Fukushima Decommission Chief Speaks
Nov. 14, 2016
A massive earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan in 2011, crippling Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Three reactors suffered meltdowns and work to cool the molten debris inside the facility is continuing.
The Japanese government estimated that decommissioning work could take 30 to 40 years. The operator, TEPCO, has set up a company solely to deal with the crippled plant.
Naohiro Masuda was appointed head of the operation. Masuda talked to us in 2015. He did not hesitate to express his anxiety about the government-set time schedule.
"It’s a very big challenge," said Masuda, the president of the Fukushima Daiichi decommissioning company. "Honestly speaking, I cannot say it’s possible, but I also do not wish to say it’s impossible."
His remarks were taken up in the Diet. And later the government reviewed the decommissioning schedule.
On the Focus, we bring you another exclusive interview with president Naohiro Masuda. There are still many hurdles to overcome at the plant. One of them is how to deal with the piling up of huge amounts of contaminated water. Masuda reveals an idea which has not been discussed in public. Aki Shibuya interviewed him.
Masuda is 58 years old. He is the president of the Fukushima Daiichi Decommissioning Company, which was set up in April 2014. He has been on the job about 1000 days. First, we asked him how he sees the situation.
"I believe the environment is significantly improving," he says. "It's been more than 5 years since the accident. At first, the situation didn't allow us to take various measures to support workers and we had to force them to work under harsh conditions. I'm not sure if this is an appropriate way to put it, but now at last we have been able to create an atmosphere that allows everybody to work like ordinary people."
One of the biggest problems TEPCO has been facing is the issue of contaminated water. Rain water and groundwater that flow into the damaged reactors get contaminated.
The workers have been storing about 700,000 tons of it in tanks.
"Radioactive contaminated water at the plant continues to increase," Masuda says. "We need to find a way to reduce the amount. Even storing the water is also a risk. So we need to lessen that risk by decontaminating the water as much as possible. We are using purification equipment to remove radioactive substances," he says. "But a radioactive substance called tritium cannot be removed. We believe it's our responsibility to properly store the water. But we need to think of ways to dispose of the water."
TEPCO executives have been saying they will continue storing the water on site. However, Masuda revealed an option that is being discussed right now.
"We had an idea of diluting the water and discharging it into the sea, but now we are discussing another idea, it's evaporating the tainted water, which was a method used following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States. We have not come up with a final solution. We are trying hard to deal with the problem but we have to discuss with many stakeholders in order to come to a conclusion."
Fishermen are strongly against directly releasing tritium-laced water into the ocean. The method of evaporating the contaminated water used after the Three Mile Island accident will be effective in getting around such opposition. The US government believes tritium is not harmful when evaporated and dispersed into the air.
Another problem is how to stop the flow of underground water coming from the mountainside.
An underground ice wall is being created around the reactors to block the water.
The wall is formed by circulating coolant in pipes buried around the reactor site.
However, some of the parts are not frozen as planned. Some experts are skeptical about the wall's effectiveness. We asked him how to respond to the skepticism.
"I don't think the wall is not working," he says. "It is taking a long time, but I think the work is steadily progressing. I'm hopeful that by February, or by early next spring, we can show everyone that the ice wall is proving effective, even if the whole process is not completed."
There is a reason why Masuda was picked to be in charge of the plant's decommissioning. That dated back to 2011 when the accident happened.
Masuda was in charge of Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant while the Daiichi was undergoing meltdown. Although the two nuclear power plants were equally struck by the earthquake and tsunami, the Daini managed to avoid the worst case scenario. It is said that if Masuda's plant had also suffered a meltdown, the consequences of the disaster would have been even more devastating.
Fukushima Daini is just 10 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi.
Masuda struggled to control the reactors. He managed to prevent the plant from meltdown. We asked Masuda about the experience of saving his plant.
"I couldn't have done it alone," he says. "I am truly grateful to all the people who were working at the Daini plant at the time. I believe we managed to save the plant at Daini thanks to the 400 people at the plant working as one."
Masuda says the experience taught him what's important to proceed with his job.
"At the time, there was a need to properly convey what was happening at Daini," Masuda says. "Everyone was very worried and closely watching the situation there. I think I'm in a similar situation now. So, I believe the experience is helping me find the best way to inform people on the outside what's happening at the plant and to convey what the people outside are thinking to those working inside."
Even Masuda does not have a clear image of what's happening inside the damaged reactors. He believes cooperation with the international community is essential for this kind of work.
"We will be cooperating mainly with the United States, Britain, France, and Russia," he says. "We are already receiving help from people at nuclear-related facilities in the US, Britain and France. From them, we are learning things such as how to shut down facilities and how to deal with contaminated soil."
The Japanese government has resumed the operation of nuclear power plants after one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.
Masuda believes Japan needs to continue nuclear power generation because it has little fossil fuel resources of its own. However, he added a word of caution.
"Everybody who is dealing with operating a nuclear plant, and making electricity with nuclear power, must bear in mind that we are dealing with something dangerous," he says. "And the danger includes natural disasters such as a Tsunami. We must predict every possible danger and be ready for them."
Masuda promised to share the information with the international community.
He says, "It is important to use the lessons and experience from Fukushima Daiichi and Daini for the improvement of nuclear safety worldwide. We will be open and transparent in sharing our current status, challenges, lessons, experience and areas where we need help."