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Too big for TEPCO to handle it alone

March 10, 2014
Editorial: Gov't must stand at helm in decommissioning of Fukushima reactors




Three years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the spacious grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant host over 1,000 blue and gray water storage tanks. But unless a new tank is built every two days, then there will soon be no place to store the radioactively tainted water that continues to accumulate at the nuclear facility.

Just last month, an accident caused highly contaminated water to overflow from a tank at the plant. Continued mismanagement has greatly shaken the public's trust in the safety practices of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).

It is expected to take three to four decades to decommission the plant's nuclear reactors. The decommissioning work is a tough task, unprecedented on a global scale, and in protecting the safety of Japanese residents, mistakes are forbidden. Clearly, it is a job too big for TEPCO alone to handle. The government must come forward, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised, and share in its responsibility to pave the way toward decommissioning of the reactors.

Every day, more than 4,000 workers hired by TEPCO, affiliated companies and subcontracting firms are working at the crippled plant to decommission the reactors. The upper level of the building housing the No. 3 reactor, whose roof was blown away in a hydrogen explosion that left its steel frame exposed, has been cleared. And workers are continuing to remove spent nuclear fuel from a pool in the building housing the No. 4 reactor -- a task that began last autumn. These are small steps in the decommissioning process.

Yet the problem of contaminated water could hinder this work. In last month's accident, it emerged that roughly 100 tons of water contaminated with some 8 million times' the level of radioactive materials that could be released into the sea had spilled from a water storage tank. The contaminated water overflowed when workers tried to pump water into a tank that was already nearly full. It turned out that they should have been pumping the water into a different tank. It seems like a simple mistake, but it created a grave situation.

The valve of the tank into which the contaminated water should have been pumped was closed, while the valve on the one that was already nearly full was open. TEPCO needs to carefully investigate the matter to determine whether it was a mistake or intentional. The fact that workers ignored an alarm indicating that the water level of the tank was too high, thinking it was a false alarm, highlights the sloppy risk-management practices at the nuclear complex.

TEPCO was responsible for the leak of 300 tons of contaminated water last summer, too. After this, the utility installed water-level gauges to sound warnings in a bid to prevent further leaks. Workers also boosted their surveillance work. But if such measures to prevent a recurrence do not come together to serve a purpose, then it can't be helped when the public starts doubting the company's safety management system.

Some 430,000 tons of contaminated water has already accumulated at the plant, and the environmental risks are only increasing. TEPCO plans to treat water with its advanced liquid processing system (ALPS), which it says can remove radioactive materials other than tritium, and the company hopes to pump groundwater into the sea before it reaches the reactor buildings. But the ALPS system has been plagued with trouble and there is no telling when its operations will be in full swing. Furthermore, TEPCO's negotiations with local fishermen remain at a standstill. Obviously the company can't be left to its own devices.

In his policy speech in January this year, Abe touched on the handling of contaminated water, saying, "The government will stand at the fore, and will move ahead with preventive and multilayered countermeasures." Surely "standing at the fore" means moving forward with the necessary support, guidance and oversight, and taking responsibility should anything happen. The government should show this kind of resolve.

The decommissioning process is also a battle against radiation. The radiation dosages of workers on-site are increasing day by day. The upper exposure limit is 50 millisieverts over the course of one year and 100 millisieverts over the course of five years. After this, workers are not permitted to take on jobs that expose them to radiation for five years.

As work to decommission the reactors progresses, more work inside the reactor buildings, where radiation levels are high will be undertaken. As a result, more workers are likely to hit their radiation exposure limit. An important task for the future will be finding more workers.

"People on-site are aging. I wonder if there will be sufficient workers in 10 years' time," asked the president of one subcontracting firm. The firm had 20 workers before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disaster at the plant, but they were scattered during evacuations, and fearing exposure to radiation, none of them has come back, the company president says.

To secure workers, it is necessary to first secure their safety. In this respect, management of radiation exposure is important. TEPCO should not merely cover its own workers, but make sure that radiation exposure management extends to all workers on-site.

Workers also need to receive a fair wage. Due to multilayered subcontracting, it is feared that the daily wages TEPCO is forking out are shrinking before workers receive the money. To give workers a better deal, TEPCO in December last year raised the daily wage it provides to prime contractors by 10,000 yen. It needs to contact cooperating firms and boost its cooperation with them to make sure that all workers receive the extra money.

In April, a decommissioning company handling the decommissioning of nuclear reactors will be formed as an offshoot of TEPCO. It is reportedly considering amending the on-site reporting line and putting the services of workers from outside the company to use.

However, the barriers that TEPCO has to surmount are extremely high. Under a government proposal, work to remove fuel from the No. 1 and 2 rectors at the disaster-hit Fukushima plant is slated to commence in fiscal 2020. The following year, officials plan to remove fuel from the No. 3 reactor. But it is still unclear where the melted fuel is and in what state it is in. And a major issue that remains is what to do with it once it has been removed.

It is necessary to collate research results from Japan and overseas, and develop pertinent technology. The government will reorganize the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund and create a new organization supporting the decommissioning of reactors. We hope it will also cooperate with the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, which is represented by power companies and companies involved in nuclear power, and set up an effective system.

To make the long process of decommissioning nuclear reactors successful, it is vital that the government stands at the helm, bringing together the power of the public and private sectors
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