It has been thirteen years since a massive tsunami disaster occurred in Japan. A closer look at the Fukushima nuclear power plant

By | March 11, 2024

TOKYO (AP) — Japan marked 13 years on Monday since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the country’s northern coast. Nearly 20,000 people died, entire cities were wiped out and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was destroyed, creating a deep fear of radiation that continues to this day. As the country marks the anniversary, AP explains what’s happening now at the factory and in neighboring areas.

WHAT HAPPENED 13 YEARS AGO?

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred, causing a tsunami that affected northern coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The tsunami, which reached a height of 15 meters (50 feet) in some areas, also slammed into the nuclear power plant, destroying power supplies and fuel cooling systems and causing meltdowns at reactors No. 1, 2 and 3.

Hydrogen explosions caused massive radiation leaks and contamination in the area.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, says the tsunami was unforeseeable. Government and independent investigations, as well as some court rulings, show that the accident was the result of human error, safety negligence, lax regulatory oversight and collusion.

Japan has since introduced stricter safety standards and at one point moved to phase out nuclear power. Prime Minister Fumio KishidaThe government of Japan has reversed that policy and accelerated the restart of operable reactors to keep nuclear power as the main source of Japan’s energy supply.

A deadly earthquake on January 1 in Japan’s north-central region destroyed many homes and roads but did not damage a idled nuclear power plant. Still, it raised concerns that current evacuation plans, which focus solely on radiation leaks, could be unworkable.

The country held a moment of silence at 2.46pm on Monday, with Kishida attending a memorial event in Fukushima.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PEOPLE IN THE AREA?

About 20,000 of the more than 160,000 evacuated residents of Fukushima have still not returned home.

Remediation work before the Tokyo Olympics, aimed at highlighting the Fukushima recovery, has led to the abolition of some no-go zones, but these remain in seven of the 12 cities that were completely or partially off-limits.

In Futaba, the hardest-hit city and co-host of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a small area opened in 2022. About 100 people, or 1.5% percent of the pre-disaster population, have returned to live. The other host city, Okuma, sacrificed some of its land to build a temporary repository for nuclear waste collected during the cleanup, and 6% of its former residents have returned.

Annual surveys show that the majority of evacuees have no intention of returning home, citing the lack of jobs, schools and lost communities, as well as concerns about radiation.

Residents who have raised concerns about radiation or linked it to their health problems have been attacked for damaging Fukushima’s reputation.

Disaster-hit cities, including those in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, have seen a sharp decline in population.

Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori said on NHK TV that a growing number of young people want to move to Fukushima to open businesses or help rebuild, and he expressed hope that more residents will return.

What about treated radioactive water discharges?

Last August, Fukushima Daiichi began releasing treated water into the sea and is currently releasing a fourth batch of 7,800 tons of treated water. So far, the results of the daily seawater samples meet safety standards. The plan has faced protests from local fishermen and neighboring countries, especially China, which has banned the import of Japanese seafood.

Fukushima Daiichi has struggled to deal with the contaminated water since the 2011 meltdowns. TEPCO says the start of the process is a milestone and the removal of the tanks is crucial to make room for facilities needed as decommissioning progresses.

The contaminated cooling water is pumped up, treated and stored in approximately 1,000 tanks. The government and TEPCO say the water is diluted with enormous amounts of seawater before being released, making it safer than international standards.

What about local fishing?

Despite earlier fears that the water release would further damage Fukushima’s hard-hit fishing sector, it has not damaged the country’s reputation at home. China’s ban on Japanese seafood, which mainly affected scallop exporters in Hokkaido, has apparently pushed Japanese consumers to eat more seafood from Fukushima.

Sampling and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency have also increased confidence in the local fish.

Fishing in Fukushima returned to normal in 2021 and the local catch is now about one-fifth of pre-disaster levels, due to a decline in the fishing population and smaller catches.

The government has set aside 10 billion yen ($680 million) to support fishing in Fukushima.

ANY PROGRESS IN REMOVING MOLTEN FUEL?

The contents of the three reactors are still largely a mystery. For example, little is known about the condition of the molten fuel or its exact location in the reactors. Not even a spoonful of fuel has been removed.

About 880 tons of melted nuclear fuel remain in the three damaged reactors, and Japanese officials say removing it would take 30 to 40 years. Experts call that timeline overly optimistic. The amount of fuel melted is ten times the amount removed from Three Mile Island after the 1979 partial meltdown.

Robotic probes have glimpsed inside the three reactors, but their research has been hampered by technical problems, high levels of radiation and other complications.

It’s critical that officials understand the data on melted debris so they can make a plan to remove it safely. TEPCO aims to extract the first sample from reactor No. 2 later this year.

TEPCO attempted to obtain the sample using a robotic arm. Officials have struggled to get the robot past the wreckage and hope that by October they can use a simpler device that resembles a fishing rod to take a primary sample.

Most of the fuel in the most damaged No. 1 reactor fell from the core to the bottom of the primary containment vessel. Some of it penetrated and mixed with the concrete foundation, making removal extremely difficult.

In February, the plant made its first drone flight to the primary containment vessel to examine the melted debris and how the fuel initially fell from the core. But a second day of exploration was canceled because a data transmission robot broke down.

IS A COMPLETION IN 2051 POSSIBLE?

The government has stuck to its original target of completed decommissioning by 2051, but has not defined what that means.

The lack of data, technology and plans on what to do with the radioactive molten fuel and other nuclear waste makes it difficult to understand what lies ahead for the plant and surrounding areas when the cleanup ends, said Akira Ono, head of the TEPCO dismantling company.

An overly ambitious schedule could result in unnecessary radiation exposure for factory workers and excessive damage to the environment, experts say.

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