Japan took a group of journalists inside its crippled nuclear plant for the first time on Saturday, stepping up efforts to prove to the world it is on top of the disaster.
More than 30 members of the press, wearing protective masks and anti-radiation suits and confined to buses, saw the devastated buildings housing the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the scene of the planet's worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl a quarter century earlier.
Four reactor buildings were in varying states of destruction, with the one around reactor number 3 largely collapsed.
Crows and dragonflies could be seen around the reactors, in an area the reporter's dosimeter recorded radiation at 50 microsieverts per hour.
Nearer to the reactors the reading rose to 300 microsieverts (0.3 millisieverts), the highest of the trip.
The Japanese government-set threshold for evacuation from a normal area is accumulated radiation of 20 millisieverts per year.
Despite a series of setbacks, including the revelation last week that spontaneous fission had been detected inside a reactor that was supposed to be all but extinct, the government and plant operator TEPCO say they remain on track for a cold shutdown by the end of the year.
Two reactor buildings once painted in a cheery sky blue loom over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Their roofs are blasted away, their crumbled concrete walls reduced to steel frames.
In their shadow, plumbers, electricians and truck drivers, sometimes numbering in the thousands, go dutifully about their work, all clad from head to toe in white hazmat suits. Their job cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl will take decades to complete.
Reporters, also in radiation suits, visited the ravaged facility on Saturday for the first time since Japan’s worst tsunami in centuries swamped the plant on March 11, 2011 causing reactor explosions and meltdowns and turning hundreds of square kilometers of countryside into a no man’s land.
Eight months later, the plant remains a shambles. Mangled trucks, flipped over by the power of the wave, still clutter its access roads. Rubble remains strewn where it fell. Pools of water cover parts of the once immaculate campus.
Tens of thousands of the plant’s former neighbours may never be able to go home. And just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki become icons of the horrors of nuclear weapons, Fukushima has become the new rallying cry of the global anti-nuclear energy movement.
A preliminary government report released this month predicted it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Daiichi. Like Chernobyl, it will probably be encased in a concrete and steel “sarcophagus.”
Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear physicist at Kyoto University, said he doubts the decommissioning process will go as smoothly as the government hopes. He said pools for spent fuel remain highly volatile, and cleaning up the three reactor cores that melted through their innermost chambers will be a massive challenge.
“Nobody knows where exactly the fuel is, or in what condition,” he said. “The reactors will have to be entombed in a sarcophagus, with metal plates inserted underneath to keep it watertight. But within 25 to 30 years, when the cement starts decaying, that will have to be entombed in another layer of cement. It’s just like Russian Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other.”
The no-go zone around the plant will likely be in effect for years, if not decades, to come. Officials reluctantly admit that tens of thousands of evacuated residents may never be able to return home.
Recent studies suggest that Japan continues to significantly underestimate the scale of the disaster which could have health and safety implications far into the future.
Understated radiation estimates
According to a study led by Andreas Stohl the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, twice as much radioactive cesium-137 a cancer-causing agent was pumped into the atmosphere than Japan had announced, reaching 40 per cent of the total from Chernobyl. The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety found that 30 times more cesium-137 was released into the Pacific than the plant’s owner has owned up to.
“We have not studied the content of their research, and are not in a position to respond,” said Hiroki Kawamata, a TEPCO spokesman. “We have no plans at this point to modify our estimates.”
Before the crisis, resource-poor Japan relied on nuclear power for about one-third of its electricity. It was planning to boost that share to 50 percent by 2030.
Without nuclear, Japan will have to import more fossil fuels, cutting its potential GDP by 1.2 per cent and costing 7.2 trillion yen ($94 billion) annually, according to an estimate by the Japan Centre for Economic Research.
But public support for nuclear power and the trust that the industry is built on has plummeted.
Tens of thousands of Japanese have turned out in protest. Suspicious of government and TEPCO reassurances, grassroots groups are scouring the country with radiation detectors. Several “hot spots” in and around Tokyo are now being investigated by the authorities.
Because of the outcry, Japan has essentially abandoned its long-term goal of expanding nuclear energy production. The status of even its existing plants is murky.
Currently, 43 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are shut down, either because of mechanical problems or routine inspections, which must be conducted every 13 months. Local approval is required to restart nuclear power plants, even after routine inspections, and local leaders fearing repercussions at the polls have been loath to provide it.
TEPCO announced two weeks ago there will be enough power to see the country through the winter, but after that, the effect of the nuclear crisis on electricity production could become even more acute. If political resistance remains as high as it is now, every nuclear reactor in Japan could be offline by May.