15 Mars 2018
March 14, 2018
EDITORIAL: TEPCO’s priority is, and will be, to decommission crippled reactors
Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), told a news conference last week that the Fukushima nuclear accident is far from over, and that it would be a mistake to think of it solely as something that occurred seven years ago.
On the surface, it appears as if a semblance of order has been restored at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the site of one of the most catastrophic nuclear accidents in history.
Except for in and around the crippled reactor buildings, workers can now go almost anywhere on the premises without protective clothing.
Measures have been set in place to cool debris from the reactor cores and spent nuclear fuel in storage pools.
The NRA has considerably downgraded the risk of the plant spewing massive amounts of radioactive substances again.
In reality, however, the road to reactor decommissioning is long and arduous.
“We are still in no state to see the peak of the mountain,” Fuketa said. “We don't even know what sort of uphill slope awaits us.”
The government last year revised its timetable for reactor decommissioning. The basic target of “decommissioning in 30 to 40 years” has not changed, but the removal of spent fuel from the No. 1 and No. 2 reactor pools will not begin until fiscal 2023, three years later than initially projected.
With the state of the immediate surroundings of the reactor cores still being understood only vaguely, any decision on concrete steps for the removal of debris has been postponed by one year to fiscal 2019.
The volume of water containing radioactive substances, stored in 850 tanks, has reached 1 million tons, and it will only keep growing with the passage of time. The bloating costs of reactor decommissioning will translate into a heavier taxpayer burden. But trying to rush the job will raise the risk of exposing workers to radiation and inviting accidents.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, started last summer to publicly announce troubles encountered by cleanup crews as “deviations from the norm.”
Such issues include injuries or acute illnesses suffered by workers, vehicular collisions while multiple operations are being simultaneously run, and the deterioration of machinery used in emergencies. While most of these cases do not constitute legal violations, they are being reported almost daily.
Ensuring the safety of workers is TEPCO’s top priority. The utility must also pay close attention to other factors while proceeding steadily with reactor decommissioning, such as reducing the risks of environmental pollution. It is also crucial for the company to explain the situation to local residents as well as the general public and heed their voices.
However, some within the NRA, as well as the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, a group of domestic and overseas experts who advise TEPCO’s board of directors, have frequently expressed concern that TEPCO may start prioritizing its corporate profitability.
For TEPCO, which has been bailed out effectively under government control, decommissioning the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant should be its foremost task. As the very party that allowed the nuclear disaster to occur, it is obviously its responsibility to invest sufficient capital and manpower in this undertaking.
In 2013, when Tokyo was bidding for the 2020 Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in his speech that the issue of contaminated water at the Fukushima plant was “under control.”
But such optimism was hardly warranted, given the difficulty that became clear in disposing of the radioactive water.
This must be firmly borne in mind by TEPCO, as well as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the utility, and the NRA.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 14