on the drawing board are even completely immune to core meltdown in that if the plant should lose all power and water the core is designed to remain intact and cool off all by itself. Decommissioning old plants and replacing them with modern ones is extremely expensive but it can be done. Britain does it. The downside is much higher energy cost. There are techniques available, although not commonly used, to immobilize waste from spent fuel prior to disposal so that it can never leach out into water supplies. Facilities exist in some countries in Europe for fuel reprocessing but it is expensive. The Japanese had their fuel routinely reprocessed in Britain. Ironically, their ships carrying the spent fuel often sometimes had to run a gauntlet of Greenpeace eco ships attacking them from New Zealand.

Fossil fuels are cheap. But fossil fuels have significant chronic health, environmental and safety issues not least of which is climate change from the carbon pollution.

It’s a complex issue. But clearly to have any chance of approaching a rationally optimum energy solution we first need to take the emotions and special interests out of it. Unfortunately, doing that might be harder than solving world hunger.

Reply to this comment

By T Warr
on May 10th, 2013

It’s been a few months now since the Japanese government released their 440 page report on the Fukushima disaster.[1] They blame just about everybody imaginable, going back decades before the place was even built. But glaringly absent from the long blame-list is the company that built the time bomb - General Electric. Their poor design was as much a cause of the escalation of the disaster as anything else, but yet they’re blameless. I call BS.

http://twarr1.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-fukushima-corporate-made-disaster.html

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
City/State/Zip:
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.