Fukushima: Not enough knowledge for solution yet

Two years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japanese authorities and specialists are presented with a new challenge of radioactive water leakage, leaving them stumped as to what a long-term solution might look like.

Nuclear energy expert Malcolm Grimston explains that everything hinges on how much we learn about the nature of the problem – one that includes a number of factors that TEPCO, the plant’s operator, was simply not prepared to consider.

But Grimston is optimistic, saying that it is unlikely that people in the region are going to suffer any direct health effect in the long run. The main concern, he believes, is deciding what level of contamination is acceptable or not acceptable - which is what will take the time.

RT:Why did the plant operators fail to contain the leak, in your opinion?

Malcolm Grimston: It is a natural flow of groundwater from the hills around Fukushima towards the sea, which has reached the plant, which is mixing with radioactive water that has been used to cool the damaged reactors. And the danger is that this mixed water continues its passage towards the sea.  

It is quite a challenging job given the amount of water we are talking about. To prevent that they did manage to build an effective underground wall that has been containing most of this water for the last two years. But water is now beginning to come over the top of that wall. And that is what is beginning to come down to the sea. We do not know at the moment how much of the material there is. It is unlikely to be connected with the heath problem, but nonetheless, clearly it is not a good thing – a radioactive material leaking to the sea.

RT:The cleanup may take 40 years. Why so long?

MG: Oh, indeed. I mean, firstly, because we are still learning, and we will be learning for some time what actually happened in the plants. Until it is very clear for example how much fuel melted and where that fuel is now. Then they will be able to start designing a long-term approach to that sort of challenge. So it will take a long time to put this right. Decades, I think, is the right sort of estimate. That is a very different thing from saying that the plant will represent a major threat for decades. I do not think that is the case. But at the moment there is simply not enough knowledge to know how big the task is. That alone would be enough to be starting to design some of the response to it.

RT:What about the long-term effects of the radiation for Japan and the neighboring countries?  

MG: Well, in health terms it is very unlikely that anybody is going to suffer any direct health effect from this. Both because the levels, compared to natural levels of radioactivity, are pretty low and also because some quite effective countermeasures have been taken – people were given tablets to prevent the short-term effects there.

The main long-term effect will be a decision being taken over what level of contamination is acceptable or not acceptable, which is what will take the time. But I think certainly, even after Chernobyl, the number of direct deaths associated with that accident is still actually only in a few tens approaching a hundred, but not more than that. And any longer-term issues there will be very minor compared to the numbers of cancers and other effects in the population at large.

RT:Japan is Asia’s second economy. How has the Fukushima disaster affected Tokyo’s standing?

MG: Well, in a very many ways it has been extremely serious. For one thing, Japan, even before Fukushima was a very major energy importer, it now has to import even more liquid natural gas to take the place of its nuclear output, which is expensive. Its greenhouse gas emissions are going through the roof; it’s breaching all of its greenhouse gas targets, because of course nuclear power does not contribute to climate change, but the alternatives do. And they are also facing power shortages. They’ve had to reduce power use very dramatically over things such as air conditioning. That in itself has health effects, and so there is vigorous debate over bringing back online some of them existing nuclear power stations.

But Japan is an island [sic] without its own natural resources – energy has always been a massive challenge for Japan. Quite apart from what I think it is very clearly that the regulatory structures in some of it measure companies clearly were not up to the job and, indeed, in some cases were quite clearly behaving dishonestly.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.