Three Years Later, A Harrowing Visit To Fukushima

Feb 15, 2014
Originally published on February 16, 2014 10:46 pm

On Thursday night, I stayed at a motel in the town of Hirono, just outside a restricted zone in Fukushima Prefecture. The motel's residents were all men, all apparently working on the cleanup of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, where three reactors melted down and a fourth caught on fire after a quake and tsunami in 2011.

I was told that, except for a few elderly residents, most of Hirono's inhabitants had left for other places.

In the motel's restaurant, as the workers dined on chicken cutlets, rice and miso soup, they said they had come from all over the country to work at the nuclear plant. They added that they were lucky to be staying in a motel; the plant's operator is mostly using subcontractors to supply labor, which drives down the pay and tends to leave the poorest workers living in crowded dormitories.

Workers and labor activists say that Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, is subcontracting the work out to avoid taking direct responsibility — financial and otherwise — for the dangers the workers face each day at the plant.

On Friday morning, I traveled to the nuclear plant through towns that were either completely abandoned or where residents are occasionally allowed to return to tend to their homes. I was checked for radiation levels, and then wrapped in multiple layers of protective clothing, a mask, respirator and dosimeter to measure radiation.

Feeling a bit like a scuba diver, I awkwardly followed TEPCO staff into the damaged No. 4 reactor. I clambered up scaffolding past mounds of dusty debris under the main fuel storage pool. This reactor was not operating when the quake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. The roof of the structure was blown off by a hydrogen explosion, but the reactor core did not melt down, unlike those in reactors 1 through 3.

TEPCO personnel showed me new, reinforced walls, which they told me could resist the force of another quake of the same 9.0-magnitude as the one in 2011. They also showed me a giant crane with a mechanical arm picking up nuclear fuel rods and putting them into a metal cask to be taken out of the reactor and stored nearby. TEPCO engineers told me that this was a routine procedure and that they had conducted tests and developed contingency measures to prevent accidents while moving the rods.

But recent days and weeks have brought embarrassing news for TEPCO, including that levels of radioactive strontium in wells in the plant were reported months late, and were 10 times lower than the actual amount. TEPCO says it was a measurement error. Japan's nuclear regulator slammed TEPCO, saying it lacks basic understanding of measuring and handling radiation.

Some critics say that TEPCO can't be trusted and that the world's largest nuclear accident is still waiting to happen at Fukushima, such as an accidental nuclear reaction that releases large amounts of harmful radiation into the air. TEPCO dismisses predictions like this as alarmist. Japanese themselves are highly divided on the issue, just as they are about whether or not their country should continue to rely on nuclear power, which previously supplied up to a third of their electricity.

One thing that seems certain is that the work of cleaning up and shutting down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will go on for a long time. TEPCO predicts it could last 30 or 40 years. Others say that estimate is blindly optimistic.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The cleanup at the crippled nuclear reactor at Fukushima, Japan has been plagued by problems. Contaminated water has leaked into the ocean, radiation levels are higher than originally announced and the Japanese public is suspicious that the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, isn't telling the whole story. Next month is the three-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear disaster, and yesterday NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Fukushima and went inside one of the reactors. He joins us now from Tokyo. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What did you see inside that reactor?

KUHN: Well, the highlight of the tour was going inside the number four reactor, where they're in the process of removing spent and unused fuel rods. And they were trying to show me and trying to show the public, first of all, that they've reinforced the whole structure against any further earthquakes or tsunamis, that they are safely removing the fuel rods that are in there, and that they are trying to block contaminated water from flowing from the mountains through the plant and into the Pacific.

SIMON: Did you see the other reactors?

KUHN: The crucial ones I could not go into, and reactors one through three suffered partial meltdowns. And as a result, there is so much radiation in there that they cannot send people in there to look. They have to use robots and remote cameras to try to find out what's going on. But they still don't know exactly how bad the damage is from those partial meltdowns. They're not going to start dealing with that part of the thing until 2020, and the whole process of shutting down the plant could take 30 or 40 years, by TEPCO's estimates.

SIMON: And what problems have they been having just recently even in the clean-up?

KUHN: It's been a very tough week or few weeks for TEPCO. There's been word that there's too much cobalt radiation in reactor number four. The really harsh judgment came from Japan's nuclear regulatory agency, which says that TEPCO just doesn't know how to measure or handle radiation, and that's a regulator that was, you know, that has been accused of being too cozy with TEPCO. So, they're really struggling to regain the public's trust, and that's why I was allowed in there.

SIMON: Anthony, there's a lot of nuclear radioactive material at the plant. What are the dangers of another accident, another disaster?

KUHN: Well, experts and the public are very divided about this matter, as they are on the whole issue of nuclear power in Japan. Critics point out that a lot of the technology for removing the melted reactor cores and stopping radioactive water from going to the sea is still untested. TEPCO emphasized to me that they have multiple contingency plans in place to deal with every possible scenario. And they say they're making progress. At the same time, they admit that none of this is 100 percent risk-free.

SIMON: Anthony, may I ask, how are you?

KUHN: I feel good enough. I don't feel eradiated. I was wrapped from head to toe in protective gear, including three layers of gloves, a suit, a face mask, a respirator and a dosimeter, which measures radiation. It was uncomfortable, but I was only in there for a couple of hours. And then I came out. They scanned me numerous times. And at the end of the day, TEPCO's judgment was that I had absorbed about as much radiation as a chest X-ray. But who's to say?

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Tokyo. Thanks so much for being with us, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.