Five years after a tsunami struck and disabled the three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, cleanup has just begun and may take the rest of the century.
The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), says it has stabilized the damaged reactors and removed all spent fuel from the site, and is prepared to begin removing the remaining actively radioactive fuel by 2021. But outside experts are skeptical, Justin McCurry writes from Fukushima for The Guardian.
Damage from the magnitude-nine earthquake and resulting tsunami, which killed 19,000 people in 2011, triggered partial meltdowns in two reactor cores and the complete meltdown of a third. Just how complete is still a highly consequential matter of conjecture, admits TEPCO’s executive in charge of decommissioning the crippled reactors.
“To be honest, we don’t know exactly where the fuel is,” Naohiro Masuda conceded. It’s possible the fuel in the reactor at the moment the tsunami hit burned through its pressure vessel as well as the bottom of an outer containment vessel, melting its way into the concrete pedestal below or even into the underlying ground.
“But we do know that the fuel is in a solid state of cold shutdown,” Masuda added. That means it isn’t continuing to melt its way into the earth. But that degree of stability has been achieved by continually drenching the fuel’s presumed location—generating 150 tonnes a day of low-level radioactive wastewater.
Observers call TEPCO’s schedule, with a price tag of US$20 billion and planned completion date of somewhere between 2051 and 2061, wildly optimistic. For one thing, the start of actual work to remove the melted fuel depends on the development of robot technology that does not yet exist (current-generation robots stalled under the highly radioactive working conditions).
“It’s just not going to happen,” Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, said of TEPCO’s timetable. “The roadmap is based on political considerations, not technical ones. No one really knows how long it will take, but it will be decades and decades and decades.”