The Long Lasting Nature of the Problems at Fukushima: 7 Years of the Nuclear Disaster and Counting

M V Ramana

Professor M. V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security in the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

It is seven years since the multiple reactor meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Most of the nuclear power plants in the country continue to shut down, thanks in large part to sustained local opposition. The good news is that Japan’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to decline, with a marginal decrease in emissions in fiscal year 2016 (the last year for which data has been released) when compared to 2015, and a more significant decrease with respect to 2013 levels.

Around 73,000 former inhabitants of Japan’s northeastern region are estimated to still be displaced as a result of the combination of the earthquake, Tsunami, and the nuclear accidents that occurred in March 2011. Seven municipalities, including all of Futaba and Ōkuma, and some portions of Namie, Iitate, Tomioka, Katsurao, and Minamisoma, remain closed to habitation. However, over the last two years, evacuation orders have officially been lifted in the five above-mentioned, partly-closed-off municipalities (Namie, Iitate, Tomioka, Katsurao, and Minamisoma) as well as Katsurao and Kawauchi.

In front of the the Namie station, newspaper dated 11 March 2011 lying in the paper’s city agency. Photo courtesy’ Kumar Sundaram (2014)

The lifting of evacuation orders in some of these regions has been criticized by independent organizations (see for example). Nevertheless, the Japanese government claims that because it has undertaken intense decontamination efforts, these areas are inhabitable. As of March 2017, 89 of 92 municipalities are said to have reached 100% progress in their decontamination efforts. The cumulative budget as of FY 2016 for these efforts has been reported as ¥2.6 trillion (US$24 billion).

Decontamination is, of course, desirable. But, as a result, Japan faces the problem of having to deal with the large quantities of wastes that have accumulated. The government has tried to reduce the volume by incinerating some of the wastes; but even after that is done, an estimated 16 to 22 million cubic meters will have to be disposed of. The government has really no idea on what to do with these vast quantities of radioactive waste. As its report puts it euphemistically “Currently, it is difficult to clarify methods of final disposal of such soil and waste”.

Therefore, as is often the case with difficult to solve, or insoluble, problems, the government has decided that “it is necessary to establish an Interim Storage Facility (ISF) in order to manage and store soil and waste safely” . Of course, interim obviously implies that a more final solution must be found. For this, the government can only come up with a wishful 8 step process for “the Final Disposal outside Fukushima Prefecture within 30 years from the Start of the ISF”. This is optimistic to say the least for there are difficulties even with the ISF. There is local opposition to plans to set up intermediate facilities and all that the Environment ministry can say is that “it will continue to try to persuade local residents to accept the disposal facilities”. So when the clock will start for the 30 year time frame for the final disposal remains unclear to say the least.

Interim and even a final disposal facility for all this radioactive waste will not help with the much more serious problem about which there is less public discussion: what to do with the much, much, more radioactive parts of the damaged Fukushima reactors, namely the highly radioactive fuel rods. This includes both the intact parts and the parts that have been dispersed as a result of the accident. There is still much uncertainty about where these radioactive materials are. But if and when they are found, the authorities will be confronted with the problem of where and how to dispose them.

That problem has been staring the Japanese nuclear establishment in the face for a long time. A large amount of spent fuel, and high level waste from reprocessing some of this waste, has already accumulated in Japan. As of 2017, the total amount of spent fuel in Japan is 17,838 tons, of which a little under 15,000 tons are at nuclear power plant sites, and a little under 3000 tons are with the Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) in Rokkasho (see; around 425 tons of JNFL’s inventory has already been reprocessed). As of September 2015, Rokkasho also held 1698 canisters of high level waste returned by France and the United Kingdom; the latter will be returning about 400 more canisters. And, again, the Japanese government doesn’t have an operational “final solution” for these.

Why are these waste forms even more difficult to deal with? Technically, the main problems are the much higher concentrations of radioactivity and the presence of radioactive substances with extremely long half-lives, hundreds of thousands of years in some cases. Since radiation is hazardous to health, even at low levels, exposure to these wastes will be harmful to people and other living organisms as long as the wastes remain radioactive, and they have to be isolated from human contact for up to a million years.

The nuclear industry offers a solution—disposing of these wastes under the ground in special repositories. But this is not really a final solution. Over the long timespan needed for all the radioactive elements to decay and these materials to become non-radioactive, the packages in which the waste forms are emplaced will likely corrode and radioactive materials will percolate and contaminate ground water sources.

Further, so far this so-called solution—a geological repository—remains only a plan on paper. There is no operating repository anywhere in the world that stores spent fuel or high level waste from nuclear power plants. And the reason is that in just about any country that has tried to find a site to build such a repository, it has become clear that there is sustained public opposition. There are many reasons why such opposition is widespread and enduring.

Japan, too, has no chosen site to construct such a repository. There is no likelihood of any such repository being set up for a couple of decades at least, possibly many more. Till one is set up, no one can even pretend that the problems posed by Fukushima have been dealt with. And, given the uncertainties inherent in such a repository, perhaps even then. The problems of nuclear power have very long half-lives.

 

 

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