Editorial: Blackout raises concern over process of decommissioning Fukushima nuclear power plant

Electricity was cut off recently at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the cooling systems for the spent nuclear fuel did not function for 29 hours. Fortunately, the electricity supply was restored before giving rise to a major accident. Still, this development must have made the residents of Fukushima Prefecture very nervous.

The nuclear accident that struck the facility on March 11, 2011, has made us keenly aware of the possibility that conditions at a nuclear power station can spiral out of control once trouble occurs. The disaster was supposed to have taught us the lesson that we must be prepared for circumstances we can’t anticipate.

Judging from this blackout, it cannot be said that this lesson was learned.

Because of the power outage, the cooling systems for the spent fuel pools of reactors No. 1, 3, and 4, among other systems at the facility, stopped operating. These pools, unlike the reactors themselves, have no mechanism providing multiple protections. If these systems become unable to cool the spent fuel, a significant amount of radioactive material could leak out.

What triggered the blackout? It appears highly likely that a rat came into contact with a makeshift switchboard and caused a short circuit. The device was positioned in the back of a truck two months after the nuclear accident occurred.

TEPCO admitted that it did not take precautions to prevent small animals from entering the switchboard. But couldn’t they have imagined such an incident, considering that this makeshift switchboard, unlike an ordinary one, has no proper cover?

What is even more baffling is the fact that TEPCO did not prepare a backup system, despite this switchboard playing a very important role.

Explaining away this shortcoming, TEPCO said they would “have enough time to deal with a problem of this kind.” They contend that even if they are unable to cool the water in these pools, it would take four or five days for the temperature of the water to reach 65 degrees Celsius, the upper limit set by safety regulations.

However, even with multiple sources of power, TEPCO could not prevent the March 11 accident. Their basic cooling systems should at least be equipped, to whatever extent possible, with backup provisions.

It is doubtful, as well, that TEPCO has learned its lesson when it comes to information disclosure. The company announced the blackout about three hours after the electricity went out.

TEPCO said that many locations at the plant had to be checked, and that verifying the actual conditions of these locations took time. Still, if the company had considered how, in the aftermath of the nuclear accident, it had been slow to offer information to local residents and that this fact led to the failure to carry out a proper evacuation, it should have been obligated to release the initial report on the power outage as soon as possible.

Faced with this blackout, we are forced to recognize, once again, that the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant remains unstable. Even though the plant is said to be in a state of “cold shutdown,” one wrong move and the situation could turn critical.

At the end of 2011, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that the accident at the crippled plant had been brought under control. It has now been revealed that Mr. Noda did not view the conditions at the plant at all, and his declaration was hasty and careless. It stands to reason that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at the Diet that he could not easily say that the nuclear power plant was already brought under control.

That switchboard is not the only makeshift system at the Fukushima plant. One temporary system is piping continually leaking water that has been contaminated through cooling the reactors. Most of the tanks in which contaminated water is stored are also temporary containers that have not been welded.

The way things stand, concern will remain, too, about the whole process of decommissioning the nuclear reactors. To realize a full shutdown of the nuclear power plant will take decades of work. One prerequisite for this process, before anything else, would be to create a system that can continue to cool the nuclear reactors and the spent fuel pools without fail.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is in a position to assess the safety of the process of decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, based on the revised Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors. Shunichi Tanaka, chair of the NRA, said of the blackout: “We will request that TEPCO ensure the operation of the cooling systems.”

Still, can this all be simply left in TEPCO’s hands? We hope that the NRA will carry out rigorous checks on whether safety is ensured at the nuclear power station in Fukushima.

(Originally published on March 22, 2013)