Time to take over Daiichi?

by Christopher Hobson

Special To The Japan Times

It’s been almost 2½ years since the disaster at Fukushima No. 1 (Fukushima Daiichi) nuclear plant commenced, but the precarious condition of the nuclear plant remains a constant fixture in the news.

A sentence that has been reappearing in stories in recent months has been some variation of “the incident has brought the Fukushima plant’s vulnerable state into sharp relief” (New York Times, July 18).

The problem is that “the incident” being referred to could be one of many: a rat causing a power outage, radioactive water leaking from storage tanks, steam being emitted from one of the reactors or, most recently, confirmation by Tokyo Electric Power Co. that contaminated water is escaping into the ocean.

Fukushima No. 1 seems to lurch from one problem to the next as Tepco struggles to bring the situation there fully under control. When this litany of recent issues is combined with the company’s checkered safety record and its deeply flawed handling of the 2011 nuclear accident, there should be serious doubts over Tepco’s ability to continue managing the damaged plant.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has just adopted its new regulatory standards, leaving the way open for offline reactors to be examined and potentially approved for restarts. Already four utilities have applied to have 12 reactors checked, with more applications expected.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party having won big in the Upper House elections, it is likely that calls for speeding up a return to nuclear power will become louder. The NRA must manage being sufficiently rigorous to ensure its own credibility while being conscious of the mounting political pressure to restart reactors. This is made all the more challenging by the NRA having a small workforce, with a staff of only 80 people to assess these applications and around 500 people in total.

Given the NRA’s limited resources, it must be asked if it is wise to spread them so thinly. A real danger is that it will result in both tasks — monitoring the Fukushima plant and assessing restart applications — being completed at a substandard level.

The Fukushima plant may have technically achieved “cold shutdown,” but it is far from being stabilized. Tepco is not able to properly assess the state of the melted fuel that remains in the damaged reactors, and they have yet to begin removing the fuel rods from No. 4 reactor.

Tepco and the NRA are still struggling to find a solution to the ongoing problem of the spread of contaminated water. When the situation is so bad that Shunichi Tanaka, the NRA chairman, is stating in a press conference, with regard to water leaks, that “if you have any better ideas, we’d like to know,” it should be clear that Fukushima No. 1 still requires the upmost attention. It would be wise for the NRA and the Japanese government to invest more resources and exert more control in dealing with the situation there.

This recent spate of problems raises a serious question that the Japanese government certainly does not want to consider but must:

• At what point should it intervene and directly take control of Fukushima No. 1?

• How many more incidents and issues are acceptable before enough is enough?

• How much longer should Tepco’s apologies for “any inconvenience caused” and their assurances that “everything is under control” be accepted?

Considering that the Japanese government has already taken control of much of the company, there is little to stop it taking the next step and putting the Fukushima plant directly under the NRA.

A significant conclusion of the Kurokawa Report into the nuclear accident was that multiple warning signs had been ignored: “There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11. The accident occurred because Tepco did not take these measures, and NISA [Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency] and the Nuclear Safety Commission went along.”

If the NRA is serious about differentiating itself from its predecessors, it should not repeat the same mistakes. This recent series of incidents should be the canary in the coal mine telling us that Fukushima No. 1 remains vulnerable and unstable.

Considering that Japan has been more seismically active since the 2011 earthquake, there remains a real risk that another disaster could strike the already damaged plant. Japan cannot afford the luxury of relying on best-case scenarios; it must prepare for the worst.

This means preparing for the possibility that more things could go wrong at Fukushima No. 1. Indeed, recent incidents suggest that the chances of more problems are very high.

Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Accident, has observed that “the problems were not with the law or the manual, but with the humans who formulated the ‘anticipated’ risks that fell in line with corporate and political will — but did not represent the actual risks the nuclear plant faced and posed.”

It is important this lesson is learned. Rather than relying on Tepco and a bare bones staff of regulators, it is time for the NRA and the Japanese government to seriously consider directly taking control of Fukushima No. 1. This certainly would not be an easy decision, but safety must be given priority ahead of political considerations. Instead of rushing toward restarting reactors, Japan should heed the warning signs at Fukushima and focus on stabilizing the situation there first.

