Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits one of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) facilities at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, 29 December 2012. Photo: Itsuo Inouye / AP

By John Light and Karin Kamp
15 November 2013

(BillMoyers.com) – All eyes are on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as major cleanup efforts are set to begin later this month, in the most significant test of the operator’s ability to manage the threats resulting from one of the biggest nuclear disasters ever. For two years now, the plant’s operator and the Japanese government have struggled to contain an ongoing series of crises at the devastated facility. But the situation has the potential to get worse. Here’s what you need to know.

The Problems

The operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant has come under severe criticism from nuclear energy experts for its handling of the cleanup at the crippled facility, decimated after the March 2011 tsunami.

Many say Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the Japanese utility company that operates the plant, has been grossly incompetent, deceptive and guilty of downplaying the health impacts resulting from the meltdown.

Naomi Hirose, president of Tepco, didn’t renew faith in the firm’s handling of the crisis when he first denied and later admitted that the radioactive water used to cool the plant’s nuclear cores had leaked into the ocean. Tepco had suspected the water might be leaking since mid-June 2013, but waited until July 22 to reveal the problem. The leaks continued throughout the summer — at one point, a tank leaked 300 tons of radioactive water. It was nearly a month until the leak was discovered on August 19.

‘‘From what we’ve seen, it’s more of what I’d call incompetence instead of any cover-up,” said Dale Klein, a former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who Tepco hired as an adviser. The Associated Press and Japan Today reported this week that tanks containing radioactive water were leaking or otherwise failing because they were hurriedly erected by inexperienced workers — including one auto mechanic who expressed his concern about the quality of his own work.

Researchers are concerned about the effects of the radioactive water on sea life and those who eat it. Last year, scientists reported that Pacific bluefin tuna migrating from coastal Japan to the waters off Southern California contained radioactive cesium isotopes from the Fukushima plant.

And then there are fears that Fukushima is extremely vulnerable to a second earthquake as the plant lies near 14 active fault lines. Last month, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki expressed his fears that further damage to the Fukushima facility could prove catastrophic. “Three out of the four plants were destroyed in the earthquake and in the tsunami. The fourth one has been so badly damaged that the fear is, if there’s another earthquake of a seven or above, that building will go and then all hell breaks loose.” […]

The Clean Up

Later this month, Tepco is expected to begin the delicate task of removing over 1,500 spent fuel rods stored in a building heavily damaged by the March 2011 explosion. The rods are capable of producing radiation at levels 14,000 times greater than what was released when America dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a highly dangerous operation that has never been attempted on such a scale before, and a key part of decommissioning the facility, which could cost $50 billion and take 40 years.

The fuel rod removal effort is expected to take 13 months to complete, but experts warn that putting the radioactive rods into safe storage won’t be easy. If any of the 15-foot, 660-pound rods break or are exposed to air, huge amounts of radioactive gasses could be released. Should there be another natural disaster like the earthquake Suzuki warned of, those rods could set off a catastrophic reaction that would be more dangerous than the meltdowns the plant has already experienced.

Tepco said they are sure the operation will go off without a hitch, though the company’s struggle to contain radioactive water, a power failure at the plant caused by a rat chewing through a cable and a second power failure accidentally caused by workers who were attempting to rat-proof the power cables, have some experts worried that the company’s not up to the task.

Former nuclear engineer Michael Friedlander says Tepco may be playing down the dangers of the operation. “The thing that keeps me up late at night is that they’re getting ready to unload the spent fuel in unit four,” said Friedlander, who spent 13 years operating US nuclear plants. “It has the potential if it doesn’t go well to create a very, very serious accident,” he told Bloomberg News. [more]

What You Need to Know About Fukushima

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