Channel 4 News, 15 October 2013
The headlines are alarming: vast leaks of radioactive water, international experts being drafted in and spikes in radiation levels. But how bad is the situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant?
It looms, forbiddingly now, on the coast of Japan, flanked by the sea, forests and a huge nuclear exclusion zone.
Despite recent attempts to demystify the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant - Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even visited a few weeks ago - the truth behind what’s happening there and what it actually means for locals and the wider world remains difficult to obtain. And there could be worse to come.
In November, Tepco is due to carry out a new operation which could be the most risky since the early dark days of the initial crisis sparked by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Read more: What is happening at Fukushima?
The World Nuclear Report in 2013 said the operation had the potential to cause "by far the most serious radiological disaster to date" if it goes wrong. It warns of the possibility of apocalyptic scenarios including the evacuation of 10 million people in the surrounding area, including Tokyo.
The process involves moving around 400 tonnes of irradiated spent fuel from reactor 4, one of the four reactors damaged in the 2011 disaster. While the other three reactors went into meltdown and are still being cooled with water after other systems failed, the fourth was not operational at the time. However, it still has spent fuel in it which needs to be removed from the now highly unstable structure in case of any kind of earthquake hitting the plant again.
Challenges lie ahead at Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant (Getty)
Removing spent fuel is a normal procedure at a nuclear plant - but not in an environment with so many risks and unknowns, including whether the fuel assemblies have been damaged, which could lead to the radiation risks if the casings have been breached. The worst case scenario is if the fuel assemblies are dropped, which could ultimately lead to a partial meltdown - but that is not thought to be likely.
Professor Neil Hyatt, a nuclear expert at Sheffield University, told Channel 4 News reports have been "very clear on the worst that can happen", adding: "Is that feasible? Yes. Is it realistic? That’s hard to say. This is probably a world first in terms of the engineering challenge."
A Tepco spokeswoman added: "The removal of the fuels is an experienced technology used everywhere over the world. The risks are evaluated and well under control."
But it’s not the only challenge at Fukushima. Professor Hyatt points out that nobody is talking about the fuel still in the other three reactors, which are partially melted down and still require constant cooling.
"We don’t understand fully what the nature of the partially melted down core is. That’s ultimately a challenge we’ll need to address," he said. Tepco said its plans are to begin removing this debris within eight years - aiming for complete decommissioning within 40 years.
Mycle Schneider is the co-author of the World Nuclear Report which warned of such potentially dire consequences of November’s operation.
He was no less gloomy when Channel 4 News spoke to him - although that’s fairly predictable as after years advising the French and German governments, as an independent consultant he now has a reputation for being anti-nuclear.
"To me it’s been disastrous from day one. This disaster is of totally unprecedented dimensions," he said. "Tepco is a company that manages electricity generation plants, whether this is hydro or coal or nuclear. It is by no means a clean-up, disaster management, assembly of supermen that could deal spontaneously with issues like that."More...