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Fukushima nuclear crisis still unfolding 6 years on, decommissioning plans foggy
While Japan marks the sixth anniversary on Saturday of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, how the aftermath has been dealt with has drawn much attention and concern from all over the world.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO), operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has said it plans to decommission the reactors in about four decades.
However, the difficult tasks such as processing contaminated water, cooling the reactors and removing nuclear fuel and debris, continue to pose serious challenges to the power company as well as the government.
Decommissioning Highly Problematic
The massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011 severely damaged three reactors at Daiichi facility in Fukushima, which suffered core meltdowns after their key cooling systems were knocked out and backup power supplies rendered useless.
TEPCO has, since the disaster, successfully decommissioned the No. 5 and 6 reactors at the plant, and more than 1,500 fuel rods in the No. 4 reactor have been taken out and safely stored.
But removing the melted nuclear fuel rods from the No.1-3 reactors poses the biggest challenge yet to the decommission work, according to experts, and TEPCO, apparently, has not come up with a viable solution yet.
Naohiro Masuda, head of the decommissioning unit of TEPCO, told Xinhua recently that TEPCO will come up with a plan after discussing with the government this summer, but how the plan will proceed is not yet clear.
One of the difficulties lies in the extremely high radiation levels inside the reactors, and the fact that the actual condition of the melted fuel inside the reactors remains unknown.
The operator of the crippled power plant said last month that levels of radiation as high as 650 sieverts per hour were detected inside the No. 2 reactor, much higher than an earlier reading of 73 sieverts per hour in 2012. The amount of radiation is enough to kill a person, even after being exposed for just a brief period of time.
Even robots sent to gather information in the damaged reactor suffered malfunctions and failures, possibly due to extremely high levels of radiation.
The power company said on Thursday that it will attempt to examine the inside of the No. 1 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant next Tuesday using another remote-controlled robot, following a failure last month to robotically look into the No. 2 reactor.
There have also been concerns that the melted nuclear fuel residue is eroding through the concrete bottom of the safety shell of the reactors, having already penetrated the reactor pressure vessel.
Masuda denied such a possibility, however, saying that "although we don't have direct confirmation about the concrete bottom of the safety shell, based on other information, we think the residue has not eroded through the bottom."
"The bottom might have been eroded by fifty or sixty centimeters, but it is as thick as two or three meters, so there is no need to worry," he added.
Contamination in Pacific Unknown
To keep the No.1 to 3 reactors cooled, TEPCO has to inject a large amount of fresh water into the reactors constantly. The water becomes radioactive in the process and is then stored in the basement of the reactor buildings.
TEPCO's "decontamination" facilities can remove radioactive cesium and strontium from the water but not tritium, and now there is close to 1 million tons of "decontaminated" water stored in giant steel tanks at the nuclear plant, and the amount of water is increasing.
TEPCO released a limited amount of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean after getting approval from the local fishery association in September 2015. But there is not yet enough scientific research to determine the effects of the contaminated water on the sea.
TEPCO has also tried to build a frozen soil wall around the crippled Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant, to prevent groundwater from flowing into the facilities and getting contaminated.
The wall was built by driving around 1,500 steel pipes, 30 meters into the soil around the perimeter surrounding the No. 1 to 4 reactors at the troubled plant and then pumping liquid calcium chloride at minus 40 degrees Celsius into the pipes to freeze the surrounding soil.
The wall reportedly melted in two places following powerful typhoons last September, raising concerns over the efficacy of such an unprecedented and expensive approach.
Costs, Corruption Spike
According to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the cost of the decontamination work, including soil and tree removal, is expected to surge to 4 trillion yen (35 billion U.S. dollars) in total.
The profitable project has also led to an increase in corruption, as evidenced recently by a 56-year-old environment ministry employee arrested on suspicion of accepting a bribe.
The employee was found to have given favorable treatment to a construction company in the allocation of cleanup work in Fukushima Prefecture after he was treated with nice dinners and free trips.
The case is only "the tip of the iceberg," according to local media, as there have been a lot of rumors about corruption connected to the multi-trillion-yen decontamination project.
Meanwhile, the skyrocketing costs are also imposing a higher burden on the power company as well as taxpayers here.
A special law requires TEPCO to cover all the costs of the decontamination work, although the government is shouldering it for the time being.
The government also plans to chip in more taxpayer money and other financial support to help TEPCO, including expanding a 9-trillion-yen interest-free loan program for TEPCO, to 13.5 trillion yen.
Besides such huge fees, TEPCO is also mired in lawsuits filed by evacuees from the Fukushima disaster.
A court is expected to rule later this month on a suit filed by some 137 people forced to flee from Fukushima in 2011, demanding the power company and the Japanese government pay a total of around 1.5 billion yen in damages.
[Source: Xinhua, Tokyio, 11Mar17]
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