Dr. Christopher Hobson is a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainability and Peace, United Nations University, Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter at @hobson_c

  • Estim8z

    Bull doze the hole thing into the ocean, only a couple of fish will die from diesel exhaust landing on the water and maybe some under payed clean up workers will get a respiratory infection from burning a coal cap fire to keep warm at night in the migrant worker tents. Nuclear power is clean and green and never hurt anyone.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      This is EXACTLY the reason that something as serious as this cannot be turned over to mob rule and politicians, which amount to the same thing.

  • Estim8z

    Is the ocean Tepco’s to do what they want with. They have had plausible ideas handed to them that would have sealed the structures from pollution the ground water, but they said it was too expensive. They are doing every thing they can to get out of this with out bankrupting the company, they don’t care at all about the people or the environment. The Japanese Government is just as bad, they are allowing it. This is crazy and i can not believe this is happening! We will be paying for this for a long time. Think of fukushima, every time you see a birth defect, a cancer, heat disease, cronic illnesses and children suffereing from mutated bodies and delayed development. Chernobly was at least 30 times smaller that Fukushima, and look at the death and distruction it caused. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      “Think of fukushima, every time you see a birth defect, a cancer, heat disease, cronic illnesses and children suffereing from mutated bodies and delayed development.”

      Why do that? There is none of that in Fukushima. Personally, when I think of Fukushima, I think of melons and peaches and apples. YUM. Fukushima’s worst health problem today is doomsday hysteria and fear mongers giving them ulcers and heart disease. Lay off of them. Haven’t they suffered enough?

  • Ray Masalas

    No…. Tepco execs should have been jailed 2 years and 4 months ago, and a team of world experts should have been brought in to lessen the impact. Tepco is commiting an act of nuclear war against the Pacific ocean and north and south America in Japan’s name.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      I hope the Pacific Ocean does not believe in mutually assured destruction!

      • Spudator

        I hope the Pacific Ocean does not believe in mutually assured destruction!

        I think it does, though. The more we damage nature, the more we damage our hopes of survival as a species. We’re not separate from nature; we’re very much a part of it and so totally dependent on it. If we wreak enough destruction on nature and cause the natural balance that’s nurtured us for so long to fail, we guarantee our own destruction.

        I’m not just talking about the damage done by Fukushima Dai-ichi or the nuclear industry in general. Look at how natural systems the world over are gradually being thrown into disarray by man-made climate change, which is a direct result of the way we continue to vandalise the biosphere.

        Once the atmosphere fails us and the oceans fail us—and that’s the scenario towards which we’re headed, the health of the oceans being dependent on the health of the atmosphere—we’re finished. We simply can’t go on once the biosphere is wrecked. What we’re doing to our planet, of which Fukushima is just one sorry example, truly does represent mutually assured destruction—of nature in general and ourselves in particular. It’s pure MADness.

        Given that we can now clearly see the impending consequences of our destructive ways, yet insist on carrying on with business as usual in a state of complete denial, I don’t think we’ve ever been madder. What was it Einstein said in this respect? Wasn’t it something about insanity consisting of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

  • Citizen Perth

    If you want the general public to ‘take over’, then you are saying that TEPCO and the JP government will then have a scape-goat….. nuff said

  • hp b

    The miscreants have been dumping this into the ocean the entire time.
    The Pacific is being used as a giant rug.

  • tiredofdogma

    The plant is tied in to bedrock. The partially melted core has breached primary containment and possibly (likely?) breached secondary containment, meaning direct or indirect contact with bedrock. The plant sits in the direct path of the groundwater flow from the hill side behind the plant to the ocean. TEPCO and the government have known this from the beginning, and opted not to construct a groundwater diversion wall due to cost and priority of constructing weather shelters over the damaged exostructures. The Japanese government must assume control of the response. Tepco is not an evil company covering things up – the response to this calamity is simply beyond their expertise and capability.

  • FX ofTruth

    What’s hard to understand about this disaster?

    It’s being allowed to continue in order to poison and destroy as much of the planet as possible. The wealthy have no problem with their health being affected by this. They have all the medical technology they need to keep them out of harms way. Otherwise, THEY WOULD BE UP IN ARMS!

    But, you don’t hear a peep out of them, do you?

    The fumbling and bumbling is all done on purpose. The more confused all these “experts” act, the lower the public’s expectations of this ever being solved. That is why, none of the countries in the World have mounted any kind of campaign to correct anything…..it’s all going as planned.

    This is known as, “Not letting a perfectly good disaster go to waste!”
    This one event, will destroy generations of life and create the population reductions that the governments want throughout the World. People are expensive to service. People consume vast quantities of resources. People are not getting smarter or motivated to progress. Afraid, dumb and oblivious is pretty much the majority of the World’s population.

    So, this is going to brew for a very, very, very long time. Billions of people are already affected, 100s of millions will be dying over time. When all is said and done, 2 to 3 billion will probably be eliminated around the World because of these radiation effects.

    • Masa Chekov

      “The fumbling and bumbling is all done on purpose.”

      This is possibly the most cynical sentence I have ever read.

      • Romi Elnagar

        It might just be true, though.

      • Rockne O’Bannon

        It fits in perfectly with the “Greenpeace” world view. TEPCO workers and executives don’t have families or friends. They are soulless money grubbing robots who don’t care about anything but getting RICH RICH! from those poor rate payers in Tokyo.
        It is not popular to call them heroes, but in my book, that is exactly what they are. They stared down a disaster that killed double the number of Americans who died on 9/11, the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan… for the last DECADE.
        And they did it for me. If they had run, everything I have in the world would have been toast.
        3 11 did not make me a cynic. It made me a patriot. People in Tohoku pulled together. It is the rest of Japan being ripped apart.
        By irrational fear.

  • Stephen Kent

    I personally can’t understand why this whole situation hasn’t resulted in more of a debate about the very idea of privatized nuclear power. To me it has illustrated what should have been obvious before any of this happened; that something with the potential to fail catastrophically and cause an inter-generational disaster at a level exceeding national boundaries is in absolutely no way suitable for being placed in the hands of a profit-seeking organization which would simply never be able to bear the cost of any serious accident. In the financial crisis of 2008 we saw how a bank could become “too big to fail”, and if that is the case then nuclear power companies must surely be “too dangerous to fail”. I think that the sooner nuclear power is nationalized and made as regulated and transparent as possible, in Japan and other countries, the better.

  • Michael Radcliffe

    Oh dear, another ill-conceived and deliberately provocative anti-nuclear piece. One the one hand the author admits that the NRA has a staff of only 500 people, yet on the other he seems to be demanding someone take over the management of Fukushima Daiichi. I wonder who he has in mind: which organization would be better at managing a damaged nuclear power plant that the company which owns it and knows it? Better than the company that managed it through a terrible natural disaster and three meltdowns without a single radiation-related death or injury?
    Noone would suggest that TEPCO is perfect, or that mistakes haven’t been made. But critics should keep in mind that the Fukushima accident killed nobody while 19,000 people died in the tsunami. People shouldn’t be unduly influenced by media hysteria.

    • Romi Elnagar

      It’s not true that there were no fatalities at Fukushima. Masao Yoshida, the hero of the disaster, just died of cancer.
      And many more will die, too. The incidence of thyroid cancer is already rising among the children in the Fukushima area.

      • Rockne O’Bannon

        There were many heroes.
        There is no reason to believe that Masao’s cancer had anything to do with radiation whatsoever.
        The incidence of thyroid cancer is not rising among children in the Fukushima area. But I tell you what, if I had a kid who had cancer, I would move to Fukushima. The care must be the best in the nation by this time, and you can bet he would get a lot of attention. And it would not cost me a dime.
        I think we all need to expect some selection bias to be cropping up any day now.

    • johnny1968

      Michael: I find it peculiar that you vilify a “…deliberately provocative anti-nuclear piece.” That’s akin to starting with, “Oh dear, this article
      about Ariel Castro is another ill-conceived and deliberately provocative
      anti-rape and slavery piece.” Yes, I’m comparing nuclear power to a socio/psychopath. Nuclear condemns itself; history will bear this out. Here are a few facts to consider.

      Fact: Every nuclear power plant leaks. “Routine” operating practices include releasing gases including radioactive noble gases and tritium. Research in Germany found that children living within 5km of nuclear
      plants end up with a 1.6-fold increase in solid cancers and a 2.2-fold increase in different types of leukemia. I dare say that if an unbiased survey (neither pro-nuke or anti-nuke) was done anywhere else, that same pattern would be found.

      Fact: the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been leaking water contaminated with radioactive isotopes since the explosions and meltdowns (x 3!!!), if not since the earthquake and tsunami (due to damage caused by the
      shaking and the impact of the wall of water). This is over two years and four months. The most conservative realistic figures I have found is that this is at least 2.5 times the amount of contamination released by Chernobyl. These elements are being absorbed by plants as well as fish, which are then eaten by larger fish, which are then eaten by larger fish (and so on), concentrating the level of radioactive isotopes in these fish. These are then eaten by humans (usually the top of the food chain). This doesn’t go away. Even if the fish just swim off and die, they are broken down by decomposers which are then eaten by other marine life, and the concentration of radioactivity continues. Look up bioconcentration.

      Fact: US infant deaths have increased 25-35% since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. It’s harder to determine the mortality rate in Japan due to lack of reliable information (but almost half of the children exposed [tested so far] have thyroid nodules or cysts). To say that “…the Fukushima accident killed nobody…” is simply not borne out by the facts.

      Who should take over? Neither TEPCO nor the Japanese
      government should be allowed to manage the remains of Fukushima Daiichi as neither has proven trustworthy over the past 2+ years. Back in October of 2012, TEPCO admitted “…that it had failed to take stronger measures to prevent disasters for fear of inviting lawsuits or protests against its nuclear plants” (The Times, published Oct. 12, 2012). TEPCO’s own report states that, “(t)here were concerns that if new countermeasures against severe accidents were installed, concern would spread in host communities that the current plants had safety
      problems.” This “…company that managed it through a terrible natural disaster and three meltdowns…” has been a part of the problem since before the disaster in the first place. They knew that they had to do more to ensure safety; they simply CHOSE NOT TO because it was expensive. The management of TEPCO has proven to be dishonest from the beginning.

      The Japanese government was incredibly slow to respond to the crisis, has passed on false information from TEPCO (false both by omission and bold-faced lies), and even now isn’t handling the crisis (which it still is) as it should: as if it were fighting a war. Sorry if it’s expensive; that’s the risk you take when you play with nuclear power.

      I would suggest that an international group of experts, operating with complete transparency, should be appointed by the IAEA to manage the remains of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. I agree that TEPCO isn’t perfect, and that mistakes have been made. Everyone should keep in mind that mistakes made in handling this crisis have GLOBAL consequences. Let them handle something less dangerous.

      Also, slamming the media is silly: this crisis is so massively under reported here in the US that I must wonder who the reporters
      and editors are really working for.

  • Chernobyl Children Fukushima C

    The only lesson learned: ALL JAPANESE REACTORS ARE OFFLINE
    or exploded.
    The next lesson: Measurements of Food. Independent, express, internal
    Aim: ZERO Becquerel.

    • Michael Radcliffe

      He he if you want zero becquerels you better stop eating, drinking, breathing or metabolizing. Let us know how you get on.

  • Romi Elnagar

    This is called “belling the cat.” If the Japanese government takes over Daiichi, it will be pretty much like setting the fox to guard the henhouse, since the government has been in bed with the nuclear industry (both in Japan and in the US) since Day One. If they were going to empower Arnie Gundersen, Joseph Mangano, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Akio Matsumura, Mochizuki Iori (http://fukushima-diary.com/), the Citizens Nuclear Information Center (http://www.cnic.jp/english/), or any number of other knowledgeable experts and

    critics of the nuclear industry, or even the folks in Russia who buried Chernobyl in cement, to oversee a cleanup of Fukushima, we might have some confidence in the plan to nationalize the site, but as it is, this will merely

    compound the farce and enlarge the disaster.

    We are cooked. It’s as simple as that.

    Sorry to have to be the one to break it to you

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Yeah. We should turn over tens of billions of dollars of capital to a bunch of pseudo-scientific kookballs instead of highly trained and experienced engineers. That will make society better.
      Look what it did to the Soviet Union. That is not a bright future for Japan.
      By the way, if Christopher Hobson were really giving the opinion of the UN in his piece, it would be just the opposite of what he is saying. Should we trust Hobson, or trust the UN, who pays him? I know Hobson’s choice.

  • apeman2502

    In the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Linus Pauling, who as one of the ten top recognized scientists in history and the scientist most responsible for university level organic chemistry curricula worked with his staff and assistants to survey radioactivity levels around the southwest United States. In particular in areas downwind from nuclear bomb testing. The results were tabulated and the correlation between long term low level radioactive exposure and the increased incidence of cancer was established. He was thus fired from Stanford University and called a ‘commie pinko’ or something like that. The U.S. government duplicated the study and reached the same results and conclusions as Dr. Pauling & Co..

    I, at this time, would personally like to curse and send straight to hell ANYONE who would censor this comment and keep the good people and biology of Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere from benefiting from its message. I really mean it. Altars, chickens, candles, crucifixes, tea leaves, voodoo dolls, tarot cards and crystal balls. THE WORKS!

    • Michael Radcliffe

      Looks like your comment wasn’t censored. Does that mean I don’t get cursed and go to hell? Help me here, I’m sweating.

    • Yes, there is a correlation.

      No one denies that. Why would you think you would be “censored”?

      By the way, censorship is an action that only the state can engage in. There can be no “censorship” on a privately owned news website, as your posting here is a privilege, not a right.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    “There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11.”

    And no board of directors in the world, or committee or legislative body in the world could ever be convinced that spending a billion dollars or maybe two billion, for last minute protection from an event that MIGHT happen within the next 1000 years, is a great idea!

    The Kurokawa report. Why not just call it 20/20 hindsight?

    You know what everyone misses? 15000 people up the coast died. Where were their safety measures and committees and dedicated company managements? Nobody cares about them even today. The way society runs is that you try to assess risks, and you do your best to protect people… given a BUDGET. That is never a blank check. And someday, something is going to hit the fan. Get. Over. It.

    If TEPCO had gone to rate payers in 2010 and said, “You know, we really need this…” there would have been a wailin and a screamin to high heaven. Everyone in Tokyo who is anti-nuclear who switched on so much as a lightbulb on 3 10 is a hypocrite. They should be ignored. And that probably includes Dr. Christopher Hobson.

  • “At what point should it intervene and directly take control of Fukushima No. 1?”

    This presumes that the government can do anything better.
    What evidence is there to make that presumption?

    “How many more incidents and issues are acceptable before enough is enough?”

    Enough is enough for what? The state regulations and government vulnerability to pressure groups made the radiation worse. Did you ever ask why there were so many spent fuel rods left in the plant? These rules create a moral hazard. They remove the incentive for a private business to take responsibility for it’s actions. Falling to pressure about disposal from environmental groups made it possible for so many rods to remain there in the first place. Also, since the state creates the rules and does the inspections, any blame for a problem will be shared. The finger pointing in the event of a crisis will go back and forth. If there had been a free market in energy, Tepco would have paid out it’s way into bankruptcy, then the company/companies that could do the best job cleaning up would be contracted by citizens to take responsibility for and clean up the mess.

    The state will not let Tepco go out of business. It has a semi-monopoly already as well as being semi-nationalized. Making it fully nationalized just leads to more of the same, not less.