Andrew DeWit and Christopher Hobson
The Lid Comes Off Fukushima Daiichi
Japan’s searing summer of 2013 saw the lid slide further off Fukushima Daiichi and its Pandora’s box of radioactive and political crises. The company in charge, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), already Japan’s most distrusted firm,2 was irredeemably exposed as dangerously incompetent. A slew of reports concerning leaks of high-level radiation led to increasingly concerned appeals, from within Japan and from overseas, for the Abe Shinzo government to take over at Fukushima Daiichi.
The August 28 Business Times Singapore spoke up from the East, and excoriatingly editorialized that “Mr Abe appears grudging in his occasional statements of ‘regret’ at the ongoing crisis but resentful that it continues to dent Japan’s international image. Certainly, it embarrasses a country anxious to promote overseas sales of nuclear reactors and to bring other idled reactors back on line.” The editors highlighted the proliferating “international dimensions” of the crisis and cautioned that if Fukushima Daiichi “is not an international threat, then it is difficult to see what is.”
Without downplaying the seriousness of the contaminated water, and the other setbacks at Daiichi, it is important to recognise that things could very easily, and very quickly, get much worse. Understandably, most commentary on Daiichi focuses on the multiple leaks of water laced with high- and low-level radiation, but the oncoming challenges are far more serious. As Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Advisor at the US Department of Energy and one of the world’s top spent fuel pools experts, has warned, sites such as Fukushima Daiichi “have generated some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.”49 They need to be handled by the most competent and best-equipped expertise available. But sit down and take a deep breath, because from November, TEPCO plans to begin the delicate operation of removing spent fuel from Reactor No. 4 fuel pool. There was no fuel within this reactor per se, so the ambient level of radiation is lower than the neighbouring three reactors. So in that respect, this is the easiest of the cluster. Even so, there are 1,533 used fuel rod assemblies tightly packed together in the spent-fuel pool above the reactor.50 They weigh a total of 400 tons, and contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.51 The spent-fuel pool stands 18 metres above ground, was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, and is in a deteriorating condition. It remains vulnerable to any further shocks, and is also at risk from ground liquefaction. One might add there is a significant terrorist threat, considering the damage that could be done with a light plane or some similar attack. Removing the spent fuel from No 4 and the other pools, bundles that among other fission products contain deadly plutonium,52 is clearly an urgent task but must be done properly.
This crisis at Fukushima Daiichi transcends the politics of being being pro- or anti-nuclear. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Fukushima Daiichi’s current management is an unsustainable threat to the future of the country. To be polemical: Abe can save Japan or TEPCO, but he can’t save both. When put in those terms, the choice is an easy one. Or at least it should be.