The meltdowns of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant may have happened more than two years ago, but the disaster remains a giant, unresolved mess.
An earthquake in 2011 triggered a tsunami which slammed into the plant, disabling it. The threat of radiation forced neighbors to evacuate and many still can’t return to their homes. Authorities face many challenges before they can make the facility safe again for the long term.
Data published in August shows 44 out of 216,809 children under age 18 in Fukushima prefecture were diagnosed with thyroid cancer or suspected of having the disease. The figure is far higher than the international average but opinions are split as to whether this is because of the nuclear accident or because of more sensitive screening. Also, health experts say it takes years after radiation exposure to develop thyroid cancer, which suggests the cause of the cancer may predate the tsunami.
The most immediate problem for plant operator Tepco is the hundreds of tons of water poured over the damaged nuclear reactors every single day to keep the molten fuel cool. If the fuel is not kept cool, it could cause another disaster.
That radioactive water then needs to be stored safely. But several on-site water storage tanks that were originally designed to be temporary have sprung leaks. Tepco said last summer that as much as 300 tons of toxic groundwater was seeping into the Pacific Ocean every day, sparking fears about radioactive contamination of fish, which are a major food source.
Situation Still ‘Tenuous’ at Fukushima
Japan had thus far taken the view that it didn’t need any help — certainly not from abroad — and that TEPCO would take care of things. This is despite the fact that the company is an energy provider, with little more experience in complex disaster management than a commensurate energy company in Germany would have.
Accordingly, the situation at Fukushima two and a half years after the nuclear meltdown can at best be described as tenuous. Rather than implementing a clearly thought-out disaster management plan, TEPCO’s approach has been a haphazard patchwork.