FUKUSHIMA: In the heart of Fukushima’s disaster zone, robots sent into the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have been dying.
Despite being designed to get data from its damaged reactors, the robots were, with few exceptions, wrecked within hours. The radioactivity inside has been too high for their electronics - a hurdle that must be overcome if all the melted uranium fuel rods in the reactor buildings are to be found and ways to remove them are to be developed.
This is one of the areas where the work to stabilise the nuclear site “isn’t going so well”, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) chief decommissioning officer Naohiro Masuda told the programme Insight in a rare interview. (Watch the episode here.)
Against this backdrop, the Japanese authorities are going full steam ahead with their campaign to bring people back to the prefecture, which was evacuated after the March 2011 nuclear accident.
Eviction orders for most towns in the area have been lifted, with the government saying it is safe to go back.
But just as there are those who are heading back and those who distrust the authorities, experts are also divided over how serious the radiation problem is in the area.
One thing is clear: The crisis that the rest of the world thought was over, nearly seven years after a 9.0 undersea earthquake unleashed a tsunami that tore through Japan’s northeastern coast – including the Daiichi nuclear plant – is really not.
STRUGGLE FOR NORMALCY
Fukushima’s struggle to return to normalcy can be seen most visibly in its evicted towns, where abandoned and damaged houses along empty roads sit on the scarred landscape.
At Kawamata Elementary School, six pupils in the first and third grades were rehearsing for their annual performance when Insight visited. They were the only pupils in their respective classes.
“The lower the grade, the fewer children in a class,” said principal Yoshikawa Takehiko, who has about 20 children in the sixth grade and 15 children in the fifth grade.
The school is already a merger of three schools from Iitate village, which is 35km from the nuclear plant and was contaminated by radioactive substances such as Caesium-137 after the meltdown.
The government has scraped off topsoil in areas around homes and schools in Fukushima as part of its decontamination efforts.
But the tens of thousands of large trash bags of soil and other material are still being stored all across the prefecture - even next to playgrounds - waiting to be transported to a safer place.
The government maintains that much of the soil could perhaps be recycled eventually. But the concern over radiation levels in the environment remains because 70 per cent of the affected land is forested and mountainous, which cannot be decontaminated.
“That’s where most of the radioactivity is,” said Greenpeace senior nuclear specialist Shaun Burnie.
“The decontamination is centred immediately around people’s houses … in their gardens, in school playgrounds, in rice fields and in small 10-15m strips along the roads. That’s not effective decontamination of an area.”
All around, radiation monitors have been put up, like sentinels acting as a reminder of the danger lurking. So far, the readings are within the limit the government and Tepco say is safe.
This has been the very focus, however, of the debate about whether people should return to their homes or not.
CONCERN OVER RADIATION LEVELS
Radiation doses are measured in sieverts, and Fukushima’s evacuees are being asked to return to those areas where the level is not more than 20 millisieverts per year (mSv/year).
This is within the guideline set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and the International Atomic Energy Agency, noted Assistant Professor Tetsuo Sawada from the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Laboratory of Advanced Nuclear Energy.
The upper limit of the stated safe range in an emergency is 100 mSv/year, but some experts contend that exposure to even 20 mSv/year is too high.
Former World Health Organisation regional adviser (Radiation and Public Health) Keith Baverstock said: “It could be, living in your house, the dose rate is 20 mSv/year. The dose rate outside that area that has been cleaned up can be a lot higher. So no, it isn’t safe.”
Cancer specialist Misao Fujita, 55, contrasted the situation in Fukushima with medical X-ray rooms, where the typical maximum amount of radiation allowed is five mSv/year – a level that hospital staff “rarely” get exposed to, he said.
It’s a dangerous policy to expect people to carry on with their daily lives and send children to school in an environment where radiation levels are four times higher.
Some residents, like former Daiichi plant engineer Sumio Konno – who was evicted from his village and now lives in a shelter on the outskirts of Fukushima city – are also not convinced by the government’s arguments.
Mr Konno, 53, is still worried about his 12-year-old son’s safety and is “very angry” that the acceptable radiation exposure limit was raised from one mSV/year to 20 mSv/year.
“Even for adults, this figure is very high. It’s unforgivable that the government uses this figure for children,” he said. “Even in my 29 years of experience (in the nuclear power industry), the worst exposure I had was 12 mSv/year.”
Mr Konno, along with 180 residents comprising 70 families, has filed a court case against the government.
He charged: “Information from Speedi (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information) wasn’t disclosed and everyone was exposed to radiation in Tsushima (village). My child has had cold-like symptoms for over two years.”
THE QUESTION OF CANCER
Like Mr Konno, other parents in Fukushima are worried about their children’s health – that their lifetime risk of cancer has increased.
Two rounds of screenings have detected more than 190 confirmed or suspected cases of thyroid cancer among the 370,000 residents aged 18 or younger at the time of the accident.
But experts cannot be certain whether that was down to radiation exposure or the comprehensive screening process, which included an ultrasound examination.
Dr Baverstock said: “There’s some time before we’d expect that incidence rate to build up, so a third round of screening is in progress. And at the end of that, we’ll know whether … thyroid cancer (has been) induced.”
Dr Fujita agreed and cited the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, which has resulted in an estimated 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer among those under 18 years of age at the time of the accident.
It was five or six years after the Chernobyl accident that the number of thyroid cancer cases spiked.
"Now (in Fukushima), we’re concerned that thyroid cancer cases will start to increase,” he said, adding that radiation can also cause diseases like leukaemia.
