Wednesday marks the fourth anniversary of the meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The accident was triggered when a powerful earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan, knocking out the plant's electricity, which lead to the meltdown of three of the facility's six reactors.
It's the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 and 220,000 people remain displaced today due to dangerous levels of radiation.
TEPCO has fought to contain and clean up the highly contaminated site over the past four years, but now faces some of its most fierce criticism since the meltdown, following revelations in February that it knew contaminated water had been leaking from the facility for nearly a year — but did not disclose the information to the public.
The utility admitted that rainwater captured by storm drains above one of the plant's reactors was leaking into the ocean. Contamination levels in the water were up to 70 times greater than normal.
In response to media reports on the leak, TEPCO has said it did not intend to hide information, but instead was prioritizing other tasks, such as managing the hundreds of tanks containing toxic water and removing tainted water from the reactor buildings.
"Basically, we have been so busy with more highly radiated waters that we could not really think about releasing the information," Satoshi Togawa, a TEPCO spokesman, told VICE News. Togawa said the company will release a report on the incident by the end this month.
The company pledged to process all of the contaminated water stored at the plant by the end of March. But, citing technical problems, it said last month it is unable to meet the deadline. About 217,000 tons of radioactive water is stored onsite and another 350 tons of groundwater flows through the facility every day, mostly through the damaged reactor buildings
TEPCO has installed technology to capture as much groundwater as possible before it enters the contaminated area and pump it directly into the ocean.
The recent leak disclosure has angered the fishing industry, because any public perception of radioactivity in Japanese food commodities will hit the industry hard, even if radiation levels are within internationally recognized safety standards.
"It is undeniable that the leakwill further spread the harmful rumor that has been troubling fishermen nationwide and will largely affect the future of the fishing industry," the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations said in a statement submitted to TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, agricultural minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and industry minister Yoichi Miyazawa. "This is a clear breach of trust by TEPCO against fishermen and Japanese citizens."
Kazuya Idemitsu of Kyushu University's Department of Energy Material Science told VICE News: "It's like a game of chicken."
"TEPCO cannot really release the water because of public opposition," he said. "But I think it's ok to release that water, which will have only small impacts to the environment. Otherwise, they will run out of the space to eventually overflow."
The company recently removed the last remaining fuel rods from the site, some 1,500 of them that were stored in unprotected, outdoor pools. It still must dispose of the three reactor cores that melt down during the disaster. The recent disclosure, however, underscores the challenges TEPCO faces in decommissioning the crippled plant — a process which could take up to several decades.
The company had a poor track record on transparency, even before the latest leak revelation. An American whistleblower and General Electric Intentional engineer reported in 2002 that the company has been hiding information about structural problems at the nuclear facility, which caused a public uproar.
But following the meltdown and widespread criticism of its handling of the disaster, the company is reforming. Last year, the Japanese government appointed Fumio Sudo as chairman of TEPCO, . And, an independent Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee is revising safety, risk assessment, and disaster response protocols. The committee includes non-Japanese members who have been critical of the company, including Dale Klein, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Lady Barbara Judge, former chairwoman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
Yoichi Funabashi, the chairman of Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and a former editor-in-chief of Japan's Asahi Shimbun, said TEPCO has made significant progress in rectifying its plagued corporate governance and lack of leadership.
"The most important thing for TEPCO is having viable leadership," said Funabashi, who led an independent investigative report on the Fukushima accident. "This is the last chance for TEPCO. The company will not survive if they keep doing the business the way they did before."
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