As Japan finally allows residents living near to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant back to their homes, the world is stopping to review the progress that has been made there over the past three years.
The area has been sealed off since the nuclear plant suffered severe damage after an earthquake and tsunami back in March 2011, but the Japanese authorities have now deemed it safe to lift an evacuation order and allow 350 residents to return to their homes in an area 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the site.
This tentative move is almost insignificant if one remembers that 98,000 people are still displaced and living in temporary shelters, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. That is, if the area is indeed safe and the act is not just a show of faith, in an attempt to indicate to the rest of the world that progress is being made in the clean-up operation, which has been harshly criticized due to a series of leaks and blunders.
Plans are also being made by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority to restart up to ten of the country's nuclear reactors, which have lain dormant since the disaster. Japan used to be Asia's largest producer of nuclear power, with nuclear reactors producing around 30 per cent of the country's power supply, with this figure set to exceed 40 per cent by the year 2017, but the industry ground to an abrupt halt when the earthquake and tsunami decimated much of the country.
This will not be a popular move amongst the majority of Japanese people, who have had their confidence in nuclear power shattered by the impact of the catastrophe. In March, a poll by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper suggested that 69 per cent of the Japanese population were now opposed to the use of nuclear plants.
The numerous incidents, including radiation leaks, at the Fukushima plant during the three year clean-up operation have not helped to build confidence, so naturally there are concerns over the capabilities of the industry to cope with similar events in the future. Seth Grae, chief executive officer of Lightbridge (LTBR), a McLean (Va.)-based developer of nuclear fuels, told Bloomberg Television on Feb. 26 that even before the tsunami, Japanese nuclear plants “were not up to the highest of international standards.”
A recent report from Asia Pacific highlighted one of the key factors that may be influencing the success of the decontamination programme: it is becoming increasingly difficult for the authorities to find skilled workers who are prepared to work at the devastated site, and consequently the workforce now comprises a poorly trained and unskilled collection of staff.
Perhaps this is not too surprising, when the online recruitment advert reads:
“Out of work? Nowhere to live? Nowhere to go? Nothing to eat? Come to Fukushima.”
The decommissioning of the site exposes workers to extremely hazardous conditions, making it a very unattractive prospect for the average nuclear industry worker. Company records suggest that contract workers at Fukushima Daiichi receive more than twice the radiation exposure of other Tepco employees. The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, (Tepco), has therefore been reduced to targeting the poor and homeless in order to recruit sufficient numbers of staff to keep the decommissioning programme going.
“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”
The situation at Fukushima is further compounded by the fact that Tepco are now focusing much of their attention onto another site at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which it hopes to reactivate later this year. The decommission effort appears to have been relegated into second place, with fewer resources now being applied to address the problem of the decimated plant. Rates of pay for Fukushima workers have plummeted, scaring off qualified workers and attracting only desperate contract workers with few other options, and these apparently assembled by transient labor-brokers with suspected links to mob culture. Rumor has it that Japan’s largest organized crime groups, or yakuza, have long been associated with the supply of contract workers for the nuclear industry, but this situation has apparently become the norm at Fukushima.
Virtually no skills are necessary to be hired to work at the plant, as a recent advert for work involving radiation monitoring indicates. The ad states: “You must have common sense, and be able to carry out a conversation.”
There are reports of totally unskilled workers being given just a twenty minute training session before attempting to undertake work on the plant, with no reference to safety procedures, and with many of the workers unaware that they would be handling water contaminated with radioactive cesium. This issue is not only preventing the clean-up operation from progressing, but there are real concerns that the inexperienced workers could inadvertently initiate an even worse disaster at the plant in the future.
After a recent and very significant leak at the plant, Tepco remained tight-lipped when queried about its recruitment techniques, but regulatory filings indicate that workers onsite were hired just one week beforehand. The company also refused to confirm whether the workers were procured through labor brokers, but at a news conference last month, chief nuclear regulator Shunichi Tanaka, stated:
“There is a subcontracting structure that means even workers from third- or fourth-level contractors work at the site, and Tepco does not have a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground.”
The leak occurred when the obviously inexperienced workers failed to react to an overflow alarm triggered when an influx of contaminated water was mistakenly diverted into the wrong tank.
“It’s an extremely elementary mistake,” Toyoshi Fuketa, a commissioner at the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said at a recent hearing. “If a fire alarm went off in your house, you’d be worried, let alone a nuclear power plant.”
Yoshitatsu Uechi, a former bus driver and construction worker who has never before worked at a nuclear plant, told of his own experiences at Fukushima, saying that he pointed out serious issues not just to site managers, but directly to Tepco.
“I spoke out many times on the defects, but nobody listened,” said Mr. Uechi, who added that he rarely saw any managers from Tepco visiting the plant.
If the management of the clean-up operation ongoing at Fukushima is any indication of the industry's ability to cope with such disasters, then it appears that Japan should implement new nuclear sites with extreme caution.
The global effects of the event have so far been deemed to be low-impact, but critics argue that the true facts are being obfuscated and negative consequences are being noted around the world, particular in areas along the Pacific Coast of the United States. Fish are being found with growths and deformities, and recently, seafood products sold in Canadian shops have been found with elevated levels of radiation.
The surprise findings were made by Canadian high school student, Bronwyn Delacruz, whose school science project revealed high levels of radiation in seafood that she bought at a grocery store. Bronwyn used her own $600 geiger counter to test seafood samples bought at various different grocery stores, and discovered that many of them were significantly contaminated with radiation, particularly those that had been imported from Japan's near neighbour, China.
“Some of the kelp that I found was higher than what the International Atomic Energy Agency sets as radioactive contamination, which is 1,450 counts over a 10-minute period,” she said. “Some of my samples came up as 1,700 or 1,800.”
Investigating further, Bronwyn was appalled to learn that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) had discontinued the testing of imported foods for radiation in 2012. This despite a report from the Vancouver Sun back in 2012, which revealed that cesium-137 was being found in a very high percentage of the fish that Japan was selling to Canada:
• 73 percent of the mackerel
• 91 percent of the halibut
• 92 percent of the sardines
• 93 percent of the tuna and eel
• 94 percent of the cod and anchovies
• 100 percent of the carp, seaweed, shark and monkfish.
Why the Canadian government decided to cease testing is not clear, but mounting evidence suggests that governments worldwide need to start taking the risk from Fukushima much more seriously. The decommissioning programme should be more closely monitored by a global committee, and the risks of contamination should be assessed honestly and pragmatically, with steps taken to monitor the spread.
There is no doubt that the legacy of that fateful day in Japan lingers on and on, and it is likely that the worst is yet to come.
Linda Moulton How is presenting a special report about Fukushima on Dreamland - be sure to subscribe now and listen to what is sure to be a fascinating show.