On Monday, just one day after Japan’s pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner New Komeito won the Upper House election, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) – the operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – confirmed that radioactive groundwater from the plant is leaking into the sea. This comes only weeks after saying that the very same toxic water was probably being contained within the plant.
It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t a scientist to try and make sense of what’s going on at the Fukushima plant. It was ravaged by a tsunami two years ago and has been the subject of an ongoing containment struggle ever since. Earlier this month, Tepco said that levels of cesium recorded in groundwater samples had rocketed in only a few days – something they simply couldn’t explain. Tepco has also recently revealed that nearly 2,000 workers at the plant have been exposed to enough radiation to increase a risk of thyroid cancer – 10 times higher than the previous estimate of 178 workers.
Is it any wonder the governor of Niigata recently rebuffed Tepco’s moves to restart two of its nuclear reactors in the prefecture?
Tepco is adamant that news of the radioactive water leaking into the ocean shouldn’t be of any concern since seawater radiation levels are normal but they seem to be missing the point entirely. Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, described the revelation as “shocking” and completely at odds with Tepco’s previous explanations. Given how much Fukushima’s agricultural industry has already suffered, you might think that transparency is the least they can expect.
Perhaps curiously to outsiders, the situation at Fukushima barely registered in either this election or the one in December that brought Shinzo Abe back to power with a thumping victory. The economy apparently trumps all other concerns. The powerful utility companies will have been heartened by Sunday’s election as the LDP looks set to push for the restart of Japan’s idle nuclear reactors.
On Tuesday, steam was seen to be coming out of Fukushima’s No 3 reactor for the second time in only a few days. The Nuclear Regulation Authority castigated Tepco for its cursory explanation last week and told them to investigate further. Not that it’s easy – the reactor is still too dangerous for workers to enter and an investigation involves scrutinising a camera feed while debris is removed by remote control. Tepco says it doesn’t know what is causing the vapour but offered up a theory that rainwater falling on a piping-hot containment vessel might be the cause.
It might seem an odd thing to say but Tepco – which only survives thanks to the public purse – has been lucky. The fact that it has managed to contain Fukushima and avert an even worse disaster seems nothing short of a miracle.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.