Japan faces decision on radioactive Fukushima water

An employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) uses a geiger counter next to storage tanks for radioactive water at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on January 17 2020.
SAFETY TESTING: An employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) uses a geiger counter next to storage tanks for radioactive water at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on January 17 2020.
Image: AARON SHELDRICK/REUTERS
A view of the top of the damaged No 1 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on January 15 2020.
ATHLETES CONCERNED: A view of the top of the damaged No 1 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on January 15 2020.
Image: AARON SHELDRICK/REUTERS

At the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant north of Tokyo, workers in protective suits are still removing radioactive material from reactors that melted down after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out its power and cooling nearly nine years ago.

On an exclusive tour of the plant, spread over 3.5m², reporters witnessed giant remote-controlled cranes dismantling an exhaust tower and other structures in a highly radioactive zone, while spent fuel was removed from a reactor.

Officials from Tokyo Electric, which owns the plant, also showed new tanks to hold increasing amounts of contaminated water.

About 4,000 workers are tackling the cleanup, many wearing protective gear, though more than 90% of the plant is deemed to have so little radioactivity that no extra precautions are needed.

Photography was highly restricted and no conversations were allowed with the workers.

Work to dismantle the plant has taken nearly a decade so far, but with Tokyo due to host the Olympics this summer — including some events less than 60km from the power station — there has been renewed focus on safeguarding the venues.

“Tepco tries to disclose all information to the public as soon as possible.

“If something happens at the site, we let people know by e-mail, for example,” said Kan Nihonyanagi, risk communicator at Fukushima.

The build-up of contaminated water has been a sticking point in the cleanup, which is likely to last decades, and has alarmed neighbouring countries.

In 2018, Tepco said it had not been able to remove all dangerous material from the water — and the site was running out of room for storage tanks.

Officials overseeing a panel of experts looking into the contaminated water issue said in December choices on disposal should be narrowed to two: either dilute the water and dump it in the Pacific Ocean, or allow it to evaporate.

The Japanese government may decide within months, and either process would take years to complete, experts say.

“The Olympics are coming, so we have to prepare for that, and Tepco has to disclose all the information not only to local communities but also to foreign countries and especially to those people coming from abroad,” said Joji Hara, a Tokyo-based spokesperson for the power company who accompanied reporters during the visit.

Tepco had opened English-language Twitter and Facebook accounts, he said, and was also preparing to put out basic emergency information in Korean and Chinese.

Athletes from at least one country, South Korea, are planning to bring their own radiation detectors and food this summer.

Baseball and softball will be played in Fukushima City, about 60km from the destroyed nuclear plant.

The torch relay will begin at a sports facility called J-Village, an operations base for Fukushima Daiichi in the first few years of the disaster, then pass through areas near the damaged station on its way to Tokyo.

In December, Greenpeace said it found radiation “hotspots” at J-Village, about 18km south of the plant.

When Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that Fukushima was “under control” in his final pitch to the International Olympic Committee.

In 2016, the Japanese government estimated the total cost of plant dismantlement, decontamination of affected areas, and compensation would be ¥21.5-trillion (R2.8-trillion) — roughly a fifth of the country’s annual budget at the time. - Aaron Sheldrick


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