Opinion: Fukushima still contending with nuclear crisis

by Uzaemonnaotsuka Tokai, Editorial Writer

The crisis is not over. I felt this keenly during my visit in June to the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant to cover current conditions there. The effort by the Tokyo Electric Power Company to decommission the stricken reactors is ongoing.

The upper part of the containment building for reactor No. 4 was blown off by a hydrogen explosion. These outer walls, made of thick concrete, still lay broken on the ground. The frightful result--a shattered structure of exposed pipes and dangling steel framework--reminded me of the Atomic Bomb Dome.

The core of reactors No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 suffered meltdowns, but there has been no progress on confirming the situation inside them. Within the building of reactor No. 4 are as many as 1,533 units of spent nuclear fuel. “What would happen if another major earthquake struck the area?” I wondered, fear flashing through me.

I also felt the horror of invisible radiation as I toured the compound in a bus with other reporters. At “J Village,” which serves as the base for responding to the disaster, the level of radiation in the air was 0.1 microsieverts per hour. That level rose to 2.7 microsieverts at the entrance to the grounds of the nuclear power plant. Then, as we approached the nuclear reactors, the radiation levels spiked to 5, 20, 120, and eventually reached 1,800 microsieverts near reactor No. 3. I gasped at the figure, a level so high that a permissible dose of radiation for an entire year would be exceeded in just 30 minutes or so.

The decommission work, which reportedly will take up to 40 years, has just begun. The technical challenges, such as how robots will be able to remove nuclear fuel that apparently lies at the bottom of the containment vessels, have not been resolved.

Akio Komori, TEPCO’s managing director, explained, “The work ahead of us will be very challenging. There are no precedents anywhere else in the world to draw on.” With the future uncertain, frustration and fatigue among those involved have been growing. I sensed that the situation is like walking a tightrope and I wondered if the decommission work on the reactors can really be fulfilled.

Other difficulties are being seen in the affected areas surrounding the plant. 

“Go home, evacuees.” Traces of this graffiti linger at Iwaki City Hall, located in Fukushima Prefecture, after a pillar of the building was sprayed with black paint. The city of Iwaki has taken in some 24,000 evacuees who fled the disaster zone.

Four cases of such graffiti were reported at the end of last year. Acts of vandalism have continued this year, too: the windows of some cars were shattered and skyrockets have been fired into the temporary housing of evacuees.

Behind the scenes are emotional confrontations between evacuees and local residents.

Takao Watanabe, the mayor of Iwaki, sees mounting frustration among local residents and evacuees over differences in the amounts of financial relief, crowded hospitals due to the surge in population, and conflicts over handling trash. Malicious rumors, like claims that the evacuees are only playing pachinko with the relief money they receive, are spreading.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there were scenes of disaster victims sharing food and encouragement with one another, despite the fact that they were strangers. Voices expressing admiration for such scenes were heard from around the world.

But the evacuees are unable to foresee when their lives in limbo will end and they can regain some normalcy. Under heavy stress, people’s hearts turn harder. It was sad to see that some of the victims themselves have grown bitter.

Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding nuclear power plants in Japan have entered a new phase.

Electric power companies, including the Kansai Electric Power Company, will seek to restart a total of 12 nuclear reactors as early as July 8. With their financial situation deteriorating since operations at the nuclear power plants were suspended, the power companies are calling more loudly for the plants to be restarted.

The Japanese government, too, is readying to restart operations at the nation’s nuclear power stations. In the Energy White Paper that was recently approved by the cabinet, the fact that the previous Democratic Party of Japan administration had decided to pursue a policy of eliminating the use of nuclear power plants, and 90 percent of the people at public hearings expressed support for this policy, was disregarded entirely.

It appears that the Abe government, which hopes to make nuclear energy a part of its strategy for economic growth, has intentionally ignored the wave of denuclearization since the accident at the plant in Fukushima.

But Fukushima is still contending with the repercussions of the earthquake. Can the nuclear accident be dismissed to history so soon?

Japan is at a crossroads.

Will we return to a society of the past, as if forgetting the nuclear disaster? Or will we seek to create a new nation that, to whatever extent possible, no longer relies on the use of nuclear energy? This is the question we all must face.

(Originally published on June 27, 2013)