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Government must take over Fukushima nuclear cleanup

by Andrew Dewit and Chrisopher Hobson

Special To The Japan Times

Recent weeks have seen increasingly concerned calls, from within and without Japan, for the Japanese government to take a direct role in managing the multifaceted crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The most recent opinion poll shows 91 percent of the Japanese public wants the government to intervene.

The Economist calls Fukushima a “nightmare,” and the editors of Bloomberg deem it “ground zero” for the Abe government. Tepco’s handling of the stricken plant continues to be a litany of negligence and error, raising grave doubts over whether the company is up to the incredibly difficult and important task of decommissioning the plant. While it may be politically inconvenient for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to accept, it is time to intervene and take over the plant before it is too late.

Understandably, most commentary on the Fukushima plant focuses on the multiple leaks of water laced with high- and low-level radiation. An estimated 300 tons of highly toxic water, including Strontium-90, has leaked from a hastily constructed tank. This became a level-3 crisis on Aug. 21, “serious” on the United Nation’s 7-point International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, and represents the most urgent reported problem at the plant since the initial meltdowns.

The leaks closely follow Tepco’s admission that contaminated water has been flowing into the ocean since the accident took place in on March 11, 2011. Crises have been arising with such frequency that NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has described the plant as being like a “haunted house” in which “mishaps keep happening one after the other.”

Yet Japan has been very lucky that nothing worse has occurred at the plant. But luck eventually runs out. The longer Tepco stays in charge of the decommissioning process, the worse the odds become. Without downplaying the seriousness of leaks and the other setbacks at the plant, it is important to recognize that things could very quickly get much worse.

In November, Tepco plans to begin the delicate operation of removing spent fuel from Reactor No. 4. There are 1,300 used fuel rod assemblies in a pool above the reactor. They weigh a total of 400 tons, and contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The spent-fuel pool, standing 18 meters above ground, was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami and is in a deteriorating condition. It remains vulnerable to any further shocks, and is also at risk from ground liquefaction. Removing its spent fuel, which contains deadly plutonium, is an urgent task.

Even under ordinary circumstances spent-fuel removal is a difficult task, normally requiring the aid of computers. But due to the damage, removal of spent fuel from Reactor No. 4 and the five other reactors will have to be done manually. This work will be undertaken in arduous conditions, increasing the risk of yet another mishap.

And if something does go wrong, the consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere, putting much of Japan — including Tokyo and Yokohama — and even neighboring countries at serious risk.

When the stakes are this high, who do you want to bet on? Tepco’s abysmal track record is characterized by repeated blunders. Even now there are few signs that Tepco fully understands the magnitude of the situation they — and we — collectively face. It is therefore vital, literally a matter of national security, that Fukushima No. 1′s decommissioning be taken over by the government with the assistance of an international task force of experts.

Regarding the contaminated water problem, industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced on Monday that, “from now on, the government will move to the forefront.” This is a start, but not enough. Tepco must be relieved of control of the whole decommissioning process.

One of the key findings of the independent commissions that studied the accident at Fukushima No. 1 was that it was a “manmade disaster” because the risks and warning signs were repeatedly down-played or ignored. These kinds of warnings have been streaming from the plant since the crisis began. How many more alarm bells does Abe need before he recognizes the gravity of the problem and intervenes?

It is understandable why Abe and his backers do not want to directly take on this toxic job. They risk being tarred with responsibility for further mishaps. But this crisis is too big for Tepco, and the public wants decisive intervention. So the buck stops at the prime minister’s desk.

Moreover, many of Abe’s key aims as leader — including restoring Japan’s economy and national pride — are dependent on successfully managing the precarious situation at Fukushima No. 1. Even his pro-nuclear agenda is reliant upon what happens there: With each new problem or revelation, public skepticism towards nuclear power deepens. Ultimately this is what Abe’s prime ministership will be judged on, whether he likes it or not. Now is the time for action, before it is too late.

Andrew DeWit is a professor in the School of Policy Studies, Rikkyo University. Dr. Christopher Hobson is a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainability and Peace, United Nations University, Tokyo.

