Legacy of nuclear disaster in Japan's Fukushima plant

More than two years since the tsunami that resulted in the world's worst nuclear crisis in decades cam ashore, the stricken Fukushima plant is still a major problem.

An aerial view of the reactor buildings at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Kyodo via Reuters
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The scene has become all too familiar- the twisted metal debris, the damaged cars, the ripped building frames and a sombre sign of life in the form of workers in full protective body suits.

More than two years may have passed since Fukushima, the now infamous region of north-east Japan, found itself at the heart of the world's worst nuclear crisis in decades following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But as the rest of the country moves steadily forward with rebuilding for the future, the scene at the plant remains resolutely frozen in time, with debris still strewn across the coastal areas of the desolate region.

Today, about 3,000 workers traipse into the plant premises on a daily basis to battle radiation contamination and a seemingly constant flow of new problems including contaminated water leaks, rat infestations and power cuts.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the plant, appears to be all too aware of technical conundrums that lie ahead, both in terms of the scale of the operation and the fact that its path is through uncharted territory.

"There are many challenges," says Mayumi Yoshida, a Tepco spokeswoman. "There is no precedent for the fuel debris removal from the reactors. We are collecting knowledge and expertise from all around the world to achieve this task."

It was on March 11, 2011, that a tsunami swept inland along the north-eastern coast of Japan, killing close to 20,000 people and causing extensive damage to Fukushima nuclear power plant. The world's worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl incident subsequently unfolded. Three reactors plummeted into meltdown, resulting in radiation being expelled into the soil, water and atmosphere and the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents. Since then, the nation's 54 nuclear reactors have been switched off one by one for safety checks with only two currently back online - although this is expected to increase following the launch of new government safety regulations on July 8.

Fast forward two years from the disaster and at first sight, it may appear little has changed at the plant. The decommissioning remains at the earliest stages.

"Our mission is firstly, to maintain stable cooling of the reactors, secondly to treat and store radioactive water which is accumulating in the basement of the reactor and turbine buildings," says Ms Yoshida.

"And finally, to steadily plan and implement spent fuel removal from the spent fuel pools starting this November, as well as future fuel debris removal from the reactors."

The move from damaged to decommissioned plant, however, is unlikely to be a smooth one, with a number of problems already recurring repeatedly since the disaster - among the most high-profile issues is how to effectively and safely store vast quantities of water contaminated by radiation. The clean-up process has been marred by frequent reports of contaminated water leaks via damaged pipes, tanks and storage pools throughout the plant.

The latest incident took place a week or so ago, when it was confirmed about 360 litres of radioactive water had leaked from a desalination unit used to cool reactors.

In a separate incident last month, fears of a leak were once again fuelled following the discovery of strontium-90, a toxic radioactive isotope, in groundwater in the plant in concentrations of more than 30 times the legal rate.

Its presence prompted further concerns that the plant's storage tanks were potentially leaking contaminated water into the surrounding environment, including the Pacific Ocean.

Two months ago the operators formed a new committee designed to deal specifically with the issue - the committee of countermeasures for contaminated water treatment.

Meanwhile, another problem has recently reared its head: an infestation of rats that has resulted in work schedules being interrupted further due to power outages. Rats are believed have caused damage that resulted in the recent short-circuiting of a temporary switchboard - with work interrupted further when staff attempting to install anti-rat nets on the premises caused a further power outage.

Despite the seemingly endless spiral of problems, workers at the plant remain focused on November when they are due to begin the delicate removal of more than 1,500 fuel rods from Unit 4, a reactor building that underwent a hydrogen explosion in the days after the March 11 disaster.

The extraction of Unit 4's fuel rods is a landmark goal towards which Tepco has long been working and will mark the first major step in the decommissioning of the beleaguered plant.

To assist with the task, the company recently unveiled to media a 52-metre tall steel structure which is designed to help workers access and safely remove the fuel rods from the damaged reactor building.

Another weapon deployed in the battle to tackle decommissioning the stricken plant are robotic devices that can access areas too contaminated or dangerous for humans.

On June 18, a new robot developed by Honda Motor and Japan's national institute of advanced industrial science and technology made its debut at the nuclear power plant.

The brand new robot - measuring 1.8 metres in height and length, weighing 1,100kg and travelling up to 2km per hour - features an intuitive remote control interface to enable it to navigate independently while carrying out surveys of the first floor of the nuclear reactor buildings.

For Tepco, however, it is clear its key tasks are not confined to the technical. Behind the scenes, it has been busy recruiting international nuclear experts, setting up a flurry of committees and working out strategies to improve safety standards -and attempt to regain the trust and respect of the public.

Among those on board is Lady Barbara Judge, a British-American lawyer who was formerly the head of the UK atomic energy authority and who now, as the deputy chair of Tepco's nuclear reform monitoring committee as well as the chairwoman of several safety sub-committees, is making it her mission to transform the company's plants into the world's safest.

"It used to be that the first thing you thought about was efficiency," says Lady Judge.

"Now the first thing you have to think about is safety. When you walk into a plant as an employee, you have to make sure that you look at the signs everywhere about safety, you need to look at the rules, make sure you're wearing all your protective gear.

"It takes a long time to change a culture. You need to get the best people, train them, develop a programme. But I think we will be able to make a serious difference here by 2014."

Convincing members of the public of such a change in nuclear plant culture will be no mean feat, with strong anti-nuclear sentiment remaining among vast swathes of the public and thousands-strong protest marches against atomic energy regularly taking place in cities at the weekends across Japan.

Add to the mix the impact of rising utility costs fuelled by nuclear reactors being turned off after the disaster and the challenges faced by Tepco in winning over the public are clear.

However, describing the impact of the loss of nuclear power, Masanori Komori, a spokesman for the nuclear power section of the think tank the Institute of Energy Economics Japan, points out the financial cost is immense.

"The Fukushima accident and the related long and unplanned shutdown of almost all the reactors in Japan caused a serious impact to the Japanese electrical utilities' financial position and to the national trade balance.

"Imported fossil fuel [costs] increased to ¥7 trillion [Dh259.26 billion] in the last financial year. The accumulated outgoing flow of national wealth in Japan is estimated to reach ¥13tn in 2015," Mr Komori says.

"The impact to industry, especially manufacturing, is much more significant than expected. Increasing electricity tariffs would inevitably damage the global competitiveness of Japanese industries."

The work currently under way at Fukushima nuclear power plant may reflect just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the painstaking, decades-long challenge that lies ahead.

However, there is no option but to plough on with the task. One piece of good news is that the remaining debris that still lays strewn along the coastal areas of the reactor buildings will apparently be removed "soon", according to Ms Yoshida.

But that is a small point of light in an otherwise long, dark tunnel.