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TOKYO/OKUMA, Japan — When asked about the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station, which happened 10 years ago on March 11 and covered northern Japan in a cloud of radioactive debris, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is fond of gesturing toward a potted plant in the corner of his Tokyo office. Next to it sits a Geiger counter.

It is a well-practiced ritual for visitors to be invited to take a reading from the soil, which is from Fukushima. It was 0.05 microsieverts per hour of radiation on a day in late February.

“London is 0.108. It is much higher in London,” he said. But he acknowledges that for an uneasy public, past events are still powerful. “After 10 years, there is still fuhyo,” Koizumi said — a term for rumor without evidence — that anything to do with Fukushima is unsafe. The soil is actually quite harmless, he implied.

Koizumi is doing everything he can to improve the reputation of Fukushima soil, but it will take more than a potted plant. Farmers in the region, for example, still have trouble selling produce to a wary population. And it is the job of Koizumi’s ministry to dispose of 14 million cu. meters of the soil, or roughly 1 million dump trucks’ worth. But no one wants it.

A decade on, that is just one of the massive headaches confronting the Japanese government over the Fukushima cleanup. One and a quarter-million tons of treated contaminated water, containing the radioactive element tritium, is rapidly overflowing the 1,000 massive tanks set up to collect it.

Nine hundred tons of debris still sit inside the three stricken reactors, which engineers from Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings (Tepco), the electric utility that owns the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, are trying to clean up. With the reactor core still too dangerous for humans, a robot arm must be deployed, making for expensive and slow progress.

The astronomical cost of cleanup efforts, ironically, means nobody can afford for the reactors shuttered post-disaster to stay that way. The current plan for Tepco to cover its 16-trillion-yen ($147 billion) share of the 22-trillion-yen cleanup bill is by reviving some of its shut nuclear power reactors — though none are at Fukushima.

And despite the setback for nuclear power, it remains an important option for Japan’s strategy to go carbon neutral by 2050, a goal announced by the government in October. Despite enthusiasm for renewable energy, hurdles for its widespread use while commercializing other early technologies mean traditional, emissions-free nuclear power is a difficult idea to relinquish.

To navigate this dilemma, Koizumi falls back on the government’s talking points. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration, he says, “made it clear to make renewable energy a primary power source, and maximize its implementation. Then, to decrease dependence on nuclear power as much as possible.”

Not in my backyard: The interim storage facility for contaminated soil in Fukushima, with Shinjiro Koizumi’s ministry responsible for the eventual disposal of all 14 million cubic meters. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

Luckily for Koizumi, the decommissioning process largely falls to the industry ministry. His own ministry holds responsibility just for the soil, which offers a microcosm of the entire problem.

Koizumi is seen as a rising star in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party, his father is a former prime minister and he himself a charismatic and persuasive orator. But even he has been powerless to solve this pressing problem: How and where they will relocate the soil remains unclear.

When the Japanese government asked for Fukushima’s cooperation to set up a storage site for contaminated soil, the prefectural government agreed, on the condition that the arrangement would only be temporary. Now, in one impending deadline among many, the government is legally obliged to dispose of the soil outside of Fukushima by 2045.

“We will start first with building understanding and awareness” across the rest of Japan in order to fulfill “the government’s promise with Fukushima,” he said, vowing to overcome skepticism with scientific data. But he admits: “It is a difficult task.”

Chain reaction

The six-reactor Fukushima complex was devastated on March 11, 2011 after the region was rocked by an earthquake, then, about an hour later, hit by a 15-meter-high tsunami. Three of six nuclear reactors in the complex crumpled under a nuclear meltdown and hydrogen explosions ripped through the complex, blowing the roofs off reactor containment units and raining radioactive substances throughout the area.

When the quake hit at 2:46 p.m., engineers immediately inserted the control rods to control nuclear fission. Transmission lines and other ways for electricity to reach the plant were knocked out, but the emergency diesel turbines ramped up and started to provide backup power to operate. Tepco operators scrambled to stop the reactor safely, gathering data from the panels and meters.

But 40 minutes later, waves up to 15 meters high began to reach the plant. The reactor was only protected with a six-meter-high wall. The waves wiped out the diesel turbines, which were placed at the underground levels of the building, resulting in the plant losing electricity to cool the reactor. Tepco operators even gathered batteries from their cars in a desperate attempt to revive electricity and regain control of the machinery.

“In the beginning, it was difficult to grasp what was happening,” said Takashi Hara, an engineer at Tepco who was working at the plant during the disaster. “Right after the disaster, it really was like the site had been set on fire. There was rubble everywhere, and radiation levels were high,” he recalled.

At the beginning of February, at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, tsunami damage was still evident throughout the power station. The walls of a unit housing the third reactor bore huge scars left by the tsunami. A steel frame was still visible atop the first reactor unit, the remnants of a section blown off by a hydrogen explosion. Piles of contaminated tree trunks lay outside waiting to be burned, to minimize volume for disposal.

Paths had been cleared, but various broken and abandoned buildings appeared left as they were in 2011. Dealing with these structures has not been the priority, according to a Tepco guide.

Despite that the site seems untouched by time, thousands of staff have been working busily on the decommissioning effort, which will take at least another two or three decades. Radiation levels at the site have declined over the years, and most of the area can now be walked around in without protective clothing. Less than 5% is designated as high-exposure to radioactive substances, which would require a protective suit, heavy mask and boots.

Still, strict safety measures and ubiquitous dosimeters are a reminder that the place is not safe. Around 100 meters from the first reactor, a sign encourages visitors: “Let’s try to shorten the time we spend here.” Here, the dosimeter showed a radiation level of 111 microsieverts per hour. Right next to the wall of the third reactor, it indicated 213 — about four times a typical chest X-ray, which results in exposure of 50 to 60 microsieverts.

The plan, devised jointly by the government and Tepco, is to complete the decommissioning process by 2041 to 2051. One of the biggest challenges is to retrieve all the fuel rods from the spent fuel pool within the reactors — and without going inside, as radiation levels are prohibitive.

Hara and Kenji Shimizu, two Tepco engineers, have just completed this mammoth and very risky task in reactor No. 3, removing a total of over 5,000 four-meter long fuel rods, by remotely controlling a robotic arm to avoid exposure to radiation. The team monitored the work through a video screen.

The task ahead is huge. Thousands of fuel rods from the first, second, fifth, and sixth reactor units are yet to be taken out, a process expected to take until 2031. “The plan goes over a very long time,” said Hara. “It is now our mission to follow the plan.”

Don’t stand so close: The dosimeter showed a radiation level of over 200 microsieverts per hour at unit 3 of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The most difficult part has not even begun: removing the melted fuel from the innermost core of the reactors. An estimated 900 tons of nuclear debris remain in the three reactors, left from the meltdowns. In a plan announced in December 2011, the company pledged to start taking out the debris “within a decade” — but that now seems impossible, particularly with the coronavirus outbreak delaying U.K.-based development of a new, specialized robotic arm.

Even more urgent is the question of what to do with the water. Due to rainwater and groundwater entering the site, 140 tons of water become contaminated every day, on average. This water is treated to remove all radioactive substances except tritium to a government-mandated safety level, then filled up in tanks. There are already over 1,000 tanks built on the site, and 90% of them are full of 1.24 million tons of treated water.

But by the autumn of 2022, all of the tanks will be full, and the water will need to be released into the sea.

The treated water is supposed to meet the government’s standards, based on recommendations by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, so that it can be thrown into the ocean. But nobody wants the water anywhere near where they live, or where they fish for a living.

If the water is “released into the sea, there would be huge reputational damage,” said Hiroshi Kishi, president of the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, a fishing industry group. “Efforts of the fishing industry [to increase profit] would come to nothing,” he stressed in October at a government hearing.

Above: Bags of contaminated soil line a road in Fukushima, where a reading of over 0.4 microsieverts per hour can be seen. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) Below: Unit 3 of the Fukushima nuclear power plant is seen behind tanks of treated contaminated water on Feb 9. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Nor do environmental groups trust Tepco’s decommissioning plans.

“Decommissioning in 40 years is impossible,” said Kazue Suzuki, campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. Tepco and the government “should fundamentally reconsider their approach and come up with a new decommissioning plan, including to delay removing the nuclear debris by 50 to 100 years,” she said.

The environmental group recently released a report which suggests sealing up the reactor buildings and developing advanced robot technologies in the meantime.

Tepco is still paying compensation to victims, as well as the cost of decommissioning the nuclear facilities and decontaminating the affected area. In total, these costs are estimated to come to 22 trillion yen — about $203 billion — with over 70% of that amount payable by the company.

That has been made possible by the transformation of the company into an entity whose primary mission is to fund the cleanup. Tepco is still a listed company, but in 2012 it was nationalized as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. It has not been able to pay dividends to shareholders since 2011. The Tepco revival plan was drafted soon after the Japanese state took a majority stake, and is now on its third revision.

The beleaguered Tepco needs to earn 450 billion yen in annual net profit to pay for its Fukushima-related obligations — nearly eight times the 50 billion it earned in the fiscal year ended March 2020. It is counting on the restart of its nuclear power plants to bring in much-needed revenue, as well as new businesses in areas such as charging stations for electric vehicles and renewable energy.

