February 8th, 2019 by Joshua S Hill
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed its fourth review mission in November of Japan’s efforts in decommissioning and cleaning up the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following the disastrous but accidental nuclear disaster of March 2011 and has urged patience and public transparency as radioactive fuel debris is removed.
It has been nearly eight years since I began covering the nuclear disaster which took place at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in the Ōkuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. In what was a dramatically unfortunate chain of events — starting with the magnitude 9 Tōhoku earthquake which caused a mammoth tsunami that swept across the Japanese mainland and killed tens of thousands of people — the tsunami disabled emergency generators at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, preventing operators from controlling and operating the pumps needed to cool the reactors. This lack of cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material from Units 1, 2, and 3.
In the time since the disaster the power plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has been working hand-in-hand with the Japanese Government and the International Atomic Energy Agency to begin the long task of cleaning up and decommissioning the site safely. The IAEA has sent several teams of experts to assess and provide expert advice over the years as TEPCO and other government entities have worked to mitigate and prevent any further contamination and leakages. While the cleanup has not been without its issues, and contamination has occurred throughout the aftermath of the disaster, the mission report of the International Peer Review Mission on Mid-and-Long-Term Roadmap Towards the Decommissioning of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station — which was completed in November 2018 — revealed “that significant progress has already been accomplished to move Fukushima Daiichi from an emergency situation to a stabilized situation” and that this progress “should allow the focus of more resources for detailed planning and implementation of the decommissioning project of the whole site with considerations extended up to the completion of the decommissioning.”
“Given the severity of the challenges faced from the outset of the accident, one can only be impressed by the dedication and the achievements of the people involved,” said team leader Christophe Xerri, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, in November. “Despite these achievements, many challenges remain to be tackled in the decommissioning process, and ensuring safety in this complex situation requires sustained daily attention.”
The new report follows up on original analysis presented to Japanese authorities in November and finds that the “risk reduction strategy is being implemented at a pace commensurate with the challenges of the site-specific situation.” That being said, however, “the IAEA Review Team continues to identify water management as critical to the sustainability of decommissioning activities” and has urged for a decision for the disposition of contaminated water to “be taken urgently engaging all stakeholders.”
Specifically, the IAEA Review Team determined that it is necessary to determine an end-game for the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) sooner rather than later, considering that “the volume of ALPS treated water [is] expected to reach the planned tank capacity of 1.37 million [metres-cubed] within the coming three to four years, and considering current site facility plan for space allocations, and that further treatment and control of the stored water before disposition would be needed for implementation of any of the five solutions considered by the Japanese Government.” (For more on TEPCO’s contaminated water treatment, see here.)
Further, but regarding the retrieval and end-game of radioactive fuel debris, the report’s authors state that “there should be a clear implementation plan defined to safely manage the retrieved material” and that “TEPCO should ensure that appropriate containers and storage capacity are available before starting the fuel debris retrieval.”
There is therefore need for immediate decisionmaking but long-term patience and goals in place to thoroughly address the large amount of radioactive and contaminated waste. The Associated Press recently quoted Dale Klein, a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who heads a TEPCO reform committee, as saying in a recent interview that the Fukushima Daiichi decommissioning should not be rushed, despite the desire to wrap this up as quickly as possible. “It’s much better to do it right than do it fast,” he said, adding that, “Clearly, the longer you wait, the less the radiation is.” Klein added that he would be “astounded” if the current schedule remains unchanged throughout the long-term process.
The full report can be read here (PDF)
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