Fukushima Cleanup Plan in Question

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. Today we begin in Japan, where the fallout from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant has been more than the radioactive kind. It's included a warning about the dangers of nuclear energy. Several countries have been reviewing their policies on nuclear power since the March disaster in Japan. Switzerland last week announced plans to phase out nuclear energy, and today Germany announced it will do the same. We're gonna have more on that story in just a minute. First, though, we go to The World's Marco Werman who is in Tokyo for the latest on the crisis in Fukushima; and the latest, Marco, came in the form of a surprisingly stark newspaper headline. What did it say?

MARCO WERMAN: Well, the headline, Lisa, in the Fukushima Minue newspaper today was: "Fukushima Crisis: Hopeless To Resolve It By Year's End," and in Japanese terms that's practically a confession by Tepco, the utility that owns and operates the plant Fukushima Daichi that they don't know what to do about it. As you may recall after the earthquake and tsunami, there were two hydrogen explosions at the plant. Cracks developed in the containment vessel where the nuclear fuel was located, and Tepco had to scramble to repair the cracks and get massive amounts of water in to the vessel. The plant is next to the ocean, so they used salt water, which was a mixed blessing, because there was plenty of it, but salt water was inevitably going to corrode and destroy the reactor. Still, it was better than a meltdown, but what to do with all that suddenly radioactive water? So, Tepco, along with technical assistance from the French company Areva, kind of a French G.E., came up with a plan to recirculate the water and keep the rods cool.

MULLINS: And is that an effective process? How's it working?

WERMAN: Well, I met yesterday with a man named Yukahedo Sato, he's head of a maintenance company named Able, that actually is subcontracted by Tepco at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He's got a hundred and fifty guys that work ten hour shifts at the plant. They're the ones actually installing the equipment from Arriva to do this water recirculation method. Yukahedo Sato himself has been in the plant more times than he can even remember since the accident, and I asked him whether the recirculation plan can really work.

[speaking Japanese]
WERMAN: He said this is the first time it's ever been done in human history and, though we've never tried this before, he said he thinks it can succeed.

MULLINS: Marco, what does that mean, though, for the workers at the plant who are continuing on the job as you said. Are they gonna continue to get dosed by radiation?

WERMAN: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, in some ways these guys are sacrificial lambs. But the economy of Fukushima Prefecture has been absolutely devastated by the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis, and these men can't afford to be without a job right now. Today I met with the former governor of Fukushima Prefecture, and he's been a frequent critic of Tepco, as well as the central government. He started to see evidence of collusion of the central government of Tokyo and Tepco, the utility, and Sato said that relationship has really become apparent with the use of sea water to cool the fuel rods.

[speaking Japanese]
WERMAN: So, Sato cited the example of how unbeknownst to the public, Tepco has temporarily suspended the injection of sea water in to the damaged reactor for about fifty-five minutes a day after the earthquake, but the government's nuclear safety commission didn't even bother to check Tepco's version of events. And if you need further evidence of the cozy relationship of the Japanese government and Tepco, look no further than the changes to maximum exposure to radiation for workers at the plant - a ceiling that was raised by the government after the March 11th disaster. Recently, the Japanese government raised that to two hundred and fifty millisieverts, or about five times the maximum level for U.S. workers. And it's just really hard to imagine that that couldn't have benefited Tepco in some way, to help them have those workers stay in the plant and take care of the potentially lethal jobs inside there.

MULLINS: All right. Thank you very much. From Tokyo, The World's Marco Worman, thanks, Marco.

WERMAN: You're welcome, Lisa.

MULLINS: Marco Worman has been blogging from Japan. His latest post is about his travels to the city hardest hit by the tsunami. You can follow along with Marco and videographer Emily Tagucci at theworld.org/blog.