It has been six years since a huge earthquake and tsunami off the northeast coast of Japan caused one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But the consequences of those events are rarely out of the news, even today. In mid-March, a Japanese district court ordered both the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the central government to pay compensation of ¥38.55 million ($340,000) to 62 residents affected by the accident. Some 1,60,000 people living in the vicinity of the plant were evacuated or fled of their own volition following the disaster. There are reportedly 30 similar lawsuits involving 12,000 plaintiffs that have been filed across Japan.
The court indicted TEPCO for having failed to take precautionary safety measures despite knowing since at least 2002 that an exceptionally strong tsunami could plausibly damage the Fukushima plant. The government was held culpable for failing to exercise its regulatory authority over TEPCO.
Other recent Fukushima-related headlines include the gradual return of some evacuees to their hometowns, but also news of incredibly high levels of radiation emanating within the reactors that melted down after the tsunami knocked out their cooling systems.
Since February, TEPCO has sent in camera-equipped robots and telescopic arms to investigate the containment vessels of two of the worst-affected reactors. Finding the exact location and condition of the melted fuel is critically important to the eventual dismantling of the reactors. However, the robots and cameras malfunctioned within a short time of going in, due to the intense radiation encountered. Analyses by TEPCO put one reading inside No. 2 reactor at higher than 600 sieverts (sv) per hour. A single dose of 1 sv is enough to cause radiation sickness, while one dose of 10 sv would be fatal within weeks. Lethal levels of radiation and the risk of radiation leaks make TEPCO’s goal of decommissioning the plant a complicated task that will take up to four decades to complete, at an estimated price of ¥21.5 trillion ($190 billion).
TEPCO also faces the daunting task of dealing with a mounting pile of radioactive waste. About 400 tonnes of water pass through the reactors daily, including water that is pumped in to cool the melted fuel inside, as well as groundwater that seeps in. All this water is then diverted to a decontamination facility, but since it’s impossible to completely remove the radioactive material from it, the water is currently being stored in 1,000 tanks on the plant grounds. These tanks already hold 9,62,000 tonnes of contaminated water.
In addition, TEPCO estimates that more than 2,00,400 cu. m of radioactive rubble has been removed and stored in steel boxes on the site. Eventually the space for storage tanks and boxes will run out, and longer-term solutions have not been settled on.
Given the severity of the 2011 disaster, the fallout has been contained somewhat successfully. According to TEPCO, radiation from the crippled reactors no longer impacts the areas outside the plant. Radiation levels just offshore remain below the limit for drinking water set by the World Health Organization.
Japan is anxious to present a safe, welcoming image as it gears up to host the 2020 Olympics. The Games Organising committee has just announced that baseball and softball matches will be held in Fukushima city, about 70 km from the plant site. It is hoped the move will boost the region’s recovery. But there is no quick fix for genuine rehabilitation, a fraught process that will last decades beyond the Olympic Games.0