A decade after the Fukushima meltdown, this Japanese region faces a new nightmare — radioactive water in the sea | Ralph-Lauren

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I won’t lie — I was a little nervous heading inside the destroyed nuclear plant at the centre of Japan’s 2011 nuclear accident.

It was a rare opportunity to look at how the clean-up effort was going 10 years on.

But weighing on my mind as I headed inside and took a look around was that this was of the most radioactive places on earth right now.

I’ve been inside Fukushima’s no-go zones, where the radiation levels are so high it’s unliveable and overgrown weeds entangle anything in their way — from abandoned homes, cars and even vending machines.

It is always an eerie experience seeing entire towns frozen in time and the stories from those who once called it home are equally chilling.

This is the first time I’ve been in the place responsible for it.

The mere mention of this region still conjures up a mix of fear, anxiety and images of swarms of people working away in full hazardous material suits.

But as I found out, a lot has changed.

It’s been 10 years since Japan’s worst nuclear accident, which was triggered by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country and a massive tsunami that wiped out everything in its path.

A young woman sits sobbing in the rubble of a destroyed village after an earthquake
The quake and subsequent tsunami killed nearly 13,000 people, left hundreds of thousands more homeless and triggered a nuclear reactor meltdown.(Reuters: Asahi Shimbun)

Yet the aftershocks from the devastating March 11 disaster continue to rattle these parts — the most recent occurring only a week ago.

Japan’s nuclear disaster site is still a hive of activity

When the tsunami hit the nuclear plant in 2011, it cut power and consequently cooling to three operational reactors.

At that point, only flooding the reactors with seawater could have cooled them quickly enough to avoid a meltdown.

But that decision was delayed because of fears it would permanently destroy the reactors.

By the time the government ordered the seawater to be used, it was too late. The nuclear fuel overheated and melted down.

Some of the reactors exploded and the twisted wreckage of the blast is still exposed today.

A damaged nuclear reactor
Some of the reactors exploded at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant blew up due to overheating.(ABC News: Jake Sturmer)

When I arrived at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I was given a radiation dosimeter and handed a plastic bag containing gloves, a mask and three pairs of socks.

I had been given specific instructions to put on one after the other.

The idea was to prevent any radioactive material from getting onto my pants — if it does, the officials jokingly told me, I’ll have to leave them there.

Once I’m ready, I follow an official through a maze-like path to the Whole Body Counter room.

That’s where I have a scan that measures the existing radiation levels inside my body so they can check how much I have been exposed to throughout the day.

It’s a bustling hive of activity — there are thousands of workers here and as we pass by many say ‘otsukaresama deshita’, a Japanese phrase that loosely translates to ‘thank you for your service’.

We’re accompanied and guided by several officials from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

A man in a hazmat suit
The process of decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant will likely go on for decades.(Supplied: Juntaro Ishikawa)

A lot has changed here in the 10 years since the nuclear disaster — so much radioactive rubble has been removed, you can walk through 96 per cent of the plant in regular clothes.

In fact, the mask and gloves I’m given are more for COVID-19 protection than dust and radiation.

The long process of removing 800 tones of radioactive fuel

TEPCO has spent the last 10 years trying to cool and stabilise the three reactors so that they can eventually start to remove the molten fuel debris that sits inside them.

As we pull up to the destroyed reactors, which contain more than 800 tonnes of highly radioactive molten nuclear fuel, we can see many workers in full protective equipment heavily involved in the decontamination effort.

Three people in hazmat
The biggest challenge for operators at the Fukushima plant is what to do with a million tonnes of contaminated water.(Supplied: Juntaro Ishikawa)

In the space of just a few steps, radiation levels spike from 80 microsieverts an hour to 100. At the same time, my radiation alarm goes off to tell me I’ve accumulated 0.02 millisieverts of radiation while at the plant.

It’s about the same as a chest x-ray and nothing to be worried about at this stage — but our minders tell us we shouldn’t spend too much more time here.

It’s estimated the full clean-up effort will take another 30-40 years, though some experts feel this is optimistic.

The company was hoping to start removal of the highly radioactive debris this year, but the coronavirus pandemic will prevent that from happening.

