Editorial: Leak of contaminated water at nuclear power plant

A far cry from safety culture

It has been revealed that radioactive water leaked from under the ground into the sea at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. We can’t help but wonder whether coping with the aftermath of the accident at the plant should be left entirely up to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Two months ago a high concentration of radioactive materials was detected in water in a well on the premises of the plant near the sea. Obviously, this could have an impact on the ocean, but TEPCO continued to deny that any water had leaked until finally acknowledging the problem last week.

We can hardly imagine the anger felt by those in the fishing industry who hope to resume operations in the waters off the coast of Fukushima. Admitting that there were problems with its handling of the matter, TEPCO decided to punish Naomi Hirose, company president, by cutting his salary, but they are kidding themselves if they think that that will take care of the problem.

This is not the first example of TEPCO’s ineptness in coping with the aftermath of the accident. Because a temporary distribution board had no back-up function, the cooling of spent nuclear fuel was halted for 29 hours during a power outage in March. This incident is still fresh in our minds.

On top of that is the slipshod handling of the problem of the contaminated water. TEPCO has tried to defend itself, saying there were problems with the company’s internal communications and that it was reluctant to disclose the problem out of concern for the harmful effect it might have on the fishing industry. But how many people believe that?

And we wonder why it took Mr. Hirose, who found out what was going on on the 19th of this month, another three days to explain the situation to local governments and the fisheries cooperative. TEPCO denies it, but we suspect they were concerned about the impact on the outcome of the July 21 House of Councillors election.

TEPCO’s acknowledgment of the leak into the ocean as well only came about because the government’s Nuclear Regulation Authority had urged the company to conduct a survey. Taking every possible measure after assuming the greatest risk should naturally be the stance of a company dealing with nuclear power. It is a serious problem if, rather than learning the lessons of March 11, the essential points are being neglected more than two years later.

At last week’s press conference Mr. Hirose was forced to acknowledge that the company’s safety culture had not improved.

The hard part comes next. According to TEPCO, the contamination of the ocean is limited to the power plant’s harbor. But a heightened sense of crisis is needed because a tremendous amount of contaminated water is still being produced in the plant’s reactor buildings, which is a cause of great concern.

Some argue that the water should just be decontaminated and released into the ocean, but it’s too early for that. At the very least it is urgent that TEPCO thoroughly rethink its measures for dealing with the contaminated water in order to prevent any more from flowing into the ocean. Of course, this task will pose a great challenge.

But instead, TEPCO, which should be making an all-out effort to tackle this, seems to be focusing on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture. Meanwhile victims of the disaster who have been forced to live as evacuees have pointed out TEPCO’s negative stance on the separate issue of compensation for them.

There seems to be an atmosphere developing at TEPCO in which, while still unable to foster a safety culture, the company is being steered toward a focus on profits while putting off dealing with the disaster in Fukushima.

The central government must also be called to account for its stance. TEPCO was essentially nationalized one year ago. One reason for that was to take all possible measures toward the decommissioning of the reactors.

Toshimitsu Motegi, minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry, criticized TEPCO for the delay in disclosing information in this case, but is that enough? If TEPCO can’t be trusted, one option is for the government to take responsibility and get involved in the handling of the accident. Meanwhile the Abe administration should not be waving the flag for restart of the nuclear power plants or exporting Japan’s nuclear technology.

(Originally published on July 29, 2013)