Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning

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Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning

A resolution to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains a distant goal a decade after three of its reactors melted down.

The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin because of high radiation inside the reactor buildings, putting the targeted decommissioning of the plant by 2051 into doubt.

More than 80% of the Japanese public doesn’t feel significant progress is being made and is concerned about further accidents, according to a poll by national broadcaster NHK. Two recent incidents help explain why.

On Feb. 13, a large earthquake centered near Fukushima, an aftershock of the one 10 years ago, caused water to slosh out of a tank containing spent fuel rods, which must be kept submerged to avoid overheating. A week later, a fish caught off the coast of Fukushima was found to contain 10 times the allowed level of radioactive cesium.

The episodes weren’t threats to public health by themselves. The fuel rods weren’t exposed, and food from Fukushima is subject to intensive safety screening. The last fish over the radiation limit had been found two years earlier.

But the incidents show how risks from the plant continue to weigh on those who live and work nearby. Local fish catches were down more than 80% in 2019 compared with before the accident.

“We are still struggling with harmful rumors from the nuclear plant accident,” said Tadaaki Sawada, a spokesman for the federation of Fukushima fishery cooperatives. “How many more years will it continue?”

Buyers bid over the day’s catch.

By several measures, the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 has been contained. Only around 2% of Fukushima prefecture, or state, is still a no-go area, down from 12% immediately after the disaster. An extensive decontamination process removed topsoil from areas around the plant.

Still, thousands of people remain forced out of towns closest to the plant.

“There are areas where people can’t return home or have only just begun to return, as well as the problem of agricultural, forestry and fishery businesses damaged by harmful rumors. It’s important to support and soothe those affected by the disaster, including the elderly and children,” Emperor Naruhito said at a memorial event in Tokyo on Thursday

Inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant grounds, radiation levels are sufficiently low that protective clothing is required only for those who go within about 100 yards of the buildings housing the damaged reactors. The reactors melted down when a tsunami triggered by an earthquake on March 11, 2011, cut the plant’s power and the reactors’ water cooling system failed.

Last year, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, and the government were close to a decision to start releasing into the sea over a million cubic meters of water from the plant, but plans were suspended amid opposition from local fishermen and concerns raised by neighboring countries.

Contaminated rain and groundwater is stored in large tanks that dominate one side of the plant site. Once treated to remove most radioactive elements, the water still contains tritium, a form of hydrogen that emits a weak form of radiation. Tritium is regularly released into the sea and air from nuclear plants around the world after dilution.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Fukushima plant last year and said disposal of the treated water into the sea would be in line with international practice. “A decision on the disposition path should be taken urgently” to keep the overall decommissioning on track, the IAEA said.

The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin.

The government says it is still discussing the issue and that disposal of the treated water won’t begin for about two more years.

Ian Fairlie, the former head of a U.K. government panel on radiation risks and an opponent of nuclear power, said Japan should add storage capacity for the water and wait for the tritium, which has a half-life of just over 12 years, to decay.

“Whenever you put a large amount of nuclides in the sea, it goes up the food chain, whether you like it or not. Any good environmentalist will tell you we shouldn’t use dispersion,” Dr. Fairlie said.

A shopping street in recently opened Futaba, the residential district closest to the nuclear power plant.

Other cleanup issues haven’t even started to be addressed, such as when to dismantle the reactors and where to put the radioactive fuel once it is recovered. Contaminated soil from near the plant has been stored locally, but Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori said the government has agreed it would be taken elsewhere.

An initial experimental phase for clearing up and removing all the molten nuclear fuel on each reactor floor is targeted to begin in 2022, two years behind schedule. A robot arm to be used in the process is under development in the U.K., but work to create it was delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tepco has yet to get a clear picture of the location of molten fuel in the reactors because the levels of radiation are damaging even to robots. Akira Ono, head of plant decommissioning, said there was no need at present to extend the timeline for the process beyond 2051.

Gov. Uchibori said that gaining an accurate grasp of the molten-fuel situation was critical to making headway.

“If you look at the entire process, right now we are still around the starting point of decommissioning,” he said.

Fukushima 10 Years Later

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com

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