Editorial: Resolve needed for protracted struggle at “Level 7” Fukushima plant

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has been raised to the maximum “Level 7” based on international standards. This provisional assessment was announced by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Over one month has passed since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake occurred and the agency has finally acknowledged the severity of the incident.

The Level 7 assessment indicates that “a large amount of radioactive materials has been released, resulting in extensive effects to human health and the environment.” Experts inside and outside of Japan have stressed the gravity of the crisis, based on the volume of radioactive materials that have leaked from the nuclear station.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano was reportedly informed by members of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan in late March that they believed the severity of the accident corresponded to a Level 7 assessment.

A hard decision should have been made more swiftly. The ad hoc measures that have been taken, such as suddenly expanding the evacuation area while directing other residents to remain indoors for a long period of time, are surely related to a lack of foresight on the part of the central government.

The disaster that took place at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, was the worst in human history and is also rated a Level 7 accident. The release of radioactive materials from the Fukushima plant, however, is about 10 percent of that from the Chernobyl plant. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency stresses that no residents have demonstrated any significant health effects.

At Chernobyl, one nuclear reactor exploded and spewed radioactive materials for about 10 days. On the other hand, four of the units at the Fukushima plant are crippled and there is yet no end to the crisis. It is only natural that the uneasiness felt by Japanese citizens and people internationally cannot be dispelled.

It appears that the actions taken by the central government and TEPCO, in response to the disaster, are always a step behind and are far from coordinated. 

While the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency has estimated the volume of the release at 370,000 terabecquerels, the benchmark for Level 7, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan cited a figure of 630,000 terabecquerels. One terabecquerel equals one trillion becquerels. Why is there a significant discrepancy between these two estimates? This discrepancy must be addressed.

In addition, a set of vital data, which projects the spread of radioactive materials in order to establish the effects of the accident, was announced by the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan only on March 23. Such data must be continually provided so that a reliable projection of the disaster's effects can be made.

People outside the circle of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan are confounded by the relationship between these two entities.

Actions taken by the central government have been shouldered solely by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which lies within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. But at this point, the effects of the leaking radiation have expanded to agricultural land and the sea. It is questionable whether there has been sufficient coordination between this agency and other ministries, such as the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, an independent body of experts, must assume a key role in the countermeasures being taken, in addition to checking the judgments made by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

It may take time to conduct a fundamental review of the system, but for the time being the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan must be given greater authority. The Nuclear Safety Commission should serve as the core body of related organizations charged with securing safety.

Above all, the troubled nuclear reactors must be cooled down and the radiation must be contained. Until the time the cooling systems have been fully restored, all efforts must be pursued to inject water into the reactors. The contaminated water at the plant must be contained as well, to every extent possible. There is no choice but to continue these tasks, while preparing for further difficulties that may arise as a result of aftershocks.

Data involving observations of the crisis must be provided in minute detail, including the varieties, volumes, and effects of the radioactive materials. At the same time, explanations that are easily understood must be offered to the public, such as local residents, farmers, and people in the fishing industry.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has declared that the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is “on its way to being stabilized.” With a protracted struggle evidently at hand, it is regrettable that Mr. Kan is not displaying greater resolve.

(Originally published on April 14, 2011)