Japan under increasing pressure to accept outside nuclear help

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, just back from a trip to the Middle East and Africa, where he promoted Japanese nuclear technology, faces mounting international criticism that his administration is not taking the Fukushima crisis seriously and growing calls both at home and abroad for long-term global assistance.

Since Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted on July 22, the day after Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide Upper House victory, that radioactive groundwater was reaching the Pacific from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, international media attention has been intense.

Reporters, commentators and a wide range of experts have speculated on worst-case scenarios and warned that the leaks demonstrated the massive problems still to be resolved in dismantling the crippled plant.

For many abroad, the latest revelations only demonstrate yet again that the crisis is too big for either Tepco or the government to handle, and that consulting international experts has to mean going outside Japan’s “nuclear power village” or the International Atomic Energy Agency, which, they note, also has a mandate to promote nuclear power.

“Expertise in the areas of hydrology, reactors and civil engineering is needed. But the issue is not whether it’s domestic or international. What is needed is nonvested-interest expertise, not the IAEA, Areva (the French nuclear conglomerate) or (companies like) Bechtel. Contractors should come later after deciding what needs to be done,” said nuclear opponent Aileen Mioko Smith of the Kyoto-based group Green Action.

Japan recently announced it would seek Russian assistance and advice regarding the recent leaks. Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy and nuclear policy consultant who opposes nuclear power, said he welcomes the decision but added that it carries its own problems.

“First, there are too many political and economic biases involved. Second, the complexity of the challenges are such that Japan should make sure it reaches out to the most competent individuals in water management, spent-fuel handling and storage, waste disposal, building integrity and radiation protection,” he said.

Last year, Schneider offered a detailed proposal for an international task force for Fukushima. While noting three basic challenges, including site stabilization, protection from radiation and ensuring food safety, his proposal focused only on assistance for stabilizing the reactors.

His proposed task force would be led by two people, one Japanese and the other non-Japanese. There would be a core group of a dozen experts working full time on the project for a minimum of two years. At least half would have no links to the nuclear industry.

Charles Ferguson, president of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, agrees Japan should include more experts from other countries. He added that while there is a need to be concerned about the water leaks, it was also important to keep matters in perspective.

“We need to recognize that although 300 tons of contaminated water sounds very serious, it’s only about 80,000 gallons, which is much less than the 660,250 gallons used in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Once this contaminated water has gotten past the plant, there’s a substantial dilution of the contamination,” Ferguson said.

“Nonetheless, there are concerns fish caught near the stricken nuclear reactor plant could ingest strontium-90 or cesium-137. Monitoring of fish in the surrounding waters needs to be continued. There are many scientific experts in countries like Russia and Norway who have experience in examining marine life in radioactive-contaminated waters.”

Ferguson said the role of his organization has been to collaborate with the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in forming the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group, which published its recommendations about Fukushima earlier this year.

“The U.S. has a special role to play in supplementing Japanese decommissioning and decontamination expertise, given the long American experience in radiological remediation and the unique level of trust and interoperability between the American and Japanese governments and nuclear industries,” the report says.

Japan’s reluctance to engage the international community more broadly on Fukushima is the subject of much conjecture. Numerous critics say it is because Tepco and the pro-nuclear LDP are concerned that admitting the problem will make restarting other reactors more difficult.

And many who oppose the Tokyo Olympic bid charge that nobody in the government or the media wants to draw international attention to Fukushima and risk giving the International Olympic Committee an excuse to reject the Japanese bid.

Former Ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata, who has written to Abe and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for more international involvement in Fukushima and protesting the Olympic bid, sees these reasons as valid.

“The nuclear dictatorship in Japan persists. There’s an international strategy to consider that Fukushima did not happen. Japan’s media seems to be fulfilling its duty in a way that does not indispose the strong nuclear dictatorship, and has succeeded in creating a ‘business as usual’ atmosphere,” Murata said.

  • Dallas

    The nuclear dictatorship in Japan persists. That says it all.

  • Bryan Jones

    So they are willing to risk a sick Pacific Ocean for the privilege of hosting the Olympics? That sounds so reasonable. Before Japan exports any more nuclear tech, perhaps they first learn how to contain this disaster. The one crucial thing any application of nuclear technology must provide is safety. In the case of Fukushima there was the ‘rare’ tsunami, but in places across the globe there are so many risks to safety in so many environmental and human threats that safety simply cannot be assured even in the shortest terms, and in the long term nuclear waste will haunt life on Earth for what we can imagine is near forever. Nuclear power simply needs to be abandoned.

    • Martin

      Your thinking is a-bit too naive. You are right about all the danger that Nuclear Power has on our planet but you do realize that global power consumption will only increase and renewable energy is simply not enough and also too expensive. On the other hand, natural resources are harder to mine these days and is also polluting our environment. Nuclear Power is one of the most efficient ways of generating energy but has great risks. I think the world needs to heavily invest in Nuclear Energy and make it safer for the world. Many of these “Nuclear Accidents” around the world could have been avoided. It is not the technology that has problems but rather human error. Until we have the technology to produce energy though Nuclear Fusion, or cut energy usage which is near impossible, nuclear fission is the way to go “for now”. And lets hope the nuclear fission wastes stay as where they are and not damage this Earth :)

      • Bryan Jones

        No, I’m sorry but you are too naive. Nuclear power simply is not safe and never will be, there are so many issues from proliferation to spent fuel that to say I am naive is hilarious. We have time bombs all over the planet just ticking ticking ticking while foolish wasteful arrogance poses as the rational sophisticated and even ‘scientific’ position. That is too bad for the life on planet.

    • Masa Chekov

      Why all the cries of “nuclear is unsafe!” and none of the same cries for coal or oil? Those kill thousands and thousands of people every single year if everything goes well!

  • koedo

    Japanese national ego on full display.

  • Starviking

    “”What is needed is nonvested-interest expertise, not the IAEA, Areva (the
    French nuclear conglomerate) or (companies like) Bechtel. Contractors
    should come later after deciding what needs to be done,” said nuclear
    opponent Aileen Mioko Smith of the Kyoto-based group Green Action.”

    I think what Aileen (Eileen?) is trying to say is this:

    “In order to expertly deal with the situation we need to assemble a team of non-experts at once!”

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    Isn’t it slightly odd that Abe is going about trying to promote Japan’s nuclear tech while Fukushima is a giant mess? But then again, they sleep in the same bed.

  • Tinkerjoy

    International community: reject Japan’s bid unless Fukushima is resolved.

    Potential nuclear customers: reject nuclear technology unless Japan shows clean-up technology expertise.