Why the plant intermittently emits steam; how groundwater seeps into its basement; whether fixes to the cooling system will hold; how nearby groundwater is contaminated by radioactive matter; how toxic water ends up in the sea and how to contain water that could overwhelm the facility’s storage tanks.
What is clear, say critics, is that Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is keeping a nervous Japanese public in the dark about what it does know.
The inability of the utility to get to grips with the situation raises questions over whether it can successfully decommission the Fukushima Daiichi plant, say industry experts and analysts.
“They let people know about the good things and hide the bad things. This culture of cover-up hasn’t changed since the disaster,” said Atsushi Kasai, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute.
TEPCO’s handling of the clean-up has complicated Japan’s efforts to restart its 50 nuclear power plants, almost all of which have been idled since the disaster over local community concerns about safety.
That has made Japan dependent on expensive imported fuels for virtually all its energy.
A 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami off Japan’s eastern coast killed nearly 20,000 people on March 11, 2011. It also destroyed the Fukushima plant, causing meltdowns at some of its reactors and hydrogen explosions. Radiation leaked into the air and sea.
TEPCO was heavily criticized by nuclear experts and the government at the time for what was seen as an inept response to the disaster. It has won few supporters since.
The company says it is doing its best with the clean-up at the plant, 200 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, adding so much is unknown because workers cannot get to every corner of the facility because of high radiation.
But the missteps continue.
Reversing months of denials, TEPCO said on July 22 that radioactive water from the plant was reaching the ocean.
That was the latest, and according to experts and anti-nuclear activists, the most glaring in a string of belated admissions that have undermined public trust in Japan’s largest utility.
In January, TEPCO found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but TEPCO denied the claims.
It investigated only after Japan’s new nuclear watchdog expressed alarm last month at TEPCO’s own reports of huge spikes in radioactive cesium, tritium and strontium in groundwater near the shore.
TEPCO apologized while President Naomi Hirose took a pay cut as a result.
“They had said it wouldn’t reach the ocean, that they didn’t have the data to show that it was going into the ocean,” said Masashi Goto, a former nuclear engineer for Toshiba Corp, who has worked at plants run by TEPCO and other utilities.
A TEPCO spokesman said the company was trying to communicate with the public.
“We do our best to present our explanations behind the possible causes of what’s happening,” he said.
TEPCO was incompetent rather than intentionally withholding information, said Dale Klein, who chairs a third-party panel commissioned by TEPCO to oversee the reform of its nuclear division and a decommissioning process that could cost at least $11 billion and take up to 40 years
“The plant is in a difficult physical configuration. I have some sympathy,” Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Reuters.
“It’s not the fact that we’re having surprises - it’s the way they’re handling them. That’s where my frustrations are.”
TEPCO says it is dealing with the clean-up hand-in-hand with the government. It has also relied on expertise from the U.S. Department of Energy and General Electric.
But a Reuters investigation in December found that foreign companies had won few, if any, contracts to develop technologies for scrapping the reactors.
TEPCO, accused by experts of lacking transparency even before the disaster, was heavily criticized in the days after the calamity for not providing timely information to the public.
It was more than two months before it said three of the six reactors at the plant had suffered nuclear meltdowns. Industry experts had suspected meltdowns long before that.
Since the beginning of this year, the plant has been plagued by problems.
A worker on the site spotted steam rising from the No. 3 reactor building, but TEPCO has only been able to speculate on its cause. In March, a rat shorted a temporary switchboard and cut power for 29 hours that was used to cool spent uranium fuel rods in pools.
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SauloJpnAug. 03, 2013 - 07:29AM JST
"TEPCO’s claims that radiation levels in the water would be negligible."
Hopefully the prison term to these executives will not be a negligible amount. What a bunch of greedy b...!!!
DisillusionedAug. 03, 2013 - 07:33AM JST
TEPCO apologized while President Naomi Hirose took a pay cut as a result.
Well, that absolves him of all blame then, doesn't it? Don't worry about the lying and polluting the ocean. As long as he is sorry it makes everything OK. Why hasn't anyone had criminal charges brought against them and, why are these clowns still in charge of the cleanup?
