Fukushima Leaks Up the Ante for Japanese Government

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston.

[Shinzo Abe, speaking Japanese]

Werman: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today, announcing that his government is taking over a key part of the effort to stop further leaks of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. He said, "the world is closely watching whether we can dismantle the plant, including the issue of contaminated water." That comes amid revelations about how contaminated water is leaking into the ground and the sea around the plant, which you will remember suffered a triple meltdown when it was hit by a tsunami in 2011. Jeff Kingston directs the Asian Studies program at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. He says the government's move and even the revelations of the leaks themselves are the latest steps in a delicate dance between Abe's party and the utility that owns the plant, TEPCO.

Jeff Kingston: Actually the suspicion is that they postponed the revelations until after the elections because they didn't want to harm the LDP's chances to win those elections. The Liberal Democratic Party is most closely associated with building up Japan's nuclear energy capacity. More bad news on nuclear energy would have been bad news for the LDP, so there's a lot of suspicion that this news was postponed and the quid pro quo was that Abe then said, well, we're going to step in and take over this mess. And one thing they've done is they've begun to tap international expertise and skills, something that the International Atomic Energy Agency advised TEPCO to do. But TEPCO relied on industry insiders, on Japanese firms, and that has led to the mess that we have.

Werman: So now there's this announcement of this new technology, freezing the radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Did that come about partly from this outreach to foreign expertise?

Kingston: Yeah, I think that actually one of the Japanese construction companies suggested it. This is not a radical new technology. The thing that's different is the scale, and it's going to have to be maintained for quite a long time. There's also complicating factors. This technology has never been used in radioactively contaminated soil. And the other problem is this soil is unstable, so in the event of a large earthquake, this area is prone to liquefaction, which would also create havoc with a frozen wall, so there are problems looming ahead.

Werman: So with all this uncertainty, is this going to be good for Prime Minister Abe? He now basically owns the Fukushima problem.

Kingston: Yeah, well, the thing is he can't do a whole lot worse than TEPCO. They sort of are representing the Homer Simpson school of nuclear safety, so I think that Abe's government is quite confident that they can do better. But it's a deep hole to dig out of, Japanese public skepticism has skyrocketed, so Abe's agenda to fast track restarts of nuclear reactors clearly is undermined by the recent revelations and spiking public concerns.

Werman: Yeah, I'll say, if his economic plans hinge on nuclear power, isn't that going to be a near impossible circle to square given the public opposition?

Kingston: Well, yeah, but a lot of people don't think nuclear energy is so cheap. In the last year alone, Japan has ramped up enough renewable energy to replace the capacity of two nuclear reactors, and so a lot of people are arguing it makes more economic sense and also improves Japan's disaster preparedness, if it tries dispersed renewable energy, and this could in a sense boost Japan's green technologies, and that's a very attractive global market.

Werman: Back for a minute to Fukushima itself, how do all the revelations of the last month about leaking radioactive water complicate the plans to actually stabilize and clean up the site, not to mention other parts of Tohoku which are affected?

Kingston: Yeah, the whole decommissioning process doesn't appear to have progressed very far. The government has declared that the nuclear reactors are stable, but obviously that's not true because the only reason that the reactors are kept at a low temperature is because of the circulating water. But the more water that they circulate through the reactors, the more toxic water accumulates and the more problems they have in storing it and trying to filter it. So the nuclear regulation authority chief yesterday gave a news conference in which he said, well, you know, we're going to have to dump this water eventually into the ocean. That's really the only viable solution, and that doesn't leave a lot of people feeling all that good.

Werman: That's Jeff Kingston, who directs the Asian Studies program at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. You can hear more of our coverage of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, including a look at what might be happening to all that water once it reaches the ocean. That's at TheWorld.org.