Like the hundreds of tons of radioactive water now streaming daily into the Pacific Ocean off the Japanese coast, the bad news from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant just keeps coming. Stanching the flow and getting the Fukushima cleanup on track are critical not only to health and safety, but also to the future of nuclear energy in Japan and elsewhere, and to the credibility of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government.
The latest scare came last week, with the announcement that 300 tons of highly contaminated water had leaked from one of more than 1,000 storage tanks near the shoreline. On Aug. 21, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority raised its estimation of the seriousness of the incident from a 1 to a 3 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and original 2011 meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima both ranked at 7, the scale’s highest level). With more than 300,000 tons of contaminated water already in storage, and 400 tons of groundwater being added every day, the authority sees the threat of more leaky tanks as its biggest concern.
Unfortunately, Tepco’s record in disclosing, let alone handling, such contamination inspires mistrust, not confidence. After denying for months that radioactive groundwater was leaking into the ocean, for instance, it switched gears and fessed up the day after Abe’s pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party cemented its legislative majority in upper house elections.
Such obfuscations have come on top of widely reported incidents — a mysterious cloud of steam rising from one of the crippled reactors, a 29-hour power failure to a cooling pool — that suggest Tepco can’t handle the decommissioning and cleanup. Last week, company executives broke from form and wisely admitted that they will need outside help to solve the complex problem of groundwater runoff flowing from the mountains to the sea under the foundations of the plant.
On Aug. 7, Abe opened the door to that help when he pledged that “we will not leave this to Tepco, but put together a government strategy.” Given Tepco’s hapless record, this would be an auspicious moment to put that strategy in place and increase government control over the company. Despite providing 1 trillion yen ($12.5 billion) and obtaining 50.1 percent of Tepco voting rights in 2012, the government has left company decisions to management. In taking on Tepco’s liabilities, it has treated the company as “too big to fail,” creating a moral hazard for other nuclear operators. As disruptive and expensive as it may be, nationalization may be the only way to ensure a thorough cleanup, one that doesn’t put the return to profitability ahead of public safety.
In the meantime, Japan needs to aggressively solicit outside expertise — the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for instance, has yet to receive a formal request for assistance — to solve Fukushima’s groundwater problem. And Japan’s nuclear power authority would do well to devote less of its limited resources to recertifying reactors for restarts and more to monitoring the Fukushima cleanup and ensuring that the public is kept reliably informed.
Restarting Japan’s reactors is critical to Abe’s plans to reinvigorate Japan’s economy, which has been saddled with higher energy import costs since they were taken offline. Yet even Japan’s most ardent nuclear proponents must recognize that failure to decisively address the Fukushima mess is making that prospect more remote. And Fukushima’s corrosive impact on support for nuclear energy, a climate-friendly part of the energy mix, extends beyond Japan’s shores to some of its would- be nuclear customers.
In short, if Abe wants to redeem Japan’s nuclear industry, jump-start its economy, and perhaps increase the odds of removing the radioactive pall over Tokyo’s bid to land the 2020 Olympics, he needs to start at ground zero and work up from there.