News / Asia

Fukushima Clean-up Turns Toxic for Japan's TEPCO

Workers take a break at Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. June 12, 2013.
Workers take a break at Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. June 12, 2013.
Reuters
Two-and-a-half years after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the operator of Japan's wrecked Fukushima plant faces a daunting array of unknowns.
 
Why the plant intermittently emits steam; how groundwater seeps into its basement; whether fixes to the cooling system will hold; how nearby groundwater is contaminated by radioactive matter; how toxic water ends up in the sea and how to contain water that could overwhelm the facility's storage tanks.
 
What is clear, say critics, is that Tokyo Electric Power Co is keeping a nervous Japanese public in the dark about what it does know.
 
The inability of the utility, known as TEPCO, to get to grips with the situation raises questions over whether it can successfully decommission the Fukushima Daiichi plant, say industry experts and analysts.
 
“They let people know about the good things and hide the bad things. This culture of cover up hasn't changed since the disaster,” said Atsushi Kasai, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute.
 
TEPCO's handling of the clean-up has complicated Japan's efforts to restart its 50 nuclear power plants, almost all of which have been idled since the disaster over local community concerns about safety.
 
That has made Japan dependent on expensive imported fuels for virtually all its energy.
 
Radiation Complicates the Job
 
A 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami off Japan's eastern coast killed nearly 20,000 people on March 11, 2011. It also destroyed the Fukushima plant, causing meltdowns at some of its reactors and hydrogen explosions. Radiation leaked into the air and sea.
 
TEPCO was heavily criticized by nuclear experts and the government at the time for what was seen as an inept response to the disaster. It has won few supporters since.
 
The company says it is doing its best with the clean-up at the plant, 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Tokyo, adding so much is unknown because workers cannot get to every corner of the facility because of high radiation.
 
But the missteps continue.
 
Reversing months of denials, TEPCO said on July 22 that radioactive water from the plant was reaching the ocean.
 
That was the latest, and according to experts and anti-nuclear activists, the most glaring in a string of belated admissions that have undermined public trust in Japan's largest utility.
 
In January, TEPCO found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but TEPCO denied the claims.
 
It investigated only after Japan's new nuclear watchdog expressed alarm earlier this month at TEPCO's own reports of huge spikes in radioactive cesium, tritium and strontium in groundwater near the shore.
 
TEPCO apologized while President Naomi Hirose took a pay cut as a result.
 
“They had said it wouldn't reach the ocean, that they didn't have the data to show that it was going into the ocean,” said Masashi Goto, a former nuclear engineer for Toshiba Corp who has worked at plants run by TEPCO and other utilities.
 
Frustrated at Communication
 
A TEPCO spokesman said the company was trying to communicate with the public.
 
“We do our best to present our explanations behind the possible causes of what's happening,” he said.
 
TEPCO was incompetent rather than intentionally withholding information, said Dale Klein, who chairs a third-party panel commissioned by TEPCO to oversee the reform of its nuclear division and a decomissioning process that could cost at least $11 billion and take up to 40 years.
 
“The plant is in a difficult physical configuration. I have some sympathy,” Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Reuters. “It's not the fact that we're having surprises - it's the way they're handling them. That's where my frustrations are.”
 
TEPCO says it is dealing with the clean-up hand-in-hand with the government. It has also relied on expertise from the U.S. Department of Energy and General Electric.
 
But a Reuters investigation in December found that foreign companies had won few, if any, contracts to develop technologies for scrapping the reactors.
 
TEPCO, accused by experts of lacking transparency even before the disaster, was heavily criticized in the days after the calamity for not providing timely information to the public.
 
It was more than two months before it said three of the six reactors at the plant had suffered nuclear meltdowns. Industry experts had suspected meltdowns long before that.
 
Since the beginning of this year, the plant has been plagued by problems.
 
A worker on the site spotted steam rising from the No. 3 reactor building, but TEPCO has only been able to speculate on its cause. In March, a rat shorted a temporary switchboard and cut power for 29 hours that was used to cool spent uranium fuel rods in pools.
 
Water Storage Nightmare
 
Experts say TEPCO is attempting the most ambitious nuclear clean-up in history, even greater than the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
 
One of its biggest headaches is trying to contain radioactive water that cools the reactors as it mixes with some 400 tons of fresh groundwater pouring into the plant daily.
 
Workers have built more than 1,000 tanks to store the mixed water, which accumulates at the rate of an Olympic swimming pool each week.
 
With more than 85 percent of the 380,000 tons of storage capacity filled, TEPCO has said it could run out of space.
 
The tanks are built from parts of disassembled old containers brought from defunct factories and put together with new parts, workers from the plant told Reuters. They say steel bolts in the tanks will corrode in a few years.
 
TEPCO says it does not know how long the tanks will hold. It reckons it would need to more than double the current capacity over the next three years to contain all the water. It has no plan for after that.
 
Instead, the utility wants to stem the flow of groundwater before it reaches the reactors by channeling it around the plant and into the sea through a “bypass”.
 
The groundwater would be captured at the elevated end of the plant into a system of wells and channeled into pipes that would carry it to the sea.
 
Local fishermen oppose the idea, dismissing TEPCO's claims that radiation levels in the water would be negligible.
 
Meanwhile, TEPCO's improvised efforts to stop radioactive water leaking into the sea include sinking an 800-meter-long steel barrier along the coastline, injecting the ground with solidifying chemicals and possibly even freezing the ground with technology used in subway-tunnel construction.
 
Industry experts are not impressed.
 
“You can't do temporary fixes in nuclear power,” said Goto. “They say everything's fine until bad data comes out.”

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Resolve Nuclear Deal Issues

Leaders find resolution on issues of liability of suppliers to India in event of nuclear accident, US demands to track whereabouts of material supplied to country More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid