Commentary / Japan

Busting myths about Fukushima No. 1

by Kuni Miyake

I am writing this article in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, a small town on the northeastern coast of Honshu. Less than four hours by train or car from Tokyo, Okuma was unknown to people outside Japan until March 11, 2011. Where do you think I am? Yes, I’m inside the compound of Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Since the mega-quake and tsunami devastated the Pacific coastline of northeastern Japan seven years ago, people in this country have been asking each other, “Where were you and what were you doing on 3/11?” as many Americans still do over 9/11. At that moment, I was giving a speech in central Tokyo and I thought the ceiling of the meeting room would fall.

My daughter, kindly requested by the American firm she was with to leave Tokyo for Osaka, adamantly insisted that she would stay with her family. After the tsunami, my wife and I often worked as volunteers in the disaster zone. None of us, however, had a chance to see the four nuclear reactors that survived the quake but not the tsunami.

I was half excited but half nervous before visiting the plant, because I was no different from the ordinary men and women, in Japan and abroad, who learned about and often ridiculed all the misjudgments and flip-flops by the national government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., the plant’s operator.

There are many myths about Fukushima No. 1. Skeptics claim, for example, that “the plant is still dangerous because the accident can be repeated,” or “the water is contaminated even now and too difficult to clean up.” Others say they suspect that “the plant still damages the nearby environment” or “the melted fuel cannot be removed.” And so did I.

During this visit, after viewing Tepco’s newly opened Decommissioning Archive Center in the nearby town of Tomioka, I went to the plant compound. Most of Tomioka is no longer designated as an area where it is “difficult to return,” and several hundred former residents have indeed moved back into their homes, although more than 90 percent of the town’s pre-disaster population still lives elsewhere.

When I approached northern Tomioka, the “difficult-to-return” zone started. I was told that the restriction will not be lifted until the yearly radiation dose falls below 20 millisieverts. That is the amount you would receive if you made 100 round-trip flights between Tokyo and New York in a 12-month period.

The closer you get to the plant, of course, the bigger the radioactive dose you are exposed to. However, it was measured at generally around a few microsieverts per hour inside the vehicle on my way to the power plant. To my surprise, even inside the Fukushima No. 1 compound, the radiation level is fairly low and manageable in most areas.

In fact, I was expecting to wear special radioactive protective gear in the compound, such as a full face mask or a decontamination suit. But unless you work inside the highly contaminated areas, you don’t need to put on any special gear. During the entire tour, I wore ordinary clothing.

Of course, Fukushima No. 1 is not yet completely safe. However, its security is probably the tightest among all power plants across the country. The average number of workers per weekday is around 4,000 now, but their work environment has dramatically improved. The lunch at the site was really good.

All in all, the following is my take:

The nuclear plant does not represent the entire prefecture of Fukushima.

The compound is located on the east coast, far from the center of Fukushima Prefecture. As of now, the zone near the plant where it’s “difficult to return” constitutes only 2 percent of the prefecture.

Fukushima’s agricultural products have been declared safe after strict testing. In recent years we have bought and enjoyed rice, meat and vegetables cultivated in Fukushima. I was convinced that reputational risks abroad and import bans on those products are out of date and totally groundless.

The Fukushima No. 1 power plant is no “Chernobyl.”

The reactor building in Chernobyl has been enclosed in a large cover, or “sarcophagus,” meant to reduce the spread of radioactive dust and debris. Unlike in Ukraine, Tepco has introduced every conceivable measure to contain, reduce and ultimately remove radioactive contamination.

Fukushima No. 1 is not Three Mile Island, either.

Reactor No. 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI-2) in Pennsylvania suffered a meltdown, but its fuel debris was contained inside the reactor pressure vessel. At Fukushima No. 1, the fuel debris reached the primary containment vessel and requires far more serious decommissioning efforts.

Air and water quality are being managed and are under control.

The quality of the ocean water near the plant has been continuously monitored. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found the results satisfactory. The most impressive measure to manage groundwater there is the underground “frozen-soil wall” to prevent water from entering the reactor area while keeping contaminated water from leaking outside. Honestly, the first time I heard the idea of the “ice wall,” I thought it was a joke. The seemingly revolutionary method, however, is nothing new. The wall, created with conventional technology around the four reactor buildings and measuring 1,500 meters long and 30 meters deep, has been in operation and is actually frozen.

Removing fuel debris is a real challenge.

Despite the astounding amount of resources and efforts that Tepco has dedicated to decommissioning the power plant, it is estimated that the process, including full removal of the fuel debris as well as the cleanup of the entire compound and neighboring towns, won’t be completed for another 30 to 40 years.

It is especially dangerous to remove the highly radioactive fuel debris, which will require state-of-the-art robotic and remote control technologies. Nonetheless, the people working on this mission are very serious and professional. Their morale is high and their sense of responsibility is genuine.

I am confident that they will eventually succeed in the decommissioning the plant, no matter how many more years it may take.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.