Eight Years On: The Situation at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

Society

A general impression is that no dramatic improvements have been seen at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, but a reporter who has traveled there for three years running writes that more of the site is open to reporters, and automated buses are in operation.

Stepping Off the Tour Bus at Last

“Yes, now that you mention it, it’s gone. I wonder when it disappeared,” the TEPCO employee pondered. I had asked about a sign previously posted at the entry to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station prohibiting Pokémon Go on-site, but to the employee I asked, who is on site daily, it was too minor a change to have noticed.

I also did not find signs prohibiting chewing gum and smoking that I had seen in the restrooms on my previous visit.

Eight years have passed since the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. This was the third consecutive year that I entered the site on a tour for the Japan National Press Club, and while I saw some things that had not changed, there was plenty of progress to report on.

Protective clothing is still de rigueur in many parts of the power station.
Protective clothing is still de rigueur in many parts of the power station.

During our site tour, the initial impression is that nothing has changed from two years ago. We still see remains of the reactor housing, a graphic reminder of the accident, rows of tanks of contaminated water, and the ground concreted over to prevent dispersion of radioactive material. The situation does not seem to have worsened; nor does it seem to have dramatically improved.

 Rows of tanks at the site.
Rows of tanks at the site.

However, compared with last year, some changes have certainly taken place. On previous tours, our bus merely drove by Unit 2, which was still emitting considerable radioactivity, and Unit 3, which was significantly damaged. On this visit, though, we could disembark to view them wearing general construction site protection gear: helmet, goggles, and mask.

The author (right) on the bus, between Units 2 and 3; protective clothing is unnecessary.
The author (right) on the bus, between Units 2 and 3; protective clothing is unnecessary.

The walls of Unit 3 still bear scratches that were caused by the tsunami, rather than the hydrogen explosion that took place later. In places, there are steel beams protruding from the concrete walls with debris tangled among them. These scars from the accident, which we had not noticed during previous trips when we just drove by, were evident this time thanks to our improved access.

Many scratch marks are visible on Unit 3.
Many scratch marks are visible on Unit 3.

Although protective clothing is no longer required for visits to the site, it goes without saying that this is still no place for people to live. The radiation level in the center of the road where we stopped was high: 250 microsieverts per hour. A few steps closer to Unit 3, the reading continued to increase, and the dosimeter displayed 356 microsieverts per hour.

Law stipulates that annual cumulative radiation exposure for the general population be limited to 1,000 microsieverts per year maximum, meaning that just three hours at the site would exceed this annual limit.

Personal dosimeters carried by some journalists were sounding high-pitched alarms. We only stayed in the area for around 5 minutes before the TEPCO staff shuffled us back to the bus.

Signage indicating an area where general clothing is permitted.
Signage indicating an area where general clothing is permitted.

Worker Numbers Falling Steadily

Conditions are even better at an elevated area extending behind Unit 1 to Unit 4, approximately 100 meters away, giving a commanding view of the facility’s buildings even to viewers without helmets or masks.

A lookout provides a clear view of debris removal from Unit 1 (author on far left).
A lookout provides a clear view of debris removal from Unit 1 (author on far left).

Perhaps due to the September 2018 completion of the frozen soil wall to prevent the flow of contaminated water into the sea, there appear to be fewer workers visible on the site. In fact, four to five years ago, over 7,000 workers a day were working there, but the daily average is currently around 4,000. And now, they are not just conducting repairs, but have begun the task of reconstruction.

Many vehicles we saw moving about are restricted for use exclusively at the Fukushima Daiichi site to prevent the spread of radioactive substances. Often they do not display license plates, which gave me the impression of having entered a special world on my first visit.

This is still the case, but now there are also automated electric buses in operation, taking advantage of the special conditions offered by having no general vehicles and no children walking about. The 15-passenger automated buses run on a fixed schedule, stopping at three points in the facility. These vehicles are not without problems—they stop when they hit a small bump and their operation can be hampered if somebody even sets foot on the road—information on all these events, together with standard operational data, is being fed back to the operator, helping to improve the reliability of the service.

Restoration initiatives are underway. Thanks to the overall decline in scattered radioactive substances on the site, workers are making considerable progress in removing debris and setting up new electric bus routes.

However, they are not at the point of being able to remove the debris inside the reactors, including nuclear fuel that melted and fell to the bottom of the containment vessels. There is possibly hundreds of tons of fuel debris in each of Units 1, 2 and 3, where meltdowns occurred, but as yet, no decision has been reached about which unit will be the first to see removal work begin. The TEPCO employee guiding us noted that while fragmentary information is available about conditions within each of the units of Fukushima Daiichi, much is still unknown, and they must proceed with caution. Consequently, they cannot yet say that the situation is under complete control.

TEPCO aims to have completed all steps for decommissioning the reactors in 30 to 40 years. The work at Fukushima Daiichi is progressing gradually toward this.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on March 11, 2019. Reporting and text by Fuji TV News Contents Project Leader Shimizu Toshihiro. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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