  • Andrew Stuart Jonson Daniels

    The Japanese government must take over — they already have. The government has nationalized TEPCO a long time ago.

    In any case, the radiation leaks are neither dangerous nor significant. The couple years of leaky emissions at Fukushima are a fraction of what a coal plant produces in a year. Emissions into the ocean should not cause any fear, its irresponsible of the media to imply that they are. Leaks of tritium are not of any concern. Tritium is not something that endangers people, the oceans or fish. Tritium appears naturally in seawater, and its radiation is no threat. Calling it a “nightmare” is hyperbole.

    • Andrew DeWit

      Thank you for your comments. The J government did a nationalization that, according to the Financial Times, left observers bewildered because of the lack of intervention in Tepco’s management of the crisis and other aspects. And were tritium the only item of concern, great. But it isn’t, and the IAEA, NRA and other organizations know that.

  • hoboroadie

    They should do super-fund bailouts of their toxin production industries like the Americans. Any properly-run nuclear power facility should go bankrupt before the clean-up bill arrives.

  • Enkidu

    Andrew and Christopher,

    Although I appreciate your argument for more government involvement, I do have to ask where you are getting your technical information. Statements like the following do not help your case:

    “…contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.” This is nonsensical and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what radiation is.

    “The spent-fuel pool… was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami and is in a deteriorating condition.” This is not the case. Please provide your evidence for this assertion.

    “If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire.” This, for fuel rods that, at the minimum, have been cooling for nearly 3 years? Please let us know where you are getting this advice.

    • Guest

      “Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: ‘Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.’” http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/us-japan-fukushima-insight-idUSBRE97D00M20130814

      • Enkidu

        Guest, I’m sorry, but quoting two individuals who don’t have a single technical degree between them does not help your case. There are so many individuals passing themselves off as “experts” out there that you really need to be careful.

      • Sam Gilman

        That Reuters article has as its sources three known antinuclear activists posing as neutral experts. It’s gobsmacking that Arnie Gundersen is still getting cited. He’s been found to rather inflate his CV, if I may put it politely. He earns money posing as an expert witness for anti-nuclear groups citing a theory that mainstream science has rejected.

        Generally, if he gets cited (rather than, say, a genuine expert with a long track record of peer-reviewed and well-received research) you can tell that the journalist involved set out from the very beginning to write a sensationalist, fearmongering speech.

        No doubt you chose this article in all innocence. I strongly advise you to check the background of any “expert” on nuclear power, especially if they don’t hold a university chair in a related area. Just as you should be wary of TEPCO spokespeople, you should also be wary of professional anti-nuclear activists. They have a living to make too.

    • Andrew DeWit

      Thank you for your comments. Please refer to US NRC analyses of spent fuel rod content. See also data sections in Report by the American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Fukushima: http://fukushima.ans.org See also excellent investigative journalism by Bloomberg, WSJ, Reuters, etc. e.g.: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/us-japan-fukushima-insight-idUSBRE97D00M20130814

      • Sam Gilman

        Can I ask how thoroughly you checked the sources in that Reuters story? What would you say was the general opinion of, say, Arnie Gundersen in the scientific community, particularly those involved in radiation and health and nuclear physics?

      • Enkidu

        Andrew, Thank you for the response. As I’ve pointed out before on
        these pages, that Reuters article is extremely problematic and has been
        rightly pilloried. I realize that you have no technical training
        in any of this, but is it too much to ask for you to speak with someone
        who does? As an academic, I think that is your responsibility.

        Let’s
        look at your problem assertions. The first one I called out really
        shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what radiation is. It simply
        does not make any logical sense.

        You’re also relying on the likes
        of Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt who don’t have a single
        technical degree between them. Whenever you see people making
        statements like this, the first thing you should do is look them up. Do
        they have technical training in the subject matter? What has been the
        quantity and quality of their published work? Are they considered
        experts by their peers? There are so many people passing themselves off
        as “experts” on this issue that you really need to be careful.

