Tepco finally accepts overseas help

As the crisis worsens at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) has at last started to be open to assistance from foreign countries. Discussions on bilateral cooperation with Russia’s nuclear industry turned positive, it was reported last week. Tepco was also reportedly engaged in talks with retired U.S. government officials who handled the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

These are all positive signs that help may be on the way that will enable the nuclear crisis in Fukushima to be managed more effectively. That may offer some relief, since Tepco officials have so far exhibited little inclination to cooperate with foreign specialists in the effort to halt the leakage of radioactive water that is now plaguing the crippled plant. With the severity of the crisis upgraded from level one to level three on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale of eight, Tepco should accept all the help it can get.

With one “fix” after the next failing, Tepco — and by extension Japan — is finally being forced to turn to technology from overseas. That may put a crimp in the government’s plan to promote sales of nuclear power plant technology to other countries, but many of the technologies developed by Russia after the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, to take one example, will be needed to solve the current problems.

Nuclear cleanup specialists from places such as the Hanford Site in Washington State — many of whom have offered help since the initial meltdown — have a long history in coping with problems such as groundwater contamination. The Hanford Site, after all, was where plutonium for most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was made and stored. Their history of dealing with radioactive contamination extends back almost 70 years. That knowledge and technical skill would surely be of benefit in Fukushima.

Tepco clearly is not managing the crisis properly. At the same time, the hesitancy of the Nuclear Regulation Authority and the national government to take a greater hands-on role is making matters worse. At the very least, the NRA and the government should work to facilitate greater international cooperation in the effort to get the nuclear crisis under control. Scientists and companies from around the world have offered to help over the 29 months since the crisis began. The government and Tepco should embrace this assistance.

Tepco’s refusal to accept help from abroad may stem from national pride, or simply be another aspect of bad managerial skills, but nuclear accidents are not private domestic issues. They are international disasters in scope and effect. The costs of the Fukushima nuclear crisis are becoming enormous and the continuing leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean is eroding international trust in Japan. Both the government and Tepco should accept all the help they can get from overseas.