Editorial: Contaminated water at nuclear power plant

Are proposed measures intended to boost Olympic bid?

The site of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be decided by Sunday morning. Meanwhile the central government has come up with a basic policy and comprehensive measures to address the leaks of radioactive water at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant and has proposed setting up a ministerial group and allotting 47 billion yen in public funds. What effect will this have on Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympic Games?

The central government has taken over from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and demonstrated to the world its intention to step up to the plate. That’s how urgent and grave the problem is.

But if their decision to finally take action is the result of a sense of crisis over Tokyo’s Olympic bid, this seems an undeniable attempt to play to the gallery. The government should be directly addressing the concerns of local residents and those in the fishing industry, who have been forced to suspend trial operations, not those of the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In order to cool the nuclear fuel that melted in the accident, water is continually being pumped into the reactors. And because groundwater flows into the building, the amount of contaminated water continues to grow.

TEPCO is storing the water in tanks, but there is too much groundwater to be recovered, and it is flowing into the sea. Highly radioactive water has also leaked from tanks, and some of it has been found to have reached the sea.

As a result, news reports overseas have repeatedly speculated that concern about the contamination of the ocean may cast a shadow over Tokyo’s Olympic bid. This reaction must have been far beyond what the Abe administration expected.

For some time people have been saying that TEPCO can’t handle the problem of the contaminated water by itself. By rights, the government should have taken action long before, regardless of the Olympics. The administration has consistently demonstrated a lack of a sense of crisis.

The basic measures that have been proposed are no more than stopgap measures. While it may be an intractable problem, we get the feeling these measures were hastily slapped together.

The government has said it will surround the reactor buildings with a “wall” of frozen underground earth to prevent groundwater from getting in or out. But from a technical standpoint, the reliability of this is unknown.

And what about the measures to address the leaking tanks? Will they prove decisive? Who knows how long it will take to set up newer, more durable ones and shift the water from the old tanks to them?

It is highly doubtful that the international community will be satisfied with these measures.

It has also been pointed out that measures to address the problem of the contaminated water were not taken until things were about to fall apart. The central government must not ignore the inescapable reality of the situation and explore drastic measures. The administration also has a responsibility to give people in Japan and abroad a full explanation of the situation.

Japan’s bid for the Summer Olympics is no exception. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend the IOC’s meeting in Buenos Aires and give a presentation before the vote is taken. We will be interested to see what he has to say.

We would recommend that he demonstrate Japan’s unwavering resolve by frankly acknowledging the impasse and then seeking assistance from the international community. There is a move toward international cooperation on research and development related to the technology for the decommissioning of reactors. Depending on the approach Japan takes, it should be possible to gather the wisdom of people around the world and bring the accident in Fukushima under control.

Absolutely no progress has been made on the matter of the greatest urgency. Meanwhile Prime Minister Abe is expending effort on becoming the No. 1 salesman for the export of Japan’s nuclear technology and moving forward with a plan to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors. The government’s human and financial resources are limited. The prime minister has got his priorities all wrong.

The seemingly overwhelming battle with the contaminated water will continue whether or not Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics is successful. The outcome on Sunday morning must not affect the government’s resolve.

(Originally published on September 4, 2013)