Fukushima: Five Years Later

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the huge earthquake off the coast of Japan that triggered the world’s worst nuclear calamity. Five years have passed since a tsunami spawned by the earthquake flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, setting off a catastrophic chain reaction of mistakes by plant operators that resulted in the meltdown of three reactor cores at the facility.

FukushimaFive years seems like a long time, but if you’re measuring the progress made in cleaning up this highly radioactive mess, it might as well have been last week.

Here are the lowlights of a depressing fifth-anniversary update:

  • Specially designed robots sent in to locate and map melted pools of radioactive fuel inside the damaged Fukushima reactors are dropping like flies, their wiring destroyed by radiation before they can reach the objective.
  • An underground ice wall planned as a barrier to keep groundwater from seeping into the reactor cores remains an empty maze of pipes.
  • The plant operators, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)—yes, it’s hard to believe, but these guys still are in charge of the cleanup—admit they still don’t know what to do with the millions of cubic liters of highly radioactive wastewater they’ve collected at the site and stored in dozens of makeshift tanks, many of which are leaking.

As this is being written, TEPCO officials still are trying to convince local fishermen to let them dump treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. Radiation from Fukushima wastewater—thousands of gallons are poured over the damaged reactors every day to keep them from heating up—has been detected on the West Coast of the U.S. and on the Canadian shoreline.

The government of Japan suffered a setback this week in its effort to restart the nation’s nuclear plants, all of which were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. A Japanese court ordered that one of two reactors in the country that were restarted this year must again be shut down; the court said the plant’s owner had underestimated the size of earthquakes that could strike the plant and had not made adequately detailed plans to evacuate people living near the plant. In 2013, Japan adopted new safety requirements for its nuclear power plants, but reports indicate only a handful of the 40 operable nuclear plants in the country have met the new rules.

The ruling was a major setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pushed for a revival of Japan’s nuclear industry, which Abe said is critical to jumpstarting economic growth and slowing an exodus of Japanese manufacturers to lower-cost countries. Electricity prices in Japan reportedly have jumped by more than 30 percent since the Fukushima disaster due to an increased reliance on imported fossil fuels (the increases leveled off during the collapse of oil prices this year).

Official have estimated that the toll of the dead and missing from the 2011 tsunami (and the meltdowns at Fukushima) is almost 19,000; 160,000 people lost their homes or businesses.

While TEPCO has been able to remove hundreds of spent fuel rods that were stored outside of the three crippled reactors, extremely high radiation inside the damaged containment vessels has prevented engineers from pinpointing the location of pools of melted rods in the reactor cores. TEPCO has been developing robots that can “swim” underwater and negotiate obstacles in damaged tunnels and piping. But company officials confirmed that these robots are dying faster than they can build them: as soon as the robots get close to the reactors, radiation destroys their wiring and renders them useless. The robots have to be custom-built for the configuration of each building on the site; it takes two years to assemble each one.

Meanwhile, construction continues on what will become the world’s largest manmade ice wall, designed to stop groundwater from leaching into the basements of the damaged reactors. Proposed in 2013 and strongly backed by the government, the wall’s piping—said to resemble a large-scale version of the apparatus behind your refrigerator—was completed last month. The pipes will not be filled with water for another six months, when the freezing process is supposed to begin.

TEPCO insists that radiation levels in many parts of the site have “improved dramatically” during the past five years, permitting the company to deploy as many as 8,000 workers on the cleanup detail at the complex. Most of them are busy pumping a steady torrent of water into the wrecked reactor cores to keep them from reaching critical-mass temperatures. The wastewater is then pumped out and into an expanding field of makeshift storage tanks TEPCO has set up on the site.

TEPCO already has been caught several times pumping radioactive water from leaking tanks directly into the ocean. The company claims it can treat the wastewater to reduce radiation to acceptable levels, but thus far it has been unable to convince the fishing industry in northeastern Japan to back its plan to pump more water into the Pacific.

Even TEPCO officials admit that only about 10 percent of the cleanup work on the Fukushima site has been completed; the full “decommissioning” process for the power station could take up to 40 years. This assumes that technology can be developed to safely locate and remove the melted fuel rods without killing any more people or robots.

So, five years later, the only thing that appears to be certain is that the radioactive mess at Fukushima Daiichi is going to be with us for a long, long time.