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Fukushima Rattles Japan, Five Years later

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The radioactive rubble has been cleared. Poured concrete has covered the toxic dust. And many workers have traded hazmat suits for surgical masks.

Five years ago, a massive earthquake spawned a tsunami that flooded the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, prompting the world’s worst nuclear disaster in a quarter century. Near the plant, many residents are angry that they still can’t return home and grieve for their lost loved ones. But inside the razor-wire fence, the visual scars have mostly healed and an uneasy calm has returned.

“Finally we’re turning into a normal workplace,” plant chief Akira Ono said. “We can at last lay the groundwork and prepare for the task ahead.”

Much is riding on the appearance of normalcy at Fukushima.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moves to reopen Japanese nuclear plants that were all shut after the disaster on March 11, 2011, a distrustful public is pushing back. A court on Wednesday ordered Kansai Electric Power Co. to halt two of the four reactors that have been restarted, saying the utility had failed to show the public they were safe. The utility called the ruling “unacceptable” and said it would appeal.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of Fukushima Daiichi, is seeking to reopen some of the seven reactors at its largest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. Nuclear supporters argue that resource-poor Japan has few other energy options that wouldn’t deepen its dependence on foreign energy sources and worsen its carbon footprint.

However, near the ruined Fukushima reactors, the occasional beep of a Geiger counter reminds visitors and workers that the situation is still far from normal. Thousands of people who lived in towns within the 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant have been unable to return due to radioactive contamination. Growing swaths of land are covered with black bags full of slightly radioactive soil.

The hardest parts of the cleanup haven’t even begun. Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known, has yet to draw up plans for removing highly radioactive nuclear fuel that melted through steel containment vessels and now sits at the bottom of three Fukushima reactors.

The company estimates that the nearly $20 billion job of decommissioning the plant could take another three or four decades. That is not counting damages and cleanup costs expected to reach some $100 billion or more, including about $50 billion paid to evacuees. Legal wrangling over the disaster continues. In February, three former Tepco executives were charged with professional negligence.

Tepco has made some progress. At the No. 4 reactor, which wasn’t operating at the time of the disaster, it removed 1,500 spent fuel rods. A soccer training center near the plant, used as a command center for the cleanup since the disaster, is set to be restored in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Tepco also is working to reduce a total 400 tons of rain and groundwater that breach the plant’s defenses daily, becoming contaminated and requiring treatment and storage. But a wall of frozen earth meant to reduce the flow has run into resistance from regulators.

On large parts of the site, workers can now walk around without full-face shields or hazmat suits, using simple surgical masks for protection.

Fukushima was once a prized post for elite engineers and technicians in Japan’s nuclear heyday. Now, unskilled laborers make up the bulk of a workforce of about 6,000 workers, down from a peak of 7,450 in 2014.

“There’s a constant stream of people who can’t find work elsewhere,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a Communist city councilman in Iwaki, about 30 miles away. “They drift and collect in Fukushima.”

Tepco hopes to retain experienced workers by improving work conditions. It installed a new cafeteria serving hot meals for the first time since the disaster and a new rest house for relaxing. A convenience store opened this month.

But Tepco and other firms are still wrestling with the aftereffects of the disaster, when some workers say they unknowingly risked their health.

Kazuaki Sudo, who helped pump fuel at the plant shortly after the disaster, said many employees of Tepco subcontractors haven’t received full wages. He and other former Fukushima workers are suing Tepco for underpayment. Mr. Sudo said he received only ¥3,000 a day, or about $25, out of an authorized ¥20,000 in hazardous duty pay, on top of a regular daily wage of ¥12,000 a day.

Tepco declined to comment on Mr. Sudo’s case. The company says it isn’t legally responsible for any payroll wrongdoing by subcontractors but wants to improve work and safety conditions and get more feedback from workers.

Looking ahead, the biggest issue remains the reactors. No one knows exactly where the molten nuclear debris sits or how to clean it. Humans couldn’t survive a journey inside the containment vessels, so Tepco hopes to use robots guided by computer simulations and video images. But two attempts had to be abandoned after the robots got tripped up on rubble.

“The nature of debris may depend on when the nuclear fuel and concrete reacted,” said Pascal Piluso, an official of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. “We are talking about extremely varied and complex debris.”

Tepco and the government hope to agree to a plan on how to remove fuel debris and begin the effort within a decade. But experts say they will need more sophisticated robot technology to ensure safety when handling the radioactive material.

A government panel recently questioned Tepco’s ability to tackle the daunting task of decommissioning while seeking profit for its shareholders. The disaster nearly pushed the company to bankruptcy, prompting the government to buoy it with ¥1 trillion ($9 billion) in public money and pledge government grants and guarantees to help Tepco compensate victims.

Tepco formed a separate unit in 2014 to oversee the shutdown. The company says it needs to be the linchpin of the decommissioning effort.

“Who else is going to do this?” Tepco Chief Executive Naomi Hirose said. “Who knows the plant better? Who else can direct the manpower?”

[Source: Wall Street Journal]

 


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