Tepco owns the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture. It comprised seven reactors, none of which have operated since 2011. After reinforcing safety measures and gaining approval from the regulators, the company hopes to restart at least two of them, with each one expected to bring roughly 100 billion yen in profit each year.

However, the company has been struggling to convince the local municipalities and residents of its credibility and the safety of its facilities. This effort wasn’t helped by a security scandal revealed in January, in which an unauthorized staff member gained entrance to the plant’s central control room using another staff member’s ID card.

A former Tepco board member who asked not to be named said: “Operating the reactors in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was supposed to be the most important pillar in the Tepco revival plan.” In the plan, two reactors were supposed to be operating from some time around 2019 to 2021. Another two were supposed to follow from 2021 to 2023 — but not even one has succeeded in doing so.

But public opinion has turned decisively against nuclear power. According to a survey by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, over 60% of those polled in 2019 believed that all nuclear power plants should be decommissioned. The number has not changed much over time, from 64% in 2014.

Following tightened security measures, only nine nuclear reactors of more than 50 operable in 2011 have restarted. Twenty-four reactors are slated for decommissioning. Some operators were forced to stop the reactors that did restart, after being sued for insufficient safety considerations.

Since then, the possibility of new power plants being built has significantly diminished. Oma Nuclear Power Plant, for instance, which started construction in 2008, halted work after the Fukushima accident. Its operator, Electric Power Development (J-Power), last year delayed restarting construction by two years to 2022, due to ongoing inspections by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

Strategy deadlock

Nuclear power, however, is an option difficult to give up for Japanese policymakers. Japan is a small, population-dense country that lacks oil and gas reservoirs, or even the required land for large-scale solar power and onshore wind power. Nuclear power can generate a stable amount of electricity compared to intermittent sunlight or wind. Moreover, it also does not emit carbon dioxide — increasingly key in the wake of the October announcement by Prime Minister Suga that Japan will seek to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But with public opinion strongly against nuclear power, the issue has become so sensitive that the government has repeatedly postponed important decision-making on whether to enhance or phase out nuclear power in the country since 2011.

The government is “not assuming that any new nuclear power plants will be built or replaced at the moment,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said in October.

Half life: the town of Okuma in Fukushima, still classified as “difficult to return to”,  is blocked by barricades on Feb. 13. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Without any push from the government, Japan’s energy strategy has long remained deadlocked. For some, the lack of a proactive approach spells one outcome for nuclear: Takeo Kikkawa, professor at the International University of Japan said: “Nuclear power would be left to die.”

The result, however, is that thermal power plants have made a comeback. In 2010, before the Fukushima incident, nuclear energy accounted for almost 25% of the national power mix. Fossil fuel thermal plants accounted for 64%, while renewable energy was 10%. By 2016, the share of thermal plants jumped to over 80%, while nuclear energy only accounted for 2%. Japan henceforth became notorious for relying on coal, despite an ambitious environmental plan for carbon neutrality within three decades.

Under the current government target, nuclear energy would still account for about 20% of the power mix in 2030, which seems unrealistic given the current number of reactors operating, as well as the halt in the number of new reactors under construction. Renewable energy is projected to reach at least 22%, which is still criticized as too low.

But new technology is transforming the debate. Professor Kikkawa, who also is a member of the government’s Strategic Policy Committee, said that due to clean thermal power, there is a budding consensus that Japan’s climate goals may be achievable without nuclear power.

When the committee was previously set up for revising the energy strategy in 2018, the government was determined to keep the 20% share of nuclear power in the power mix, according to Kikkawa. Now, however, the government is pushing for the use of carbon capture technology, as well as hydrogen and ammonia — neither of which emit carbon dioxide when burned — combined with coal and gas. The new idea of emission-free thermal power made “nuclear power less significant,” he said.

Green energy is increasingly popular at the local and municipal level. Japan has over 300 “zero-carbon city” municipalities that have committed to achieving net-zero by 2050, accounting for about 100 million people in a country of about 130 million people.

That gives Japan “top-level population coverage, globally” in terms of commitment to carbon neutrality, Koizumi said.

Hard sell: Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi speaks to Nikkei Asia. The map on the wall shows cities which have pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

He aims for that to become a model for zero-carbon cities globally. One promising example is the town of Okuma in Fukushima, where the Daiichi plant is located. “Okuma declared it would become a zero-carbon city and is working on decarbonized town planning,” Koizumi said. “We will support positive town-level developments like this.”

Whether that is enough to propel Japan to its energy goals remains to be seen. Cooperation between municipal governments and the central government will be key for achieving decarbonization and showing leadership in the global green race, according to Koizumi. “There is no country that needs change more than Japan,” he said. “The shift toward decarbonization must accelerate.”