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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

John the XXIII and John Paul II will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square on April 27 More

Thailand Reacts to Plots Targeting Israelis

Authorities hope arrest of two Lebanese suspects will disrupt plot to attack young Israeli tourists More

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

'Once Upon a Forest' takes viewers deep into heart of tropical rainforest More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Churchi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 22, 2014 4:14 PM
On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Robotic Mission Kicks Up Lunar Dust

A robotic mission to the moon was deliberately crashed onto the lunar surface late last week, but not before scientists had collected data gathered by the spacecraft which was designed to self-destruct. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on the preliminary findings of the craft, called LADEE - an acronym for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
Video

Video Boko Haram Claims Responsibility for Bombing in Nigerian Capital

The Nigerian militant group known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a bombing in the capital on April 14th that killed 75 people. In the video message, Abubakar Shekau, the man who says he ordered the bombing, says nothing about the mass abduction of more than 100 teenage girls, most of whom are still missing. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Abuja.
Video

Video Ukraine Developments Hang Over Obama Trip to Asia

President Barack Obama's trip to Asia this week comes as concerns over Beijing's territorial ambitions are growing in the region. Those concerns have been compounded by Russia's recent actions in Ukraine and the possibility that Chinese strategists might be looking to Crimea as a model for its territorial disputes with its neighbors. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid