Fukushima leak: Who will clean up the mess?

Japanese officials have said they will step up their role in the cleanup of the Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, widely regarded as bungled by the plant's operator. But to what extent should the government aid in the cleanup, and is the help too little, too late?

Issei Kato/Reuters/File
Workers move waste containing radiated soil, leaves and debris from the decontamination operation at a storage site in Naraha town, near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The Japanese government has said it will step up its involvement on concerns that the crippled plant's operator has largely bungled the containment of leaking radioactive water.

The cleanup at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant continues more than two years after the disaster in March 2011. Leaks and errors have plagued the process, leading many to wonder who is in charge, and – perhaps more importantly – who should be in charge?

The Japanese government has said it will step up its involvement amid concerns that Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the crippled plant's operator, has largely bungled the containment of leaking radioactive water. But some say it's too little, too late, and a Japanese official reiterated Wednesday that Tepco is ultimately responsible for the Fukushima problem. 

“This is Tepco’s plant," Tatsuya Shinkawa, director of the nuclear accident response office at Japan's ministry of economy, trade and industry, said as reported by the Financial Times. "It has all the technology, all the maps, all the technical data on Fukushima Daiichi. I think [it] can control the situation, under oversight from the government.”

What it doesn't have, some argue, are the resources and urgency to correct the continuing leakage, which what is a complex, fast-moving problem. That has led to a series of missteps and misinformation, experts say, that has eroded the public's confidence in the cleanup process. 

"If the government wants to win back the trust of the people - which it and Tepco lost due to a lack of information release on radioactivity when the accident first occurred - it needs to aggressively handle the ongoing leaks at Fukushima," Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University, wrote in an e-mail.

That trust is particularly crucial for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sees nuclear power as critical to Japan's economic future. All but two of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors remain shuttered in the wake of Fukushima. The Abe administration is working to change that but faces an uphill battle against public opposition.

There are also questions of long-term public health issues in the wake of the disaster. Most analysts suggest the current threat to local populations is minimal, despite the high quantity of leakages at the site. But the situation is unstable and circumstances could quickly change. On Wednesday, Japan's nuclear regulator officially upgraded the severity of the plant's most recent leak. 

Many question whether a mostly private enterprise, itself financially unstable, is qualified to neutrally assess the long-term impact of the disaster. A recent newspaper poll in Japan found that 91 percent of respondents want the government to take a more active role in the contaminated water issue, Reuters reported.

Last summer, the Japanese government partially nationalized Tepco to prevent it from going bankrupt and to assert more control over the cleanup. Earlier this week, Japan signaled it may tap a $3.6 billion emergency reserve fund to help pay for the cleanup, which could take decades and cost upwards of $11 billion.

"Cleanup will take a long time, because they have to stabilize the reactor, control emission of radioactive constituents, and then safely store them for radiological decay," Kathryn Higley, head of the department of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University, wrote in an e-mail. "They also have to control water infiltration into the site, manage the contaminated ground water, and then ultimately disassemble the reactor. Stabilizing the damaged fuel, and determining the magnitude of the problem it poses, remains a nagging problem that must be addressed. None are easy tasks."

The three meltdowns at Fukushima occurred in March 2011, triggered by an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. The accident was rated a seven out of a possible seven points on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. It is only one of two events to be rated that high, along with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.

Why It Matters

Energy: Resource-poor Japan struggles to balance public safety with economic growth in the wake of Fukushima.

Environment: Nuclear power produces zero carbon emissions but runs the risk of radioactive leaks.

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