Two-and-a-half years after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the operator of Japan’s wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant faces a daunting array of unknowns: why the plant intermittently emits steam, how groundwater seeps into its basement, whether fixes to the cooling system will hold, how nearby groundwater is contaminated by radioactive matter, how toxic water ends up in the sea and how to contain water that could overwhelm the facility’s storage tanks.
What is clear, say critics, is that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) is keeping a nervous Japanese public in the dark about what it does know.
The inability of TEPCO to get to grips with the situation raises questions over whether it can successfully decommission the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, say industry experts and analysts.
“They let people know about the good things and hide the bad things. This culture of cover up has not changed since the disaster,” said Atsushi Kasai, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute.
TEPCO’s handling of the clean-up has complicated Japan’s efforts to restart its 50 nuclear power plants, almost all of which have been idle since the disaster because of local community concerns about safety.
That has made Japan dependent on expensive imported fuels for virtually all its energy.
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami off Japan’s eastern coast killed nearly 20,000 people on March 11, 2011. It also damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, causing meltdowns at some of its reactors and hydrogen explosions. Radiation leaked into the air and sea.
TEPCO was heavily criticized by nuclear experts and the government at the time for an inept response to the disaster. It has won few supporters since.
The company says it is doing its best with the clean-up at the plant, 200km northeast of Tokyo, adding so much is unknown because workers cannot get to every corner of the facility due to high radiation levels.
However, the missteps continue.
Reversing months of denials, TEPCO said on July 22 that radioactive water from the plant was reaching the ocean.
That was the latest, and according to experts and anti-nuclear activists, the most glaring in a string of belated admissions that have undermined public trust in Japan’s largest utility.
In January, TEPCO found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but TEPCO denied the claims.
It investigated only after Japan’s new nuclear watchdog expressed alarm earlier this month at TEPCO’s own reports of huge spikes in radioactive cesium, tritium and strontium in groundwater near the shore.
TEPCO apologized and its president, Naomi Hirose, took a pay cut as a result.
“They had said it wouldn’t reach the ocean, that they didn’t have the data to show that it was going into the ocean,” said Masashi Goto, a former nuclear engineer for Toshiba who has worked at plants run by TEPCO and other utilities.
A TEPCO spokesman said the company was trying to communicate with the public.
“We do our best to present our explanations behind the possible causes of what’s happening,” he said.
TEPCO was incompetent rather than intentionally withholding information, said Dale Klein, who chairs a third-party panel commissioned by TEPCO to oversee the reform of its nuclear division and a decommissioning process that could cost at least US$11 billion and take up to 40 years.