The demon that went free by the forceful thrust of tsunami waves almost eight years ago continues to wrack havoc on Japan's Fukushima prefecture. With the massive ongoing operation involving thousands of workers and a huge amount of public funding, some progress has already been made with the completion of cold shutdown of reactors. However, Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant still reminds a battlefield where the limits of human intellect in the field of nuclear energy have been tragically exposed. Various actors assigned with the task of bringing the situation under control are trying everything possible within their limit to bring the genie back to the bottle.
The genie or the demon, whatever name you give to the radiation nightmare, is still out, though not totally out of control. The damages it has brought to Fukushima is of manifold in nature. The spread of cancer due to radiation exposure has not been that widespread as it was feared earlier. However, decommissioning of the power plant, the target set by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), remains a long shot as many other works like the retrieval of spent fuel and fuel debris, as well as disposal of contaminated water are hardly to be completed anytime in near future. As a result, the risk that those who are assigned with the responsibility of finishing the task, including workers supplied by contractors, might face radiation related complications still remains high. To stop that happening, or rather to limit the impact in case of such happenings, the ministry of labor and welfare of Japan, as well as the Nuclear Safety Research Association is working on various fields, including dissemination of basic knowledge about radiation exposure and its impact. One fundamental problem that officials of both the bodies face in performing this important responsibility is how the media has been dealing with the issue. The lack of proper basic knowledge about radiation is what they see as the main reason behind the spread of erroneous news reports with significant negative impact. This is why the ministry of health and welfare recently invited a group of Tokyo based foreign reporters to the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant with the idea of helping them getting a better understanding of the issues related to radiation and also to get a first hand understanding of how the decommissioning works are moving ahead.
Before visiting the plant, the media representatives were briefed by officials about basic radiation knowledge, as well as laws and ordinances that are already in force to safeguard people from occupational health hazards. According to health and welfare ministry officials, international media as well as a number of international organizations had been initially critical about working condition at the power plant and also about the risk workers were exposed to. However, the ministry feels that much of those criticisms were based on false information and since then situation has improved due to efforts of the ministry to disseminate correct information. Few more activities like lectures and sight visits were included since last fiscal year. The ministry is now convinced that significant progress in working condition has been made and workers are now working in a safe environment.
As we started our journey to the power plant from the Energy Hall outside the restricted zone where the briefing was held, a real life view of the other side of the tragedy gradually started unfolding. The whole area within 10 kilometer radius of the power plant still remains a no-go zone and homes, shops, entertainment centers and public facilities within that area portray the picture of a ghost town. Among all such structures, the important absence is the slightest sign of human life. Small towns and villages like Okuma, Tomioka and Futaba - human habitats that once was full of vibrant life with the promise of a bright future now lie empty in a barren surrounding. Particularly disturbing was the return journey when the approaching darkness added mystery and suspense in that ghostly surrounding, reminding us of the danger of what might lie ahead when our scientific knowhow hits a dead end.
Inside the power plant TEPCO officials briefed visiting journalists about the progress in decommissioning activities and also about obstacle and difficulties they have been facing. Much of the radiation risk is now within the close proximity of reactor areas and workers now can freely move wearing work suits in 96 percent of the whole plant area. This, according to TEPCO officials, has increase work efficiency. Workers even are provided with warm dishes at lunch time at the dining hall of the large rest house that became operational in May 2015. It has been specially built keeping in mind of safe and pleasant working condition.
After the briefing, TECPO officials faced a number of questions from the visiting media representatives related to working environment as well as the progress of decommissioning works. They were asked to comment on a recent report in the Japanese media about the exploitation of foreign workers, particularly those coming to Japan on an internship program. The news report hinted that a number of such interns were sent to Fukushima Dai-ichi as workers, without letting them know in detail about the risk involved in such work. TEPCO officials, though denied employing foreigners in decommissioning works, however said that in the past contractors might have sent some of them to work at the power plant. It should be noted that almost 90 percent of work orders are currently fulfilled by negotiated contracts.
Answering a question about the biggest challenges TEPCO face in the process of decommissioning, the officials sighted three such challenges; dealing with the accumulated waste water, retrieval of spent fuel from the reactors, and removal of fuel debris. The mid and long-term road map that TEPCO has set for the completion of decommissioning runs for up to 30 to 40 years. A tour around the plant turned out to be a convincing confirmation of a much longer time frame. As new obstacles are regularly being faced at different stages of works, nobody is sure if the time frame set by the utility is a viable one. Everywhere around the plant gigantic water tanks filled with contaminated water that are being used for the cooling process are filling up much of the space.
No doubt the wound that was inflicted upon by tsunami waves almost 8 years ago is still causing pain to Japanese economy and exposing the vulnerability of nuclear power generation. This sad and tragic episode might turn out to be a timely lesson for those who are eager to opt out for this easy but dangerous solution for addressing the problem of chronic power shortages they now face.
(Tokyo, November 12, 2018)
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