Barely a fifth of the way into their mission, the engineers monitoring the Scorpion’s progress conceded defeat. With a remote-controlled snip of its cable, the latest robot sent into the bowels of one of Fukushima Daiichi’s damaged reactors was cut loose, its progress stalled by lumps of fuel that overheated when the nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown six years ago this week.
The Scorpion mishap, two hours into an exploration that was supposed to last 10 hours, underlined the scale and difficulty of decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi – an unprecedented undertaking one expert has described as “almost beyond comprehension”.
Cleaning up the plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl after it was struck by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, is expected to take 30 to 40 years, at a cost Japan’s trade and industry ministry recently estimated at 21.5tr yen ($189bn).
The figure, which includes compensating tens of thousands of evacuees, is nearly double an estimate released three years ago.
Robotic mishaps aside, exploration work in the two other reactors, where radiation levels are even higher than in reactor No 2, has barely begun. There are plans to send a tiny waterproof robot into reactor No 1 in the next few weeks, but no date has been set for the more seriously damaged reactor No 3.
Despite the setbacks, Tepco insists it will begin extracting the melted fuel in 2021 – a decade after the disaster – after consulting government officials this summer.
But Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany who is based in Japan, describes the challenge confronting the utility as “unprecedented and almost beyond comprehension”, adding that the decommissioning schedule was “never realistic or credible”.
The latest aborted exploration of reactor No 2 “only reinforces that reality”, Burnie says. “Without a technical solution for dealing with unit one or three, unit two was seen as less challenging. So much of what is communicated to the public and media is speculation and wishful thinking on the part of industry and government.
Tepco’s once-vaunted underground ice wall, built at a cost of 24.5bn yen, has so far failed to completely prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor basements and mixing with radioactive coolant water.
The structure, which freezes the soil to a depth of 30 metres, is still allowing 150 tonnes of groundwater to seep into the reactor basements every day, said Yuichi Okamura, a Tepco spokesman. Five sections have been kept open deliberately to prevent water inside the reactor basements from rising and flowing out more rapidly. “We have to close the wall gradually,” Okamura said. “By April we want to keep the influx of groundwater to about 100 tonnes a day, and to eliminate all contaminated water on the site by 2020.”
Critics of the clean-up note that 2020 is the year Tokyo is due to host the Olympics, having been awarded the Games after Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that Fukushima was “under control”.