There is something surprising in the radioactive wreck that is the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant: opportunity. To clean it up, Japan will have to develop technologies and expertise that any nation with a nuclear reactor will one day need.
With dozens of aging reactors at home and hundreds of others worldwide that eventually need to be retired, Japanese industry sees a profitable market for decommissioning expertise.
It may sound jarring, given all the ongoing problems with Fukushima No. 1, including massive leaks of contaminated water and other mishaps that followed its devastation by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
But many experts and industry officials say the experience and technology being developed, such as robotics, can be used in any future decommissioning project. That could represent new opportunities for Japan Inc., which has lost some of its global luster, notably to competitors from South Korea, China and the United States.
“There is decommissioning business here beyond Fukushima and it’s a worldwide business,” said Lake Barrett, a former U.S. nuclear regulator who headed the cleanup of the 1979 Three Mile Island incident.
“I think it’s an exciting new area,” he said. “Japan can be a world leader again.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government hopes an offshoot will be a boom in nuclear technology exports.
Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, killed 15,884 people and left 2,636 unaccounted for in vast swaths of the northeast coast.
The country has struggled to rebuild Tohoku’s shattered communities and to clean up radiation from the man-made crisis. The government has earmarked ¥25 trillion for reconstruction through March 2016, but about 50,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture are still unable to return home due to radiation concerns.
Despite the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1, which experts say are far more challenging to deal with than the partial meltdown of one reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant, Abe is eager to sell the nation’s nuclear technologies and equipment overseas. He boasts that Japan can offer the world’s highest safety standards that reflect lessons learned from Fukushima.
More than 400 nuclear reactors are already in operation in more than 30 countries across the globe, with dozens more under construction. More are expected, including hundreds in China alone by 2050.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs Fukushima No. 1, is setting up a separate corporation in April to take apart the devastated plant. Tentatively called the “Decommissioning Company,” it will be overseen by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and could evolve into a decommissioning organization for other plants both at home and abroad.
Academics, construction giants, electronics makers and risk management firms are rushing to get a piece of the action.
The government-funded International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning also was set up last year. It brings together atomic power plant operators, construction companies and organizations of nuclear experts to promote research and development on nuclear decommissioning technologies, as well as cooperation between international and domestic entities.
The institute has received 780 funding proposals from around the world for ideas and technologies on treating and managing contaminated water, and another 220 on retrieving the three melted cores at Fukushima No. 1.
Domestic companies including Toshiba Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. have been developing robots that can monitor radiation, decontaminate, remove tainted debris or conduct repairs, and some of them have been mobilized at the plant.
Standard decommissioning has been largely carried out by human workers so far. The institute’s chief, Kazuhiro Suzuki, says the robotics technologies being developed to probe and remove melted fuel at Fukushima No. 1 could benefit these projects and need not be limited to severely damaged reactors.
“Decommissioning of aging reactors is an imminent task that all nuclear plant operators face,” Suzuki said.
While robotics and other advanced technologies can reduce worker radiation exposure, they can also make cleanup faster and cheaper, according to Barrett, the Three Mile Island expert who now advises Tepco and the institute.
Experts in Japan are studying the British model, the National Decommissioning Authority, founded in 2005 to head the dismantling and cleanup of nuclear plants and manage their waste.
The decommissioning of the four reactors will take around 40 years, while the total cost could be as high as 10 times the standard process, which costs about ¥70 billion per reactor, Suzuki said.
After decommissioning 10 regular reactors and leading the cleanup at Three Mile Island, the U.S. government and nuclear industry see profits ahead, too. In February, representatives of 26 U.S. firms came to Tokyo for business talks with 50 domestic companies at a decommissioning forum co-sponsored by Japan and the U.S.
“We can work together and do so much more,” said CB&I executive Austin Auger.