To better understand the impact of the radiation on residents, Tohoku University professor emeritus Manabu Fukumoto, 66, is studying what is happening to animals in areas around the nuclear plant.
And to his surprise, monkeys born after the meltdown have had the same exposure rate over those years, even though the radiation level in the environment has fallen.
He surmised: “They probably eat Caesium-contaminated food. Plants absorb the Caesium on the ground through their roots, and the monkeys eat the fruit. As for mushrooms, even today they remain affected by (the) atomic bombs.”
As Caesium-137’s half-life – the time taken for an isotope to lose half its radioactivity – is 30 years, Prof Fukumoto believes there are many hot spots left.
But even as there are locations with higher radiation levels, such as 20 to 50mSv/year, the areas where the amount is less than one mSv/year are expanding, noted Dr Sawada.
Ultimately, for many of the nuclear refugees, even those living in makeshift homes, the answers thus far on the extent of the radiation exposure are not enough to dispel their doubt that returning is the best option.
Some 160,000 people were forced from their homes after the nuclear accident, and the Japanese authorities had expected that at least 70 per cent of them would return by last spring. But that hoped-for homecoming has not happened.
Of the five towns most of the people had to be evacuated from, Tepco’s Mr Masuda cited only one that is back to 70 per cent of its population size.
Another one has 20 per cent of returnees out of a population of 7,500, while residents of a third town started trickling back last April and the number remains low: A few hundred, or two per cent of its 15,000 people.
Mr Masuda says there are three “major” reasons people are not returning – and none of them involve the fear of lingering radiation.
“Firstly, there aren’t enough schools; secondly, a lack of supermarkets, which are necessary to carry on with daily life; thirdly, not having an adequate number of medical doctors. I believe these are key conditions for people to return,” he said.
“Moreover, it has been over six years since the evacuation, and many have already established new lives in areas where they’re relocated.”
AT GROUND ZERO
He is well aware, however, that he has a battle on his hands to get Fukushima back to normal, not least because of the challenge of contaminated water at the nuclear site.
As groundwater seeps into the basements of the reactor buildings, it is coming into contact with water being pumped in to keep the reactors cool. The contaminated water must be treated, but Tepco cannot yet remove all the nuclide particles.
And former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was the premier when the nuclear accident happened, told Insight there is no doubt “some of the water is flowing into the (Pacific) ocean”.
Having built 1,000 tanks holding 750,000 tonnes of contaminated water, Tepco is also nearing the completion of an ice wall – driven to a depth of 30 metres – around the reactor and turbine buildings to tackle the threat of fresh contamination.
Mr Masuda said: “(The wall) has two roles: One is to prevent underground water from reaching the contaminated buildings. More importantly, the second role is to drain contaminated water from the buildings.”
But there is a question mark over its effectiveness. As Mr Burnie pointed out:
The problem is, if you know what water does, you can’t really control water. It would find a way to move around human barriers.
Tepco’s second challenge is the estimated 650 tonnes of molten fuel from three of the plant’s six reactors. Many fuel rods melted and fell out of their pressure vessels after the tsunami had caused a station blackout and reactor explosions.
“How far down into the concrete has it burnt? What condition is it in? Are there cracks and fissure in the concrete that allow access directly to the environment, particularly water?” questioned Mr Burnie.
Tepco has developed various types of robots to gather the information and locate the fuel, with the first images being sent back only in recent months.
Mr Masuda said: “We may need to use new robots or use different approaches, but we keep trying as we gain new knowledge and experiences through this trial and error process.”
LIVES CHANGED FOREVER
Former nuclear plant worker Shun Kirishima, 52, offered some insights into decontamination conditions on site, where he worked in the water treatment unit and where 6,000 workers are still deployed.
“There’s a radiation controller who checks the radiation levels before workers start work. However, there were times the radiation level couldn’t be checked,” said Mr Kirishima, now a freelance journalist.
I (also) had to work in an environment that had 4,000 mSv/hour … At that time, we all had red eyes and bleeding noses, and the symptoms lasted for many days.
Even three months after leaving the plant, there were times his nosebleed would not stop. So he had his thyroid checked. That was when a nodule, an abnormal tissue growth, was found in his throat.
He said: “The doctor wasn’t sure if it was caused by working at the nuclear power plant site. What he made clear was that I’ll have to have my thyroid checked regularly to monitor the size of the nodule.”
He is one of many whose lives may have been forever changed by the disaster. Another is 42-year-old Yuko Muroi, who had been looking forward to an exciting future with her young daughter and husband in 2011.
Though her father had asked her to leave her town immediately, her husband did not believe there was much radiation danger and told her that if she wanted to leave, she could not take their daughter along.
Mdm Muroi, who agonised for years over the dangers her daughter faced, said in tears: “Looking back, I should’ve gone home with my daughter against his will, but both my daughter and I ended up staying in Fukushima.”
Last March, the part-time shop worker could no longer stand the mental torture. She left her husband for an uncertain future in a Tokyo suburb, where she struggles to make ends meet as a single mother and part-time hospital worker.
“Since we moved here, my daughter plays outdoors every single day,” she said, choking with emotion. “However, my daughter still weeps, thinking of her friends from her previous school and her life in her hometown. So it’s difficult at times.”
Still, she does not regret her decision. And a return to Fukushima is not an option any more.
The Daiichi plant will be a disaster zone for a long time. According to Mr Masuda, the aim is to have it “under control” in the next 30 to 40 years.
Mr Burnie thinks the spectre of radioactivity will loom longer. He said: “Fukushima will be a nightmare … for governments going way beyond the century.”
Watch this special episode of Insight here.