Japanese government intervenes to shore up crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Martin Fackler — Globe and Mail August 8, 2013

First, a rat gnawed through exposed wiring, setting off a scramble to end another worrisome blackout at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Then, hastily built pits for a flood of contaminated water sprang leaks themselves. Now, a new rush of radioactive water has breached a barrier built to stop it, allowing heavily contaminated water to spill daily into the Pacific.

As the scope of the latest crisis became clearer Wednesday, Japan’s popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe, ordered his government to intervene in the cleanup of the plant – taking a more direct role than any government since the triple meltdowns in 2011 qualified Fukushima as the world’s second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl.

Abe, a staunch defender of the country’s nuclear program, appears to have calculated that he needed to intervene to rebuild public trust and salvage a pillar of his economic revival plan: the restarting of Japan’s many idled nuclear plants. That trust has been eroded not only by the original catastrophe, but also by 2 1/2 years of sometimes embarrassing missteps by the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, and what many Japanese see as the company’s continuing attempts to mislead the public and cover up unending problems at the plant.

“This is not an issue we can let TEPCO take complete responsibility of,” Abe told a group of Cabinet ministers as they gathered to discuss the water problem that has swiftly emerged as the biggest challenge at the plant and that appears to be spiraling out of control. “We must deal with this at the national level.”

But taking a bigger role in a vast and unprecedented cleanup may also be a political gamble for Abe, especially if the government proves as unable as TEPCO to contain the unending leaks of radioactive materials from the devastated plant.

Many analysts said Abe’s move was an admission that previous governments had erred by entrusting the 40-year, $11-billion cleanup to the same company that many blame for allowing the catastrophe to happen in the first place. TEPCO’s leadership has been particularly worrisome, critics say, since it remains enmeshed in the ties between the government and the industry that many say made the plant vulnerable.

TEPCO had clung to the chance to lead the cleanup as an opportunity to redeem itself and regain its former position as a leading member of Japan’s corporate community. But some critics say it has continued to lose credibility by repeatedly underplaying dangers at the plant, following a pattern set in the early days of the disaster when it hid information about the extent of the damage and frequently bungled its response.

The company balked at adding seawater to the reactors even as their cores became dangerously hot, for fear of ruining them for good, and officials did not acknowledge for two months that there were meltdowns in three reactors. In the case of the latest leak – a flood of groundwater tainted with radioactive tritium, cesium and strontium – the company denied that it posed any threat to the Pacific, even after regulators publicly said evidence suggested the company was wrong.

TEPCO’s own advisory group of foreign experts criticized the company’s late admission that the water was reaching the sea, with one saying it “brings into question whether TEPCO has a plan and is doing all it can to protect the environment and the people.”

Although the advisers said TEPCO was doing a good job cleaning up, other experts and some regulators have questioned the company’s ability to handle the highly complex decommissioning of reactors.

“This is an admission by the government that TEPCO has mismanaged the cleanup and misinformed the public,” said Eiji Yamaguchi, a professor of science and technology policy at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “The government has no choice but to end two years of TEPCO obfuscating the actual condition of the plant.”

The groundwater problems at the plant started soon after the disaster, when TEPCO realized that tons of water flowing from the mountains and toward the sea were pouring into the contaminated reactor buildings. The company began storing the water that had to be pumped out in multiplying rows of tanks and pits. But the company was slow to come up with longer-term solutions, like digging wells to draw out the water before it reached the buildings.

Then, in May, TEPCO realized it had a new problem, with contaminants apparently leaking from a maze of conduits near the wrecked reactors causing a spike in radiation levels in groundwater elsewhere in the plant. It began to build an underground “wall” created by injected hardening chemicals into the soil – even as it denied there was a threat to the ocean – but the barrier created a dam and water pooled behind it eventually began to flow over.

On Wednesday, government officials said they believed 300 tons, or 75,000 gallons, of the tainted water was entering the ocean daily.

The amounts of some radioactive materials, like cancer-causing strontium, flowing into the ocean are above safety limits, but experts say that given the size of the plant’s previous releases, the new ones are relatively minor.

Some experts suggested Wednesday that the government’s intervention may be the first step in attempts to win public acceptance for what they say is an increasing inevitability: the dumping into the ocean of some of the less contaminated of the huge amount of water being stored in hulking tanks that are overwhelming the plant.

At a news conference last week, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, seemed to lay the groundwork, saying eventually “it will be necessary to discharge water,” a possible solution likely to raise concerns not only in Japan but in other Pacific Rim countries.

Whether the government intervention will help remedy the groundwater issue is an open question, Yamaguchi and others said. The government’s expanded role will likely be led by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, or METI, which has been criticized for its close ties to TEPCO and the rest of the nuclear industry that it nurtured since before Japan’s first commercial reactor went online in the 1960s.

Other aspects of the Fukushima plant’s decommissioning have also been dominated by other members of Japan’s collusive “nuclear village,” as the close-knit industry is called, including reactor makers and politically connected large construction companies. Experts have long worried that the government erred early on by refusing to bring in other Japanese and foreign companies in leading roles despite their expertise, such as U.S. companies with experience in nuclear cleanups from Three Mile Island.

“Without involving outsiders, there will be no way to know for sure what is really happening at Fukushima Daiichi,” Yamaguchi said.

It was also not entirely clear how intensively the government would actually get involved in the cleanup, or whether it will allow TEPCO to remain in charge. Abe did not give specifics beyond directing his ministers to help resolve the water problem, which he said was causing public anxiety.

On Wednesday, local news reports quoted unidentified officials in METI as saying that Tokyo would likely help pay for a $400 million wall of ice that is being planned to surround the damaged reactor buildings and keep at bay groundwater before it can become contaminated.

Some top officials hinted that Wednesday’s move amounted to little more than an effort to provide public money to assist TEPCO. Others suggested that the government might seek to take the lead in at least certain aspects of the cleanup, like the technologically challenging ice wall.

“There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale,” the government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told reporters.

Indeed, the proposed ice wall is seen here as a symbol of both the daunting technological challenges posed by the cleanup, and the need – critics say desperation – for creative solutions as the plant, which already stores enough contaminated water to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools, is faced with having to store hundreds of more tons every day.

The plan calls for freezing the soil around the reactor buildings to keep out groundwater before it can become contaminated. The wall would run nearly a mile in length and reach almost 100 feet into the ground. Officials said no wall of ice on such a scale has ever been attempted before, and was thus beyond the capacities of TEPCO alone to pull off.

But even as TEPCO – and now the government – place a bet on the ambitious plans for the wall, experts have begun to raise concerns, such as that the wall will need to be consistently cooled using electricity at a plant vulnerable to power failures. The original disaster was brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electricity.

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