Toru Ogawa, a 64-year-old nuclear research expert, has been entrusted with probably the most challenging task facing Japan — leading the decommissioning process at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
This April, Ogawa, a professor at Nagaoka University of Technology in Niigata Prefecture, was installed as the first chief in the Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science, a government-funded research center supporting the decommissioning.
“Our research and development must be flexible based on our analysis of the (March 2011) accident and information collected by robotic probes (in the reactor buildings),” Ogawa said during a recent interview.
The center started out with a workforce of 80 within the Japan Atomic Energy Agency based in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, as a research base for decommissioning the plant, which is plagued by increasing amounts of contaminated water.
Looking back on the disaster, which was triggered by the powerful Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, Ogawa said, “The government and the agency should have envisioned the worst-case scenario, in which all multiple layers of defense are destroyed.”
When the plant lost nearly all of its power sources and consequently the ability to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools, units 1, 2 and 3 suffered core meltdowns, while hydrogen explosions damaged the buildings housing reactors 1, 3 and 4.
“We will certainly need technological support from abroad,” Ogawa said.
He added that “we can’t carry out the decommissioning task” unless the center receives support and expertise from the United States, which experienced a meltdown at its Three Mile Island power plant in 1979, and other countries that have disposed of military nuclear waste.
Ogawa said he wants to increase the total workforce at the center to some 150 by inviting around 10 Japanese and foreign experts each year.
The center will be moved closer to Fukushima No. 1 during fiscal 2016, which begins next April 1.
A native of Yokohama, Ogawa studied nuclear engineering at Tohoku University in Sendai.
The focus of his research was on high-temperature gas reactors — the next generation reactor known to have a lower risk of core meltdowns, rather than commercial light-water reactors like the ones at Fukushima No. 1.
In researching what will be needed to complete the decommissioning project, which will take several decades, he is currently assessing the state of the melted fuel in reactors 1, 2 and 3, putting together a puzzle with small scraps of information obtained by robotic probes in the reactor buildings.