“We are planning to remove the fuel debris from Unit 2 using a robot arm and the plan was to make the arm and carry out a performance test in the UK,” TEPCO’s Yoshinori Takahashi told me.

“But because of the coronavirus, the manufacturing process and testing has been delayed.”

The delay could be up to 12 months. But that is not the most pressing issue facing TEPCO.

How do you remove a million tonnes of contaminated water?

All of the water that touches the highly radioactive molten fuel also becomes contaminated.

The water is processed to remove more than 60 different types of radioactive materials from it, but the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) doesn’t completely purify the water.

The radioactive element, tritium, remains inside all of the stored water, albeit at “low” levels, according to TEPCO.

Currently, 1.2 million tonnes of contaminated water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks spanning the entire power plant facility. But by the end of next year, the tanks and the site will be full.

A group of grey and white tanks sit side by side near a body of water.
The contaminated water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks at the plant.(Supplied: Juntaro Ishikawa)

The Japanese government is now weighing up what to do next.

A panel of experts has recommended disposing of it in the ocean as the most practical option as opposed to releasing it into the air, which TEPCO said would be more difficult to monitor.

Mr Takahashi said tritium was a weak form of radiation and that the water would be released in such limited quantities over such a long period that it would be safe.

But for those who make their living from the part of the ocean where TEPCO is proposing to dump its contaminated water, they fear the damage this poses to their reputation.

That includes Haruo Ono, who has been fishing in Fukushima’s waters for 50 years.

Fisherman worried about what water release will mean for their livelihoods

Mr Ono can only go out to fish a few days per week because of restrictions imposed by the Government, which are designed to prevent Fukushima fish from being left unsold at markets and to shore up prices.

The nuclear meltdown destroyed his livelihood and since 2011, he said it had been an extraordinary challenge to convince people that Fukushima fish was safe.

A man in a red puffy coat holding a bunch of fishing nets and rope on a boat
Fisherman Haruo Ono has vowed to work until he’s 100 years old so he can see the Fukushima nuclear plant decommissioned.(ABC News: Yumi Asada)

Although most fishermen are receiving compensation payments from TEPCO to cover their revenue shortfalls, he fears that if contaminated water is released into the ocean, it will finish off the industry for good.

“They say it’s OK to release tritium, but what do consumers think? We can’t sell fish because the consumers say no,” he said.

The 70-year-old is opposed to the scheme and says he’s hoping to watch the decommissioning first-hand over the next 30-40 years.

“I’ll work until 100 years old — I want to watch [the decommissioning] with my own eyes as I’m worried,” he said.

“Once it’s decommissioned, the beautiful water will return.

“[But] If they released tritium every day for 30 years, do you think people will buy fish from there?

“I absolutely don’t think so.”

Mr Ono lost his brother and all of his possessions in the March 2011 tsunami and is worried about what the proposal will mean for Fukushima.

“Why does Fukushima have to suffer the most?” he said.

“We were victims once, why do they have to release it in Fukushima?”

TEPCO said other nuclear power plants in the world already release tritium water, but the company admitted it was not sure if there was also fishing around these areas.

Fukushima looks to a future free from decontamination

At Katsumasa Okawa’s fish shop in Iwaki, south of the plant, his business halved overnight after the nuclear disaster.

A man in a face mask and apron filleting fish at a sink
Katsumasa Okawa, who runs a fish shop that has been in business for 111 years, says the nuclear accident affected his profits.(ABC News: Jake Sturmer)

It’s taken 10 years, but the fish shop, which has been open since 1910, is now back to around 80 per cent of their pre-accident levels.

Given the limited access to fish from Fukushima, Mr Okawa has had to sell produce from all over the world.

But he’s continued to fight to prove the safety of the fish he sold.

“The fish from Fukushima is safe, radiation tests are still carried out every week,” he said, having started testing two months after the nuclear accident.

“Now it’s harder to find a fish that shows radiation — it’s almost the same as fish from other areas so I hope people will enjoy them.”

Like other locals, Mr Okawa just wants the plant decommissioned as soon as possible.

So while it may pose a threat to his business, he reluctantly supports the idea of releasing the plant’s contaminated water into the ocean.

“I feel I have to accept some sort of damage or negative element,” he said.

“Tritium water from nuclear plants is discharged all around the world, so I hope many people will understand that.”



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