Fukushima Is Not 'Under Control'


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the International Olympic Committee on 7 September that the Fukushima situation was "under control". In particular the leakage and spills of contaminated water from holding tanks and the constant flow of contaminated groundwater.

Every day, around 400 tonnes of water are used to cool the stricken reactors. Storing this contaminated water has become increasingly difficult. Groundwater from surrounding highlands also flows under the Fukushima plant, where it in turn also becomes contaminated, before flowing out to the ocean.

Now a month later, Abe is calling for more foreign assistance in with water management and other problems. "We are wide open to receive the most advanced knowledge from overseas to contain the problem,” he said on 6 October.

The largest spill of contaminated water − 300 tons from a holding tank − was detected in August. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Fukushima on 26 August and said, "The major problem lies in that TEPCO failed to manage the tanks properly … The urgency of the situation is very high, from here on the government will take charge."

TEPCO "has been playing a game of Whack-a-Mole with problems at the site," he said.

The problems have continued. In early September, TEPCO said workers had discovered high levels of radioactivity on three tanks and one pipe. One reading was 1800 millisieverts per hour (compared to typical background radiation levels of 2−3 millisieverts per year) and another reading was 2200 millisieverts per hour. It is believed that at least five of the tanks holding contaminated water may have leaked.

On 3 October, plant operator TEPCO announced a leak of 430 litres. TEPCO said the "contaminated water may well have flowed into the sea". The day afterwards, TEPCO announced yet another problem with its water treatment plant − known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System − resulting in its temporary shut down. The stoppage came just four days after TEPCO got the system up and running after a breakdown.

Then on 6 October, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced that pumps used to inject water to cool damaged reactors at Fukushima were hit by a power failure, but a backup system kicked in immediately. Earlier this year, TEPCO lost power to cool spent fuel rods at Fukushima after a rat tripped an electrical wire. On 9 October, six workers at Fukushima were exposed to a leak of seven tonnes of radioactive water after a worker mistakenly detached a pipe connected to a water treatment system.

A survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 76 per cent of Japanese do not believe their Prime Minister's claim that the situation is "under control". Senior TEPCO official Kazuhiko Yamashita said the water leaks were not under control. "Predictable risks are under control, but what cannot be predicted is happening," he said.

NRA chair Shunichi Tanaka said on 6 September that TEPCO "has not been properly disclosing the situation about the contamination and the levels of contamination."

"This has caused confusion domestically and internationally. Because of that, the Japanese government has a sense of crisis and I, personally, feel a little angry about it."

The NRA itself came under criticism on 30 September from a group of intellectuals studying the Fukushima crisis and participating in a review of the NRA's first year of operation. Some pressed for reforms of the NRA Secretariat, which is staffed mostly by personnel from the previous, discredited regulator. Tanaka said he feels the NRA has been given a mandate bigger than its capacity, but that members will try to improve.

Hiroaki Koide, an associate professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, said of Prime Minister Abe’s assurances to the IOC:

"I was flabbergasted by Abe's speech. The problem of contaminated water is far from being solved. This problem has been going on all the time since the reactors were destroyed. Contaminated water has been leaking into the ocean ever since."

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who chaired the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission last year, said "Japan is clearly living in denial … Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it."

The situation in Fukushima "has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo," the Prime Minister said, but radioactive fallout and contaminated food and water are problems that have been felt in Tokyo and beyond. The Mayor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, publicly denounced the Prime Minister, saying "the government must acknowledge this as a national problem so that we can head toward a real solution".

On 4 October, NRA secretary general Katsuhiko Ikeda berated TEPCO over "the inappropriate management of contaminated water", saying the "problems have been caused by a lack of basic checks".

“I can't help but say that standards of on-site management are extremely low at Fukushima Daiichi,” Ikeda added. “That these leaks occurred due to human error is very regrettable … The failure to make rudimentary checks reflects a clear deterioration in the ability to manage the site."

Ikeda said the problems at Fukushima raised serious questions about TEPCO's ability to operate its other nuclear plants, like the huge Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant they want to restart.

"The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbour only 0.3 square kilometres big," the Prime Minister said. No it hasn't. There is routine release of contaminated water, in part because the barrier between the “contained” area and the ocean has openings so it can withstand waves and tidal movements. On 10 July, the NRA said it "highly suspected" that the Fukushima plant was leaking contaminated water into the ocean, and TEPCO acknowledged that fact on 22 July.

US experts urged Japanese authorities to take immediate steps to prevent groundwater contamination two years ago, but their advice was ignored. TEPCO reportedly lobbied against the proposed construction of a barrier because of its cost. It will now be built with government funding.

In response to the July revelations of contaminated groundwater reaching the ocean, Dale Klein, a member of TEPCO's Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee and former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told TEPCO:

"It … appears that you are not keeping the people of Japan informed. These actions indicate that you don't know what you are doing … you do not have a plan and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people."

Atsushi Kasai, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, said in late July, "they let people know about the good things and hide the bad things. This culture of cover up hasn't changed since the disaster."

ABC Journalist Mark Willacy described the recurring pattern:

"At first TEPCO denies there's a problem at the crippled Fukushima plant. Then it becomes obvious to everyone that there is a problem, so the company then acknowledges the problem and makes it public. And finally one of its hapless officials is sent out to apologise to the cameras."

The town assembly of nuclear disaster-hit Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, passed a resolution against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 20 September for declaring the situation "under control". The Namie resolution pointed out that there had been 1459 deaths related to the triple disasters in Fukushima Prefecture thus far. "We can't help but feel resentment against the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., both of which are disregarding Fukushima Prefecture," the resolution states.

Contaminated fish pose an ongoing problem. Radioactivity levels have been dropping but contaminated fish exceeding safety limits are still being detected. Toshimitsu Konno, a fisherman in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, responded to the Prime Minister's comments to the International Olympic Committee meeting: "He must be kidding. We have been tormented by radioactive water precisely because the nuclear plant has not been brought under control."

As the string of scandals surrounding contaminated water unfolded, South Korea greatly expanded bans on fish imports. A ban on fish imports from Fukushima Prefecture was extended to a further seven prefectures.

South Korean fisheries vice-minister Son Jae-hak said that Japanese authorities had failed to provide timely and detailed information about the water leaks and that the ban would stay in place indefinitely. The fisheries ministry said the ban was necessary "as the government concluded that it is unclear how the incident in Japan will progress in the future and that the information the Japanese government has provided so far is not enough to predict future developments".

Princess Takamado – daughter-in-law of the Japanese Emperor – told the International Olympic Committee that “one of the IOC's most important aspects is the legacy a Games leaves”. How will newly built sports stadiums in Tokyo improve the lives of the young people in Fukushima Prefecture, or the lives of the 160,000 evacuees from the nuclear disaster who remain dislocated – or the health and livelihoods of Japan’s fishermen?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.