Fukushima: Japan attempts to safely remove nuclear fuel from crippled reactors | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

Nuclear experts pondering the safest way to decommission the three crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant have devised a new plan to recover the highly radioactive debris at the site, with even anti-nuclear campaigners giving the proposal their qualified support.

They warn, however, that the situation at the plant — on the northeast coast of Japan — remains precarious more than a decade after three of the six reactors suffered meltdowns after an offshore magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a series of powerful tsunamis.

In their latest annual strategy report on progress at the plant, experts at the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Office (NDF) proposed the construction of a massive concrete tank to completely enclose one of the reactor buildings and then filling it with water.

The water will act as a shield to prevent radiation from escaping into the surrounding environment and would give engineers more space in which to operate heavy equipment to dismantle and remove the outer shell of the reactor building.

NDF experts plan to construct a massive concrete tank around one of the reactor buildings

That, in turn, would permit experts to deploy robots to more closely examine the condition of the reactor, as well as the fuel that has escaped and pooled in the building’s basement levels.

The plan was presented to the government at a meeting in Iwaki, just south of the plant, in early September, during which NDF President Hajimu Yamana explained the benefits.

Safe from radioactivity

“No radioactive materials would be swirling up underwater, so there would be almost zero impact on the outside,” Yamana told the Asahi newspaper.

He emphasized, however, that the proposal was in the initial stages and no final decision had been taken. If it works, however, then the same strategy could be deployed to help in the decommissioning of the remaining two damaged reactors at the facility.

“I cannot say anything for sure yet,” Yamana said. “We are still in the very, very early stages of the concept study. There are still a lot of things to study as the attempt would be the first of its kind in the world.”

Hajime Matsukubo, secretary-general of the Toyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, remains a vocal critic of the Japanese government’s insistence on the need for atomic energy, but agreed that the NDF plan appears to offer a number of benefits for the decommissioning process .

“The work cannot go ahead without the water shield because it would expose workers to dangerously high levels of radiation so this idea for the construction of a tank around one of the reactors is positive,” he told DW.

“But that does not mean that I am not concerned,” he said. “It will be very difficult to construct this tank, to make sure it does not leak, and it will be very expensive and take more time, of course.”

  • Plaza of the Art Tower Mito, in Mito in Japan

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    ‘Artists and the Disaster: Imagining in the 10th Year’

    By organizing the exhibition “Artists and the Disaster: Imagining in the 10th Year,” the art center in the city of Mito (photo), which suffered damage from the earthquake of 2011, looked back on the catastrophe after one decade through the eyes of Japanese artists.

  • Artwork 'Standing Near Kitaide, Namiemachi, Futaba District, Fukushima Prefecture' by Akira Kamo

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    Enchanting landscapes in the exclusion zone

    In his works, artist Akira Kamo paints the ambivalence of post-disaster scenery in nuclear exclusion zones: beautiful landscapes where no one can enter because of the risks of contamination from radioactive substances. This painting from 2019 is titled: “Standing Near Kitaide, Namiemachi, Futaba District, Fukushima Prefecture.”

  • Still from video: 'Double layered town, Making a song to replace our positions' by Haruka Komori + Natsumi Seo

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    A double-layered town

    Through video, writings and paintings, the duo Haruka Komori + Natsumi Seo depict the recovering process of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, a town that suffered tremendous damage from the tsunami, and its metamorphosis through the years. This still is from the video “Double layered town, Making a song to replace our positions.”

  • A still from the film 'A Classroom Divided by a Red Line' by Hikaru Fujii

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    Against fear and discrimination

    With his documentary film “A Classroom Divided by a Red Line,” Hikaru Fujii addresses the issue of discrimination experienced by the people of Fukushima fueled by fear and anguish towards the invisible.

  • Still from 'Japan Syndrome' by Tadasu Takamine

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    Creating connections

    In this video series based on encounters with real people, the artist Tadasu Takamine portrays the impact of the nuclear accident on people’s daily lives after the catastrophe, and confusion regarding the radiation risks that has emerged in the Japanese society.

  • Makiko Satake's Hiyoriyama-Hello again (The painting has been trimmed for formatting reasons)

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    A mountain turned into a pile of sand

    Makiko Satake’s paintings depict how the landscape of the affected areas’ dramatically changed after the disaster. This work, titled “Hiyoriyama-Hello Again” is her impression of the lowest mountain in Japan located in Gamo, Sendai. The area was reduced to a wasteland after being hit by the tsunami.

  • Still from 'Grand Guignol Mirai'

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    restricted zone

    “Don’t Follow the Wind” is a collaborative project that has taken place since 2015 at multiple locations in the so-called Difficult-to-Return Zone. Twelve artists are exhibiting their work in there; but nobody can physically visit the venues until the restrictions are lifted. Grand Guignol Mirai, one of the artists involved in the project, made videos of the artists’ journey to the zone.

  • Nishiko, Repairing Earthquake Project, the seventh phase (Message), 2021 / photo: Yuzuru Nemoto

    Artists reflect on the Fukushima disaster after 10 years

    Processing pain through art

    Artist Nishiko is collecting objects broken by the earthquake, carefully repairing them, giving them a new life, despite their painful history.

    Author: Anja Freyhoff-King, Aimie Eliot

Another earthquake

Another concern that has been a constant since the March 2011 disaster is the possibility of another major earthquake or tsunami damaging the tank and potentially exposing the radioactive debris to the air.

“We have already seen what long-term exposure to salt water at the site does to metal and other materials, and if there was another major tremor then that could very easily affect the tank and even see it collapse,” Matsukubo said. “To me, that’s the biggest worry.”

He also questioned why it took the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), decommissioning experts, the government and Japan’s nuclear regulators more than a decade to think up the plan. It is also likely that the delay will further extend the schedule and total cost of rendering the site safe.

Government estimates put the cost of decommissioning at 8 trillion yen (€56 billion, $55.3 billion), although that figure may increase if new complications crop up, while the work will probably continue for another 30 years.

Kazuto Suzuki, a professor of science and technology policy at Tokyo University, agreed the new approach to the decommissioning of the reactors “seems to be a good one, but the problem will be in the execution.”

“I’m not an expert, but I can see problems with leaks — as they have already experienced from the tanks holding contaminated water at the site — and then that water escaping into the sea,” he said. “This is a really big issue for the people still living in the region and they have to be able to guarantee a safe level of water within the tank surrounding the reactor.”

Tsunami waves head come toward tanks of heavy oil for the Unit 5 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima on March 11, 2011

Thousands died when a tsunami swept inland and led to a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant

seismic concerns

There will also be concerns about the stability of the ground that the tank will stand on due to the immense weight it will have to bear, Suzuki pointed out.

He is less worried, however, about the possibility of another earthquake wreaking further havoc on the site.

“Concern about another earthquake is legitimate, but we have to remember that the original damage to the Fukushima plan was almost entirely the result of the tsunami, not the earthquake,” he said.

“I actually believe that Japan can be quite proud that the sophisticated anti-seismic technology that is incorporated into all buildings here, but especially our nuclear plants,” Suzuki said.

“I am confident that thanks to the lessons we have learned at Fukushima already, the impact of another earthquake on the walls of a tank around a reactor would be factored into the construction process.”

Edited by: Keith Walker

Comments are closed.