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Abe's political leadership sorely tested

August 22, 2013


EDITORIAL: Abe needs to step up and lead crisis response at Fukushima plant



The crisis at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has taken another turn. As much as 300 tons of highly radioactive water has leaked from a surface storage tank.

On Aug. 21, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said the leak is the equivalent of Level 3 on the eight-level International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. That means it is a “serious incident.”

Radioactive materials have to be kept in secure storage. The fact that a huge amount was released into the environment is a very alarming situation.

There is growing international concern over the leak.

This is a crisis that is threatening not just the safety of surrounding areas, but also international confidence in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should take charge of the situation by making a swift and effective response.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has been rated as a “Level 7,” or “major accident,” the highest severity level on the international nuclear event scale. The only other Level-7 nuclear accident was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Work to deal with the consequences of the Level-7 accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant is far from over. The environment is still being contaminated by radioactive materials from the plant.

Because the leak of polluted water from a storage tank occurred during the process of dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, some people dispute the appropriateness of declaring it to be a new Level-3 incident.

But the question that must be asked is why the leak couldn’t be prevented.

The tank in question is one of 350 or so lower-quality containers among the 1,000 tanks installed to store contaminated water. These makeshift tanks have a useful life span of only five years.

From the outset, experts have warned there is a possibility of leakage from these tanks.

The massive leak of radioactive water is clearly the result of a poor response to the problem. The task of dealing with accumulating contaminated water has been left to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the embattled utility that operated the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Consequently, only insufficient, stopgap measures have been taken to cope with the situation.

In an Aug. 7 meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, Abe said, “The government will take effective measures to tackle the problem (of continued leakage of polluted water) instead of leaving it entirely to Tokyo Electric Power.” His remarks have finally made ministries and agencies willing to cooperate with one another to tackle this formidable challenge, according to administration officials.

Plans to deal with contaminated water have been developed by the task force for decommissioning reactors under the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. TEPCO and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have been playing the central role in working out the plans. This approach has proved misguided.

Tackling the problem entails a range of tasks that all require swift and all-out efforts by the entire government. These efforts cannot be hampered by the walls between ministries and agencies. They include assessing the current situation accurately, explaining the situation to the general public at home and abroad, gaining cooperation from other countries in efforts to fix the situation and securing and allocating necessary funds.

The challenge sorely tests Abe’s political leadership.

The government should improve its preparedness for new developments to levels close to those required for responding to a full-fledged nuclear accident. It should, for instance, make sure that all information related to the situation at the Fukushima plant be reported to the deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management to ensure proper sharing of information so that the appropriate ministries and agencies can make a coordinated response.

The NRA is also responsible for the leak because it has endorsed the flawed framework for efforts to deal with the problem by TEPCO alone. The NRA has provided nothing more than weak oversight.

Its role is to keep sounding the alarm about the worst that could happen while guarding itself against unwarranted optimism.

The nuclear regulatory body should act swiftly to come up with specific measures to cope with the situation based on the latest knowledge and cutting-edge expertise available at home and abroad. It should, for instance, ensure that more than one alternative plan be prepared for preventing additional leaks and start rigorous monitoring of environmental pollution.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 22



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