What You Need to Know About Fukushima

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits one of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) facilities at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, Dec. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

All eyes are on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as major cleanup efforts are set to begin later this month, in the most significant test of the operator’s ability to manage the threats resulting from one of the biggest nuclear disasters ever. For two years now, the plant’s operator and the Japanese government have struggled to contain an ongoing series of crises at the devastated facility. But the situation has the potential to get worse. Here’s what you need to know.

The Problems

The operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant has come under severe criticism from nuclear energy experts for its handling of the cleanup at the crippled facility, decimated after the March 2011 tsunami.

Many say Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the Japanese utility company that operates the plant, has been grossly incompetent, deceptive and guilty of downplaying the health impacts resulting from the meltdown.

Naomi Hirose, president of Tepco, didn’t renew faith in the firm’s handling of the crisis when he first denied and later admitted that the radioactive water used to cool the plant’s nuclear cores had leaked into the ocean. Tepco had suspected the water might be leaking since mid-June 2013, but waited until July 22 to reveal the problem. The leaks continued throughout the summer — at one point, a tank leaked 300 tons of radioactive water. It was nearly a month until the leak was discovered on August 19.

‘‘From what we’ve seen, it’s more of what I’d call incompetence instead of any cover-up,” said Dale Klein, a former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who Tepco hired as an adviser. The Associated Press and Japan Today reported this week that tanks containing radioactive water were leaking or otherwise failing because they were hurriedly erected by inexperienced workers — including one auto mechanic who expressed his concern about the quality of his own work.

Researchers are concerned about the effects of the radioactive water on sea life and those who eat it. Last year, scientists reported that Pacific bluefin tuna migrating from coastal Japan to the waters off Southern California contained radioactive cesium isotopes from the Fukushima plant. The safety of Pacific fish following the disaster is up for debate.

Nuclear facilities in Japan lie near 14 active fault lines; Tepco’s Fukushima facilities are along five. The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) says the utilities are capable of withstanding another earthquake. But last month, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki expressed his fears that further damage to the Fukushima facility could prove catastrophic. “Three out of the four plants were destroyed in the earthquake and in the tsunami. The fourth one has been so badly damaged that the fear is, if there’s another earthquake of a seven or above, that building will go and then all hell breaks loose.”

The Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo said earlier this year that there’s a 70 percent chance a 7.0-magnitude or higher quake will strike Tokyo, near Fukushima, by 2016. Should the fourth reactor collapse, Suzuki said, it would be “bye bye Japan,” and “everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. Now if that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.”

Not all researchers agree with Suzuki’s dire assessment. “As scientists talking around the lunchroom, we are more or less of a unanimous opinion that the hysteria around Fukushima is grossly overblown,” University of British Columbia physicist Marcello Pavan told Vice.

The Clean Up

Later this month, Tepco is expected to begin the delicate task of removing over 1,500 spent fuel rods from reactor number 4, which was heavily damaged by the March 2011 explosion. The rods contain radiation at levels 14,000 times greater than what was released when America dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a highly dangerous operation that has never been attempted on such a scale before, and a key part of decommissioning the facility, which could cost $50 billion and take 40 years.

The fuel rod removal effort is expected to take 13 months to complete, but experts warn that putting the radioactive rods into safe storage won’t be easy. If any of the 15-foot, 660-pound rods break or are exposed to air, huge amounts of radioactive gasses could be released. Should there be another natural disaster like the earthquake Suzuki warned of, those rods could set off a catastrophic reaction that would be more dangerous than the meltdowns the plant has already experienced.

Tepco said they are sure the operation will go off without a hitch, though the company’s struggle to contain radioactive water, a power failure at the plant caused by a rat chewing through a cable and a second power failure accidentally caused by workers who were attempting to rat-proof the power cables, have some experts worried that the company’s not up to the task.

Former nuclear engineer Michael Friedlander says Tepco may be playing down the dangers of the operation. “The thing that keeps me up late at night is that they’re getting ready to unload the spent fuel in unit four,” said Friedlander, who spent 13 years operating US nuclear plants. “It has the potential if it doesn’t go well to create a very, very serious accident,” he told Bloomberg News.

The Politics

Both Tepco and the Japanese government have come under criticism for how they handled the disaster. “You have a government that is in total collusion with Tepco, the energy company. They’re lying through their teeth,” said Suzuki.

Of the attempts to stop the water from leaking, Suzuki said, “They don’t know what to do. And the thing we need is to get an international group of experts to go in with complete freedom to do what they suggest. And right now the Japanese government has too much pride to admit that.”

Fact checking Suzuki for Vice, David P. Ball contacted University of British Columbia physicist Marcello Pavan. Asked whether Tepco was indeed “lying through their teeth,” Pavan said, “That is absolutely correct, at least from what I see. Tepco has been minimizing the effects of what is happening. But here we have a large industrial concern lying to the government about an accident related to its business — is that news?”

After this summer’s leaks, the Japanese government announced it would take a more direct role in the cleanup. Since the disaster, all 50 of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been shut down for inspection. Earlier this week, former Japanese Liberal Democratic Party Premier Junichiro Koizumi spoke out against plans to restart plants that had been declared safe. “I think we should go to zero now,” Koizumi said. “If we restart the reactors, all that will result is more nuclear waste.”

The People

The catastrophe at Fukushima — first caused by natural disaster, then exacerbated by human mistakes — has had a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of Japanese and may also have negative implications for North Americans.

The Guardian recently reported that the 160,000 evacuees who lived in the area may never be able to go home. And the radioactive water leaking from the plant into the ocean has led the local fishing industry in the Fukushima region to completely shut down.

A study conducted by Australia’s University of New South Wales says radioactive waters will reach the US sometime in early 2014 — and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported earlier this month that radioactive waters from Fukushima had already arrived in Alaska.

Meanwhile, many of the 50,000 workers employed by subcontractors in the cleanup effort are being exposed to dangerous radiation levels while facing low wages and wage theft, reports Reuters. For some, the cost of speaking up was getting fired.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. She has produced content for BillMoyers.com, NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International. She also helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship.
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