Leaks, Rats and Radioactivity: Fukushima’s Nuclear Cleanup Is Faltering

The Fukushima meltdown hasn't been the public-health disaster that many critics feared, but TEPCO has struggled with the cleanup. The latest news that groundwater is becoming contaminated by the stricken reactors is one more reason why the company should not be in charge of the cleanup

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IAEA / AFP / Getty Images

Juan Carlos Lentijo, leader of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, inspects the unit-four reactor building of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, on April 17, 2013

Honestly, if the consequences weren’t potentially so dire, the ongoing struggles to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan would be the stuff of comedy. In March, an extended blackout disabled power to a vital cooling system for days. The cause: a rat that had apparently been chewing on cables in a switchboard. As if that’s not enough, another dead rat was found in the plant’s electrical works just a few weeks ago, which led to another blackout, albeit of a less important system. The dead rats were just the latest screwups in a series of screwups by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the owner of the Fukushima plant, that goes back to the day of March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and the resulting tsunami touched off a nuclear disaster that isn’t actually finished yet. I’m not sure things could be much worse if Wile E. Coyote were TEPCO’s CEO.

But it’s not funny, not really, because the consequences of the meltdown and TEPCO’s mismanagement are very real. The latest threat comes from nearby groundwater that is pouring into the damaged reactor buildings. Once the water reaches the reactor it becomes highly contaminated by radioactivity. TEPCO workers have to pump the water out of the reactor to avoid submerging the important cooling system — the plant’s melted reactor cores, while less dangerous than they were in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, still needed to be further cooled down. TEPCO can’t simply dump the irradiated groundwater into the nearby sea — the public outcry would be too great — so the company has been forced to jury-rig yet another temporary solution, building hundreds of tanks, each able to hold 112 Olympic-size pools worth of liquid, to hold the groundwater. So TEPCO finds itself in a race: Can its workers build enough tanks and clear enough nearby space to store the irradiated water — water that keeps pouring into the reactor at the rate of some 75 gal. a minute? More than two years after the tsunami, TEPCO is still racing against time — and just barely staying ahead.

(MORE: Despite Fear, Health Risks From Fukushima Accident Are Minimal)

TEPCO spokesperson — there’s an unfortunate job — Masayuki Ono put it this way to the New York Times, which has reported closely on Fukushima’s troubles over the past month:

The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep or work. It feels like we are constantly being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front.

Indeed, the job has been taking its toll on the workers and on TEPCO itself, which recently announced that it lost some $7 billion in the fiscal year to March. Cash-strapped, TEPCO is struggling to make ends meet — and more to the point, the company knows that every yen it spends trying to clean up Fukushima is a yen it will never get back again, as the plant will never produce energy again. TEPCO’s struggles are hardly unique among Japan’s hard-hit utility sector — the country’s regional electricity monopolies posted a combined loss of $16 billion — but the fact that the company is still running the Fukushima cleanup seems like a worse idea with each passing day.

TEPCO argues that its workers know Fukushima best, but the performance of the company’s management hardly inspires confidence. As the groundwater debacle demonstrates, TEPCO has been making things up as it goes along since the beginning — and the Japanese government has let it. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that radioactive groundwater would be a threat — the movements of water underground are not exactly unpredictable. The Times reported that TEPCO decide not to build an underground concrete wall that could have prevent the groundwater from reaching the reactor, apparently assuming it would be able to construct a filtering system before the water became a problem. TEPCO was wrong, as it has repeatedly been. Meanwhile, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has just a handful of inspectors to oversee the more than 3,000 workers at Fukushima.

(MORE: Independent Commission Releases Report on Fukushima Meltdown, Blames Japanese Culture)

This is a typically Japanese problem. Collusion between industry and the government helped propel the country to economic greatness after World War II, but since the crash in the early 1990s, those tight relationships have held Japan back — especially when it comes to dealing with unexpected crises like Fukushima. If ever there were a moment for letting outsiders have some say, it would be in the Fukushima cleanup — but in Japan, there are no outsiders, only the marginalized. If the price of safeguarding consensus and the cozy relationship between industry and government is a little radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean, so be it. And while Japan is unique, collusion between the tightly closed nuclear industry and the government elsewhere isn’t.

(PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later: Photographs by James Nachtwey)

In the end, the damage from Fukushima — especially to human health — is still unlikely to be anywhere near as large as nuclear critics feared when the plant first melted down. Indeed, the greater threat to the health of those who lived around the plant may be psychological, as they struggle with the both the upheaval of evacuation and the social taint of living near a meltdown. But that assumes that the Fukushima area isn’t hit by another earthquake or tsunami before the cleanup is finally completed, likely years from now. “The Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in an unstable condition, and there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident,” Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said in a news conference in early April. Not so funny after all.

MORE: Nuked: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up