11 Mars 2016
March 11, 2016
By JONATHAN SOBLEMARCH 10, 2016
Little is left on a stretch of tsunami-scarred land in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, the ruined and radioactive nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan. Credit Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
TOKYO — Of the thousands of workers who have answered the help-wanted ads at Fukushima Daiichi, the ruined and radioactive nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, the part-time lettuce farmer and occasional comic-book artist Kazuto Tatsuta must be among the least likely.
“I needed a job,” Mr. Tatsuta, 51, recalled of his decision in 2012 to accept work at the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
His duties included welding broken water pipes and inspecting remote-controlled robots that survey radioactive hot spots. And his comic strips, once populated with baseball players and gangsters, now tell stories of middle-aged, blue-collar men like himself who do the grunt work at Fukushima, some of whom find a sense of purpose and belonging they lacked in the outside world.
At Fukushima, Five Years Later
The head of Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tepco, decomissioning and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan spoke about the task of radioactive containment at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
By REUTERS on Publish Date March 10, 2016. Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
“It’s secure. You’re not going to get laid off there,” Mr. Tatsuta said. “But you’re also working for a goal.”
Five years after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck, causing three reactors at Fukushima to melt down, that goal is the focus of a colossal effort at once precarious and routine. A veneer of stability at the plant masks a grueling, day-to-day battle to contain hazardous radiation, which involves a small army of workers, complex technical challenges and vexing safety trade-offs.
Fukushima has become a place where employees arrive on company shuttle buses and shop at their own on-site convenience store, but where they struggle to control radiation-contaminated water and must release it into the sea. Many of the most difficult and dangerous cleanup tasks still lie ahead, and crucial decisions remain unsettled.
“There’s no precedent or manual,” said Prof. Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission who is now at Nagasaki University.
A smooth cleanup is a top priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to rebuild Japan’s tattered nuclear power industry. He has had little success so far. This week, a court ordered one of only two atomic power stations operating in the country to shut down, saying new safety measures it put in place after the Fukushima disaster were inadequate. More than 40 reactors are sitting idle.
The effort at Fukushima has reached a few milestones. About 1,500 spent fuel rods were successfully removed from a damaged storage tank in late 2014, a delicate and risky operation. Much of the contaminated rubble left by the tsunami and hydrogen explosions has been cleared, and overall radiation levels are down. Workers will soon be able to enter some areas of the plant without full-body protective gear.
But a full cleanup of the site — including the extraction of melted uranium fuel from the damaged reactor cores — is expected to take at least 40 years according to the government’s timetable and a century by other estimates. In the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable.
“The question is, Is there a Plan B to deal with another big quake or tsunami?” Professor Suzuki said.
The duration of the cleanup also creates the risk of labor shortages, he said, especially in jobs requiring special skills. Japan’s population is shrinking and, with the future of nuclear power uncertain, many young people are unwilling to stake careers on the industry.
By the Numbers
For now, Fukushima is bustling with about 7,000 workers, much more than before the disaster and twice as many as two years ago. The town of Iwaki to the south has become a kind of workers’ village. At dawn, vans and buses line up to ferry workers to the plant via staging areas where they don protective white Tyvek suits, radiation monitors and gas masks.
“You think of it as totally normal work,” said Mr. Tatsuta, who asked to be identified only by his pen name to avoid being blacklisted by the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Water is perhaps the biggest challenge at Fukushima. Engineers must keep it flowing through the damaged reactor cores to prevent the melted fuel from overheating, and then through miles of plastic pipes to recycle it inside the plant. But because the buildings are damaged, radioactive water leaks out and builds up in the basements. When it rains, more water seeps in.
To prevent it from spreading, Tokyo Electric pumps out about 720 tons of water from the basements every day, storing it in huge tanks that workers are building. About 1,000 of the tanks have already been filled. But because there are not enough tanks, the plant also releases 2,000 tons of the water into the ocean every week after a process that removes most, but not all, of the radioactive particles.
Tokyo Electric says the water poses no danger to people or marine life because radiation levels are low and further diluted in the ocean. But environmentalists are worried, nearby fishing grounds remain closed and it is a public-relations nightmare for the government.
Other workers are building a mile-long “ice wall” around part of the plant to prevent rain and groundwater from seeping into the basements. The plan is to pump chemicals into the soil to freeze it, but the technique has never been used on such a large scale before.
The company says it may not be able to solve the water problem until 2020. Other goals, including the removal of spent fuel rods stored inside the reactors, are still further off.
And then there is the problem of the melted nuclear fuel itself. Tokyo Electric has ruled out burying the buildings in thick layers of concrete as the Soviets did at Chernobyl, because so much radioactive material remains that it could explode during the burial process or burn through the concrete or into the ground.
Robots have recently begun mapping out areas around the cores, which are still too dangerous for workers to approach. Engineers are trying to determine if cracks in the containment vessels can be repaired, which would allow them to fill the cores with water to ensure the fuel remains submerged as it is extracted, minimizing the risk of releasing radiation. The process is expected to take decades and cost billions.
For workers at the site, radiation is a constant enemy — though many see it more as a threat to their livelihoods than their lives. Government regulations forbid cleanup workers to be exposed to too much radiation, and when they hit the limits, they risk being laid off or reassigned to lower-paying jobs.
“If you go over the radiation limits, you can’t work,” Mr. Tatsuta said. “You’re always calculating how to keep the dose low.”
The temptation to cheat can be strong, for both workers and their managers. A government examination of Tokyo Electric’s safety practices in 2013 found that it had underreported the radiation exposure of a third of the workers whose records were reviewed. The company says it has since tightened reporting procedures.
Minoru Ikeda, 63, a retired postal worker, said he had joined the cleanup in 2013, over his wife’s objections, because of a sense of social obligation and curiosity. “Fukushima felt so close and so far away at the same time,” he said. “I wanted to see for myself.”
He started out cutting contaminated weeds in a town deserted since the accident and stuffing them into plastic bags. Mountains of collected soil and leaves have piled up across the region, as politicians debate how to dispose of it.
Eventually, Mr. Ikeda got work in the plant itself, picking up papers and broken glass in the administrative offices. “There was still sand on the floor from the tsunami,” he recalled, “and newspapers dated March 11,” the day of the disaster.
He later wrote a memoir describing the rhythm of life in the cleanup zone, where almost the entire work force is male and many have little history of stable employment.
Because it took so long to change in and out of protective gear and pass through radiation checks, he usually worked only two to three hours a day, he said. In off hours, he and his colleagues slept, drank or played pachinko, a Japanese gambling game that resembles pinball.
Mr. Ikeda still carries a small “radiation book,” similar to a bank passbook. Over 15 months, it shows, he was exposed to 7.25 millisieverts, well below the regulatory limit but still high enough that, should he contract cancer during his lifetime, he would be eligible for workers’ compensation.
Mr. Ikeda’s last job at Fukushima involved the destruction of used protective coveralls. Tens of thousands had been compacted into cubes for incineration, but they were too big for the incinerator. Mr. Ikeda and his team broke the cubes apart and repacked the coveralls in smaller bundles.
“The work’s not hard,” he said, “if you don’t think about radiation.”