        That

        article also includes the gadfly Arnie Gundersen, who makes regular
        errors in structural analysis and hydrology (which is where my training
        was), among other disciplines. Put simply, he is no expert.

        That
        being said, I think your policy analysis is on target, which is why I
        think you would be well-served to properly vet your technical sources
        and then focus on what you know, which is public policy.

      • Christopher Hobson

        Given the nature of op-eds it is not really possible to cite sources, but we’ve published a longer article here that is fully referenced:

        http://www.japanfocus.org/-Christopher-Hobson/3991

        Best,

        Christopher Hobson

      • Sam Gilman

        Christopher,

        It’s really good that you respond to people here. I have some questions about the sources you use there. I hope you don’t find them too aggressive. It’s a little difficult to contain my surprise at what you’re doing, given your credentials.

        In the JapanFocus article, you say that Mycle Schneider has a “deep understanding” of what is happening at Fukushima. However, neither you nor Andrew de Wit have any expertise in nuclear plant design. What’s your basis for this claim?

        I don’t have any training in plant design either. So I went to check Schneider’s scientific credentials: degrees, research histories etc. The first thing that doesn’t leap out at one from the Internet is precisely that. I can find no record of him formally studying nuclear engineering or anything related anywhere. This is very odd for a supposed global expert.. So I checked Google scholar, to see if he’s recognised in the field anyway. Most of what turns up there is published either by his own organisation WISE-Paris, Greenpeace (who have a stunningly poor track record of scientific accuracy on nuclear issues) or other groups within the anti-nuclear movement.

        There are a few articles in peer-review journals, but none of them on plant design, and these scientific contributions have been cited by others very rarely indeed, and frequently in the grey literature or by the same author several times. Schneider doesn’t look like a person well-respected in the field of nuclear engineering. He mainly gets cited for his work on nuclear power industrial trends. His colleague Antony Froggatt is also an industry watcher, not an engineer.

        I picked an item on Schneider’s CV to check. It says he was “appointed” as “security advisor” to the UK official Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2005 (Chosen because I know a little bit of my way around UK government documents). That sounds like he was vetted and appointed because of his expertise. But what it almost certainly means if you look at the documentation still available online, is that he was there to represent the anti-nuclear movement in a group of “specialists” from various walks of life (including the nuclear industry) aiding public consultation. He’s there not because of his scientific expertise, but, in effect, because of the political constituency he represents.

        Most other of his other consultancy work is for anti-nuclear organizations or Greens in government; in other words, he’s appointed first and foremost not for his expertise, but for his conclusions. His career appears to be based on being recognised by non-experts as an expert, not on the conventional path of expert peer recognition. Indeed, his views on plutonium actually appear to contradict mainstream science (while chiming with a very widespread but incorrect anti-nuclear meme about its alleged toxicity.)

        Schneider may be a great man. Maybe he really does have a deep understanding of Fukushima. I just don’t see any grounds for supposing that he is, compared to someone with the right technical training, experience, and peer respect. You two have as little training and right to judge this issue as I have – we have to defer to the general view of the appropriate scholarly field.

        The same goes for Robert Alvarez, whom you describe as “one of the world’s top spent fuel pool experts”, which he clearly isn’t (where are the research papers in the scientific literature??). Are you aware that he’s actually a music college dropout with no formal training in this area? Did you know that he was not a scientific appointment, but a political appointment under Clinton, as “Senior Policy Advisor at the US Department of Energy”, a CV item he has leveraged ever since?

        I’ve detailed below what’s wrong with Gundersen. Again, not a recognised expert; he’s actually a figure of fun.

        Indeed, the best sources you cite – the New Scientist, and the Atomic Energy Society of Japan – you treat with contempt, in favour of Schneider, Alvarez, Gundersen and Froggatt. From the point of view of academic integrity, this makes no sense whatsoever.

        (Indeed, sourcing an article on the technical problems at Fukushima largely from the mass media is – and I really don’t mean to be rude – really quite poor. Did none of your peer reviewers pick you up on this? I’m not sure you’d get away with that in Wikipedia, let alone a serious article.)