CrazedinjapanAug. 03, 2013 - 07:36AM JST
Awesome !!!! NOT !!!
SauloJpnAug. 03, 2013 - 07:40AM JST
"TEPCO was incompetent rather than intentionally withholding information, said Dale Klein"
I could not disagree more with that. That card was played a long time ago, maybe it worked the first 10 times but even I can see the pattern here. Manipulating public opinion is their primary goal if not the only goal right now!!!
FrungyAug. 03, 2013 - 08:46AM JST
Even an elementary schooler could answer some of these questions
Why the plant intermittently emits steam;
Water used to cool the reactor is leaking. Duh!
how groundwater seeps into its basement;
Most of Japan is below sea level, and there are lots of earthquakes which means that cracks in basements are inevitable. Whatever genius at TEPCO designed a basement in a building in Japan deserves to be sacked.
whether fixes to the cooling system will hold;
They aren't holding right now. Look, steam! Steam means water from the cooling system is escaping, i.e. the cooling system is ALREADY leaking.
how nearby groundwater is contaminated by radioactive matter;
How about the leaking cooling system and the cracked basement? Is this seriously even a question?
how toxic water ends up in the sea
Rivers (even underground ones) flow out to the sea. Radioactive ground water becomes radioactive sea water. Did these overpaid TEPCO chaps never study geography at elementary school????
and how to contain water that could overwhelm the facility’s storage tanks.
How about recycling the stuff you have? Any elementary schooler will tell you that recycling is the way to go.
Run it through filters to remove the radioactive material. Reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters should remove most, but the results don't need to be perfect, just enough to make the water reusable to cool the reactor again. It would sure beat their current approach of contaminating billions of litres of water and then trying to store it (a stupid solution if ever there was one... what do they plan to do with all that water??).
... I am forced to conclude that most of TEPCO's "experts" didn't even pass elementary school.
SpeedAug. 03, 2013 - 08:48AM JST
The government really should call in international experts and make this a worldwide effort at containing this continuing disaster.
Harry_GattoAug. 03, 2013 - 09:00AM JST
Most of Japan is below sea level,.......
No it isn't; and then you go on to say
Did these overpaid TEPCO chaps never study geography at elementary school??
CrickyAug. 03, 2013 - 09:08AM JST
It is very regrettable that the outside world misunderstands TEPCOs pathetic mismanagement of the greatest N- Disaster ever known. Please understand they just want to make a profit. They have bills to pay and would really like everyone to not be interested in that situation north of Tokyo.
FrungyAug. 03, 2013 - 09:43AM JST
Harry_GattoAug. 03, 2013 - 09:00AM JST Most of Japan is below sea level,....... No it isn't; and then you go on to say
Okay, I deserved that. I'll correct my statement to be more accurate: "Most inhabited areas of Japan are below sea level, and this includes most areas where there are nuclear power stations".
Look at Fukushima after the Tsunami. Those huge pools of water that didn't drain away? That's because those areas are below sea level. The area where I live is all below sea level. Cities like Tokyo and Osaka might AVERAGE above sea level, but the land area is BELOW sea level, with hills and mountains considerably skewing the average.
How many houses do you see with basements in Japan? Virtually none. In fact most Japanese houses have special foundations designed to stop ground water seeping in because the ground water is so close to the surface. In some areas of Japan houses are even built ABOVE the ground (hence the "step up" in many ground floor apartment buildings) because otherwise they'd be below sea level and the building would collapse in a few decades because of water seepage.
Most topographic maps haven't been updated with the latest sea level data (hint: it has risen), but even on the old data a look at a topographic map shows that most heavily populated areas are BELOW sea level (maybe just by a few centimeters), and most of the nuclear power plants are below sea level.
Did these overpaid TEPCO chaps never study geography at elementary school?? Did you?
Oddly enough Japanese topography wasn't on the elementary school curriculum in my school... it being in a foreign country and all. However it IS part of the Japanese elementary school curriculum.
That you have failed to notice small details like the step up you take when entering most Japanese structures and paused to think about why it is there... well, that's not my bad.