The Abe administration on Sept. 3 announced that it will earmark at least ¥47 billion to stop leaks of water contaminated with radioactive substances at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Signaling that the government will directly involve itself in the efforts, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “We will not leave the matter to Tepco and will work on the front line to solve the problem.”
The government decision is a step in the right direction, but was long overdue. The government previously made light of the problem and lacked a sense of crisis. Mr. Abe and other government leaders must realize that today’s grave situation has resulted from the government leaving the management of the Fukushima nuclear crisis to Tepco, which monopolized relevant information and refused to listen to the opinions of outside experts. In view of the timing, the government decision also smacks of a political performance aimed at helping the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s effort to have the International Olympic Committee select Tokyo as the host of the 2020 Olympic Games.
The government plans to spend ¥32 billion to install refrigerating equipment to create a barrier of frozen soil around the plant by the end of March 2015, about six months sooner than an earlier goal set by Tepco. It will also use ¥15 billion to develop equipment to remove radioactive nuclides from water used to cool the three reactors that suffered meltdowns. The equipment will be more powerful than the “ALPS” multi-nuclide removal equipment, whose operation has been postponed due to leaks. The government hopes to start operating the filtering equipment next year.
The problem with the government plan is that these technologies have not yet been developed and therefore their effectiveness is unknown. This means that despite the government’s decision, it will be “business as usual” at the nuclear power plant for quite sometime. Tepco must continue to rely on tanks to store radioactive water. Of the 1,000 tanks, about 350 are temporary units made of steel plates bolted together, with seams sealed with rubber. The remaining are more reliable welded tanks. Neither Tepco nor the government has much knowledge about the movement of ground water below the power plant. And in addition to the leak problem, Tepco and the government in the future must tackle problems related to the molten nuclear fuel and the large amount of radioactive materials inside the reactors and containment vessels.
Finally, although the government has a headquarters to cope with nuclear disasters, it is still unclear which government organization will head the effort to halt the leaks.
Thus despite the government’s decision to directly involve itself in managing the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, there is, unfortunately, no real reason to believe that fundamental solutions are any closer at hand.