        So, to maul a borrowed phrase from Mrs Merton, what was it about the committed anti-nuclear activist Mycle Schneider that first convinced you as an objective, fair-minded academic that of all the expertise you could have consulted, he was the go-to person on nuclear power?

        You’ve both leveraged your academic reputations here. Would you say that you’ve applied a greater, lesser, or about the same amount of care in sourcing here as you do in your other academic work?

      • Enkidu

        Christopher, Thanks for the response and the link to the full article. A few thoughts on the article:

        “..a rat causing the whole plant to lose power…” This is not correct–the rat did not cause the whole plant to lose power. (Plus, your source for this is Jake Adelstein?)

        “The most recent revelation at the time of writing – and it is difficult to keep up – is Tepco’s September 1 disclosure that it has found several more radiation hotspots, “one with levels so high it could kill a person within a few hours.”” This is incorrect. The reference was to a Beta-only measurement and its impact on eyes and skin. While high, it would certainly not kill someone in a few hours. Please see: http://www.tepco.co.jp/news/2013/1230190_5311.html

        “As Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Advisor at the US Department of Energy and one of the world’s top spent fuel pools experts, …” Sam covered this very well below, but Robert Alvarez is no expert. Again, you need to look these people up.

        “…contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.” Again, as I’ve pointed out above, this is a senseless statement. It’s like saying that my new oven contains “cooking” equivalent to three pot-bellied stoves. What you’re trying to say is this: the spent fuel rods contain an amount of Cs 137 equivalent to 14,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Now, that seems like a dumb point of reference to me because it would be impossible to release even a fraction of that Cs 137 from the rods, but whatever gets people excited, I guess.

        “[SPF 4] was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, and is in a deteriorating condition.” As pointed out before, this is incorrect, and I note that you provide no source for this information.

        “And if something does go wrong, the consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere, putting much of Japan, including the metropolises of Tokyo and Yokohama, and even neighbouring countries at serious risk.” Again, this is incorrect, and I note that you provide no source for this information.

      • Starviking

        Just from a quick look at your article, you should modify this: “This became a level-3 crisis on August 21, ‘serious’ on the UN’s 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale”

        Level-3 on the INES Scale is “Serious Incident”. It’s below level-4: “Accident with local consequences”.

  • El Don

    I doubt that the government would do a better job than TEPCO in dealing with countermeasures against the nuclear crisis. Remind you: It’s the LDP in the first place that is responsible for decades of highly questionable atomic energy policy and lacking supervision of the atomic power industry and its safety standards. It makes me sad but I have to admit: I lost all confidence in the Abe government’s handling of the nuclear crisis. The LDP is pro-nuclear and represents the interests of Japan’s electric power companies which are eager to restart their reactors as soon as possible. It is not the people that count to Mr. Abe but the LDP’s close contacts to business.

  • Starviking

    Well, two political science academics, claiming expertise in areas far from their own disciplines -parroting information from self-proclaimed experts who not only have suspect qualifications, but who have been proven wrong in the past.

    Does Professor DeWit and Dr. Hobson go to a car mechanic when they are feeling ill? Or see if their physicians can fix their cars? That’s the level of expertise on this problem that is being shown in this article.

    Would it have hurt to phone up a few science departments?

  • Muhammad Daheem

    It seems that situation is still grim and Japan may face another environmental disaster in the near future. Tepco possibly has
    failed to resolve the Fukushima issue. It is high time government assisted by foreign experts should step in and find the solution of the issue.

  • denydaho

    Privately run nuclear power facilities are an illusion. Accident clean up, spent fuel custody, and decommissioning will always end up being government functions. I hope our governments are up to the task.

  • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

    Weird thing, why hadn’t it been revealed before the election.
    Since TEPCO had to know it, likely reported to the government.
    Why was the announcement so delayed.
    Or, what would have happened on the election if it was announced before the election.
    Futhermore, why wouldn’t the government scold them so much.