OKUMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Wearing a protective suit to guard against radioactive contamination, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe entered the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Thursday to inspect the desperate effort to stop tainted water from entering the soil and the Pacific.
Abe visited the site in an apparent publicity stunt to demonstrate his determination to get the water crisis under control. An estimated 300 tons of contaminated groundwater is believed to be flowing into the ocean every day, and experts say the more than 1,000 storage tanks overlooking the site pose an even greater hazard.
During his two-hour visit to the facility, Abe viewed a storage tank that recently lost a sizable amount of highly contaminated water. At least five of the plant’s 350 flange-type water tanks have sprung leaks.
In the plant’s reinforced headquarters, Abe thanked about 200 plant workers for “working under severe conditions” to address the water crisis.
“I have renewed my determination that the government should stand on the front line to carry out our responsibilities,” he said.
Abe’s visit followed controversial remarks he made on the water situation at Fukushima No. 1 during Tokyo’s bid to win the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. During Tokyo’s final pitch to the International Olympic Committee on Sept. 7, Abe declared that “the situation (at the Fukushima plant) is under control” and “effects from the contaminated water have been perfectly blocked within the (artificial) bay” next to the wrecked nuclear complex.
On Thursday, as he faced reporters after addressing the workers, Abe repeated the controversial remarks almost word for word, saying the “effects from the contaminated water have been perfectly blocked within the bay.”
“By stating this clearly, I want to bring an end to harmful rumors about Fukushima,” he asserted.
Despite Abe’s assurances, Tepco has not been able to control the contaminated groundwater seeping into the sea nor the storage tank leaks that have cropped up in the past two months since the election.
“During the presentation for the Olympic Games, Prime Minister Abe told a lie,” Teruhiko Mashiko, an Upper House member and vice president of the Democratic Party of Japan, said during a recent interview in Tokyo.
“This is a big problem. The government should invest more people, money and technologies to turn their lies into truths,” Mashiko, who represents Fukushima Prefecture, said in an interview with The Japan Times.
Other government officials have parroted Abe’s claims, citing tests showing that levels of radioactive materials in the artificial bay have stayed well within safety margins. But experts say the levels are probably low because the contaminants are being diluted and carried away by new seawater entering the bay, not because of measures being taken by Tepco or the government.
On Thursday, Abe said he asked Tepco President Naomi Hirose to set a deadline for finishing filtering all the tainted water stored in tanks. He also urged Tepco to formally decide to decommission reactors 5 and 6 to free up their resources for the decommissioning of the entire plant. He did not elaborate on the request.
In response, Hirose promised to finish the filtering by the end of fiscal 2014 and make a decision on the two undamaged reactors by the end of the year, according to Abe. Unlike three of the older reactors, units 5 and 6 did not suffer core meltdowns but have been suspended since March 2011.
DPJ’s Mashiko was long been concerned with the reliability of the holding tanks. Of the approximately 1,060 water tanks, around 350 are of the less durable flange type, rather than the sturdier welded type, including all five that sprung leaks.
Mashiko claimed that last spring that a local tank manufacturer warned that the tanks were of very bad quality and could suffer leaks within two years of construction.
According to Mashiko, the manufacturer was asked to build six low-cost tanks and take no more than a month to do it.
“The company turned down the offer because they only would have ended up constructing low-quality tanks under (bad) contract conditions,” Mashiko said.
At recent news conferences in Tokyo, Tepco executive and spokesman Masayuki Ono has repeatedly refused to comment on Mashiko’s account or reveal details of the contracts with construction companies to build the Fukushima water tanks.Ono would only say that Tepco won’t disclose information on “contracts between private companies.”
But many industry sources suspect that Tepco, short on money, may have bought low-quality tanks to reduce the ballooning costs of trying to clean up the shattered facility.
Mashiko said residents of Fukushima, in particular those in the fishery industry, have developed a deep distrust of Tepco, which has made it even harder for the utility to handle the crisis.
To reduce the tainted water, Tepco plans to drain groundwater from the hillside above before it mixes with the tainted water in the basement floors of the damaged reactor buildings. It then plans to discharge the water into the sea after confirming the density of radioactive materials is lower than safety standards.
However, the local fishing industry is staunchly opposed to the idea, fearing it would further damage perception of its seafood. Others say they can’t even trust Tepco to release accurate information, Mashiko said.
For his part, Mashiko believes Tepco will eventually have to discharge the water into the sea to save the plant from the water crisis, as other experts say. But before that, the utility must first regain public trust, he said.
Abe’s team has also drawn fire for not fully committing to solving the water problem. Earlier this month, his team decided to throw ¥47 billion at the water crisis to create an experimental wall of frozen soil around the reactor buildings within about two years to isolate them from the groundwater. What is not clear is how the giant refrigerator would be powered, or for how long.
But Abe’s team has yet to provide money for other urgent tasks, such as bolstering or replacing the water tanks, perhaps out of fear of a voter backlash. People are already frustrated over hikes in electricity prices brought on by the nuclear shutdown, and Tepco is widely regarded as the main culprit behind the triple meltdown crisis and ensuing water problems.
A high-ranking official said the Abe Cabinet will maintain a certain distance from Tepco, saying the public has not yet developed a consensus on helping Tepco with taxpayer money.