This week, the chief nuclear officers of around 100 American nuclear power plant reactors are taking a field trip. They are travelling to Japan and then taking a bus to Fukushima. There, dressed in protective suits, they will walk through the ruins left behind by the earthquake of the century, the tsunami of the century and the resulting triple nuclear reactor meltdown that occurred in March 2011.
“I can assure you when they get back from this trip, all of these chief nuclear officers will double their safety precautions,” says Dale Klein, who has made the same trip and describes it as “very sobering.” Klein, who was head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission until 2009, now serves as chair of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, which advises Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that once ran the Fukushima power plant and is now responsible for cleaning up the site. In the eyes of industry experts and the Japanese public alike, the company has proved one thing unequivocally — that it is in far over its head in trying to handle the aftermath of the disaster.
Klein is generally a polite man, but he recently announced in public exactly what he thinks of the company that hired him. “You do not know what you’re doing,” Klein told company president Naomi Hirose in person. “You do not have a plan.”
In accordance with Japanese custom, the company head, thus chastised, inclined his head and replied, “I apologize for not being able to live up to your expectations.”
TEPCO has been stumbling “from crisis to crisis,” Klein says. And with no improvement in sight, it had recently become clear that Japan would find itself, out of necessity, doing something that is generally considered very un-Japanese: asking for foreign help. Klein said there were signs that the government was planning on inviting experts from Europe and the US in to help. And on Tuesday, TEPCO took what might be a first step in this direction, announcing in a statement that it had hired Lake Barrett, the former head of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management to advise it on decommissioning the plant and dealing with contaminated water on the site. Barrett was also involved in clean-up efforts at the Three Mile Island plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979.
Situation Still ‘Tenuous’ at Fukushima
Japan had thus far taken the view that it didn’t need any help — certainly not from abroad — and that TEPCO would take care of things. This is despite the fact that the company is an energy provider, with little more experience in complex disaster management than a commensurate energy company in Germany would have.
Accordingly, the situation at Fukushima two and a half years after the nuclear meltdown can at best be described as tenuous. Rather than implementing a clearly thought-out disaster management plan, TEPCO’s approach has been a haphazard patchwork.
Perhaps the most bizarre malfunction in recent months occurred when a rat got into a switchbox and caused a short circuit. This immediately caused the makeshift cooling system for all four spent fuel pools to fail. For almost 30 hours, temperatures rose in these pools, which hold over 8,800 spent fuel rods that TEPCO hopes eventually to be able to store safely. Charred remains were all that was left of the rat.
- US nuclear expert to serve as adviser to TEPCO regarding Fukushima crisis (japandailypress.com)
- International nuclear experts tell TEPCO ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ (japandailypress.com)
- Russia offers Fukushima cleanup help as Tepco reaches out. (bloomberg.com)
- Fukushima clean-up turns toxic for Japan’s Tepco (reuters.com)
- Japan elects not to prosecute former TEPCO executives and government officials for handling of Fukushima disaster (enformable.com)