As Japan Discharges More Fukushima Water, What Lies Ahead for the Rest of the Plant?

Before the 2011 tsunami struck, Ukedo elementary school had a deep connection to the ocean. Students would rush to the beach in the summer, competing to create the best sand animals. They also painted local fishermen’s boats, a tradition reflecting Namie town’s strong ties to the fishing industry.

However, the triple disaster of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe altered everything. Shinichi Sato, a teacher at Ukedo, remembers those difficult years when outdoor lessons were banned due to fears of radioactive soil. The threat of contamination weighed heavily on educators and the 94 students who could no longer attend their beloved seaside school.

Now, 12 years after the calamity, people are slowly returning. Though the past’s vitality remains elusive, Sato clings to hope that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s eventual decommissioning might lure them back. He said, “I hope that the plant is decommissioned properly and shows people that this is a safe place to return to.”

Japan has committed to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi power station as part of its recovery plan for Namie town and Fukushima prefecture. The plant’s six reactors suffered catastrophic damage during the tsunami, leading to the evacuation of 470,000 people due to radioactive material leakage.

However, progress towards decommissioning has been sluggish, partly due to the accumulation of 1.3 billion tonnes of treated radioactive wastewater used to cool the reactors. Approximately 1,000 tanks for storing this water have occupied space needed for decommissioning.

The second phase of water discharge begins on October 5, with TEPCO planning to release 31,200 tonnes by next March. However, since radioactive wastewater continues to be produced, this represents just a fraction of the tanks on-site. Japan faces an exceptionally complex decommissioning challenge, requiring between 30 to 40 years, six times longer than usual, as unique challenges such as widely dispersed fuel necessitate both human and robotic efforts.

The fate of the waste remains uncertain. TEPCO intends to reduce some waste through onsite incineration or recycling but does not account for waste from dismantling reactor buildings. Additionally, the high radiation levels make it nearly impossible for workers to enter, necessitating a large workforce to spread the dose exposure.

Japan also lacks a complete understanding of the reactors’ damage due to the high radiation levels. Robotic probes have been deployed, but data reveals extensive damage, including melted cores at the bottom of containment chambers.

Financially, the decommissioning cost is projected at around $141 billion, far exceeding typical nuclear plant decommissioning expenses. Despite these formidable challenges, individuals like Sato remain optimistic, hoping for a better future. He reflects on the tragic day when the tsunami hit, emphasizing the importance of moving forward with the lessons learned and the possibility of people returning to rebuild a brighter tomorrow.

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