Fukushima Inspectors Say Beginning Of Clean-Up Going Well So Far | St. Louis Public Radio

Fukushima Inspectors Say Beginning Of Clean-Up Going Well So Far

Originally published on December 17, 2013 9:58 am

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are praising Japan for making progress to stabilize the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami nearly three years ago.

This week, the IAEA inspectors wrapped up a 10-day inspection of the plant, where the decommissioning process started a few weeks ago.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson gets the latest from BBC Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

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RUPERT WINGFIELD-HAYES: This week, a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency completed a 10-day inspection of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. They described the process as extremely complicated but also praised the progress so far. It's been more than two years since an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant, but the long process of stabilizing and decommissioning in it is just beginning.

HOBSON: The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has been following the story and he's with us now from Tokyo. Rupert, welcome back.

WINGFIELD-HAYES: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, when the IAEA officials say that it's a very complicated process but things are progressing, what do they mean? Parse that for us.

WINGFIELD-HAYES: I think what they mean - there's a couple of things that have happened in the last few months that have helped to stabilize the situation of Fukushima. The first is they have started to get on top more effectively of managing this waste water problem. There were all sorts of problems with it a few months back. Lots of leaks going on. Clearly, not a very competent process. They were making mistakes. Leaks were happening. They seem to have been managing that better than they were, and they seem to be preventing some of the groundwater that was causing this problem from getting into the plant.

The other thing is, they've started to remove fuel from reactor building number four. There was a very large amount of spent fuel in the reactor's cooling pool - not in the reactor itself but in the cooling pool - when the disaster happened back in 2011. That has been very precarious because that building was very badly damaged by the disaster.

Now, they have finally started to remove that fuel from that building, and that operation seems to be going quite well so far. And, obviously, the more of that fuel can be removed, the better the situation is. But at the same time, this is really just the start of the process. It's also the easy bit.

HOBSON: And you went into reactor four. That was the reactor that you went inside of the last time we spoke. What was that like?

WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yes. I mean, that was very interesting. We - a lot of work has been done. I've been to this - I've been to Fukushima three times this year, inside the compound. This was the first time we were allowed inside any of the reactor buildings, and a vast amount of work has been done to stabilize the building. They've constructed a huge steel skeleton around the building to support it and also to support the cranes that are used to pull this nuclear fuel out of this very deep pool that it's been sitting in. So, you know, really, huge progress since I went first, back in spring of this year. But they're doing this work because that's the easy bit.

Reactor four was not badly damaged compared to the other reactors. There was no core meltdown. So that's the one that they can sort of get to grips with first and get the material out, get all the radioactive, you know, material out and then start to dismantle the building. The radiation levels - we checked when we were in there - are pretty low.

That is not the case with the other reactor buildings, one, two and three, where there were core meltdowns. The radiation levels there are still way too high for anybody to go inside those buildings. So, I think one, two and three, the reactors that have had core meltdowns are the real long-term problem and a very, very difficult problem to deal with. Reactor four is a little bit of a distraction. It's obviously important that they get the fuel out, but it is the easy bit.

HOBSON: Rupert, there's a big question about what to do with all the water. There's a lot of contaminated water, 400,000 metric tons, I read, and another 400 tons of it being produced every day. The IAEA did have some recommendations about that. Tell us what's happening on the water front.

WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yeah, you're absolutely right. This is the really big headache. To keep those melted reactors cool, which they have to do for many years to come, they have to pump water into the damaged reactor cores. Every day they do that, that water becomes contaminated. And then because it's contaminated, they have to store it somewhere.

And they've been building these - what they call the tank farms. It's an enormous, ever growing sight of these huge tanks that contained a thousand tons of water each. And dealing with that is a real problem because they leak. They rust. They've lots of pipes connecting them together. It's a real nightmare to manage this ever growing amount of water. So what the IAEA is saying is you've got to do something about this. Ultimately, you've got to decontaminate this water. And in the end, it's going to have to be released into the sea.

Now, they have built a decontamination plant. It's being built by American engineers and an American company. No one has ever built a plant like this before ever in the world. I've spoken to engineers there. They say it does work, but it's very temperamental. It's still not up and running fully, and they need to build another two of these plants to deal with the amount of water that's being produced.

HOBSON: And there are a lot of concerns about dumping the water, even if it's been decontaminated into the sea, right?

WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yes, there are. I mean, there's very, very little trust in the government or in Tokyo Electric Power, the company that is dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. And so when local people, local fisherman, local farmers are told, look, we're going to clean this water, and the levels of radiation will be so low that they are really untraceable and it's safe to release it into the sea, people simply don't believe what they're being told.

And, you know, I have spoken to American engineers who are working at that plant and British specialists who are advising at the plant, and they say, look, this really is good technology. This water will be safe to be released into the sea. But unfortunately, the local population is still unmoved by that. They say we don't trust you.

HOBSON: Well, that is the note that I want to end on. We talk about this every time we discuss Fukushima, the question of trust and how much the Japanese people are trusting not just TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power, but also the Japanese government in what they're saying about what's going on in Fukushima.

WINGFIELD-HAYES: You know, it's quite difficult to get a grip on exactly where public sentiment is. After the disaster, there was - overwhelming majority of Japanese public became anti-nuclear. And opinion polls have shown that that is gradually dropping and is now probably below 50 percent for the first time since the disaster. And so either through apathy or through the government's own propaganda campaign, people are starting to accept nuclear power probably is going to be switched back on here.

But having said that, in the area of northeast Japan, which was affected, attitudes are very anti-nuclear power now. And very interestingly, one thing that's happened recently, Jeremy, is that former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, who was very much an advocate of nuclear power when he was prime minister back in the early 2000s, has in the last couple of months come out publicly against Japan having nuclear power in the future. And I think that's really, you know, significant, that a very, very senior member of the ruling party is now anti-nuclear and is saying so publicly. So maybe the debate is here starting to change.

HOBSON: Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of the BBC, joining us from Tokyo. Rupert, thanks as always.

WINGFIELD-HAYES: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.