Heroic risks of struggle to clean up Fukushima

 

THE JOURNEY to Fukushima Daiichi begins at the border of the 20km exclusion zone that surrounds the ruined nuclear complex, beyond which life has essentially frozen in time.

Spindly weeds reclaim the gardens of empty homes along a route that emptied on a bitterly cold, panicky night almost exactly a year ago. Shop signs hang unrepaired from the huge quake that rattled this area on March 11th, triggering the meltdown of three reactors and a series of explosions that showered this area with contamination.

Cars wait outside supermarkets where their owners left them in Tomioka, Okuma and Futaba, once neat, bustling towns that now take their place alongside the uninhabitable Ukrainian nuclear ghost town of Pripyat. Even birds have deserted this area, if the latest research is to be believed.

The reason is signalled by a symphony of beeping noises from dosimeters aboard our bus on the way to the plant. As we drive with a party of Japanese journalists through a police checkpoint and into the town of Tomioka, about 15km away, the radioactivity climbs steadily, hitting 15 microsieverts per hour at the main gate to the nuclear complex. At the other end of the plant, where the gaping buildings of its three most damaged reactors face the Pacific Ocean, the radiation level is 100 times this high, making it still too dangerous to work there.

Inside the plant’s emergency co-ordination building, the air is filled with the sound of humming filters labouring to keep the contamination out. Hundreds of people work here every day, many sleeping in the makeshift beds and cots scattered throughout the building. Workers in radiation suits and full-face masks wander in and out. A large digital clock showing the current radiation reading inside the building dominates the wall of the central control room, where officials from operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) huddle around computers.

“Our main challenge now is to remove the nuclear fuel from the reactors,” explains Takeshi Takahashi in his first interview since he took over as plant manager two months ago. “It’s a technically very difficult problem, but we cannot hurry and we want to take it step by step.”

His predecessor Masao Yoshida was forced to quit in December after being diagnosed with cancer – unrelated to his work, insists Tepco. Takahashi too looks drawn and exhausted but says he is satisfied with the progress being made in bringing the plant to “a state of cold shutdown,” meaning that radiation releases are under control and the temperature of its nuclear fuel is consistently below boiling point. The term is considered controversial. Engineers have only a rough idea of where exactly the melted fuel lies inside the damaged reactors, or of its exact state. The fuel is being kept cool by thousands of gallons of water that Tepco pumps onto the fuel every day and which it is struggling to decontaminate. Engineers are frantically working to build more water tanks, and create space to store them. On a ridge about 20 meters from the reactors is a huge field of gleaming 1,000-ton water tanks – about 100. A building crew is levelling land next to the tanks to make way for more. “In April the existing tanks will be full so they are trying to make more space,” admits a Tepco official.

We are told to wear our full-face masks for the climax of the visit – a tour of the six reactors. Every inch of our bodies is covered and even in the subzero temperatures of Fukushima in February, it is unbearably hot. Thousands of men worked through last year’s summer heat of over 30 degrees in this protective gear, struggling to clear debris from the quake and tsunami and bring water to the reactors. “They were dropping like flies in the heat,” said one worker who spoke anonymously. “But they just had to keep going. They had no choice because no one else could do it.”

“The worst time was when the radiation was 250 Milisieverts (per year – the maximum, temporary government limit) and we couldn’t find people to do the work,” explains Kazuhiro Sakamoto, an onsite subcontractor. “We could only work in two-minute busts, when we were extracting cesium from contaminated water.”

Some of that work is clear onsite. The concrete building housing reactor 1, which was blown apart in the first explosion on March 12th, is now completely covered with a tarpaulin, a sort of giant condom designed to contain its radioactivity. As our bus drives slowly by the building, the beeping dosimeters climb to 100 microsieverts an hour. But as the most badly damaged reactor three into sight, its mess of tangled metal and steel gives off a startling reading of 1,500 microsieverts. Its cargo of lethal fuel includes plutonium and the roof of the building housing the reactor was blown off in the second explosion. “It’s still too dangerous for workers to enter reactor number three,” admits engineer Yasuki Hibi.

The state of reactor two, meanwhile, sparked some panic last week after Tepco reported that the heat of the fuel inside was climbing and apparently resisting efforts to bring it down. The nightmare scenario of another out-of-control reactor was briefly conjured up by the media before Tepco banished it by claiming faulty equipment. “We’ve identified the problem as a broken thermometer,” says plant manager Takahashi in response to repeated questions about the reactor. “I’m terribly sorry to everyone for causing so much concern.”

Tepco officials constantly apologise, drawing on the most profound Japanese mea culpa in the dictionary, which literally translates as “there is no excuse for what we have done.” The apologies have become perfunctory and ritualised, failing to douse public anger over the scale of the disaster, or some of the company’s sharp-elbowed tactics since it began.

Compensation has dribbled into the pockets of over 100,000 evacuees who have lost everything and are stuck in legal limbo, without homes or clear futures. In one now infamous incident, the utility argued against a compensation claim by a golf course operator, saying that radioactive materials from the nuclear plant belong to individual landowners, and are not the company’s responsibility. Lawyers for the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club, 45 kilometres west of plant, said they were “flabbergasted” by the argument.

But here at the Daiichi complex at least, the apologies seem genuine. Work here is hard, unrelenting and in the long term possibly fatal. The depth of feeling about this tragedy is etched on the faces of hollow-eyed managers like Takahashi, who live day and night in one of the world’s least hospitable workplaces. He says he is motivated above all by one thing: “We will try to allow people to return to their homes as early as possible.”

It is a mammoth task. Japan’s government has admitted that dismantling the reactors and its 260-ton payload of nuclear fuel will take up to 40 years. Many people believe the government and Tepco will eventually be forced to recognise that the people who fled from this plant a year ago may not return for decades. In the meantime, the work at Fukushima Daiichi goes on. And on.