The man in charge of cleaning up the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has admitted there is little cause for optimism while thousands of workers continue their battle to contain huge quantities of radioactive water.
The water problem is so severe that the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco], and its myriad partner firms have enlisted almost all of their 6,000 workers in the 2tn yen (£11bn) mission to bring it under control, almost four years after a deadly tsunami sparked a triple meltdown at the plant.
But Fukushima Daiichi’s manager, Akira Ono, said he believed workers had turned a corner in the long road towards decommissioning. “For three years we were dealing with the aftermath of the accident, so there was no way we could plan ahead.
So far, the plant has accumulated about 500,000 tonnes of contaminated water, which is being stored in more than 1,000 tanks occupying a large swath of the Fukushima Daiichi complex. By comparison, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 produced 9,000 tonnes of toxic water.
The most dangerous and difficult jobs lie ahead, however. Tepco has yet to begin removing melted fuel from reactors 1, 2 and 3, where radiation levels are too high for humans to enter. Tepco engineers admit they do not know exactly where the damaged fuel is located.
Robots have been used to inspect debris inside reactor buildings, but none have been able to get anywhere near the melted fuel. The dangers posed by this unprecedented operation recently forced Tepco and the government to delay the planned start of fuel removal from reactor No 1 by five years, to 2025.