NARAHA, Japan — In this small farming town in the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, small armies of workers in surgical masks and rubber gloves are busily scraping off radioactive topsoil in a desperate attempt to fulfill the central government’s vow one day to allow most of Japan’s 83,000 evacuees to return. Yet, every time it rains, more radioactive contamination cascades down the forested hillsides along the rugged coast.
Nearby, thousands of workers and a small fleet of cranes are preparing for one of the latest efforts to avoid a deepening environmental disaster that has China and other neighbors increasingly worried: removing spent fuel rods from the damaged No. 4 reactor building and storing them in a safer place.
The government said Tuesday it would spend $500 million on new steps to stabilize the plant, including an even bigger project: the construction of a frozen wall to protect the sea from a flood of groundwater in the contaminated buildings. The government is taking control of the cleanup from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.
The triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 is already considered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. The new efforts, as risky and technically complex as they are expensive, were developed in response to a series of accidents, miscalculations, and delays that have plagued the cleanup effort, making a mockery of the authorities’ early vows to “return the site to an empty field” and leading to the release of enormous quantities of contaminated water.
As the environmental damage around the plant and in the ocean nearby continues to accumulate more than two years after the disaster, analysts are beginning to question whether the government and the plant’s operator, known as TEPCO, have the expertise and ability to manage such a complex crisis.
In the past, they say, TEPCO has resorted to quick fixes that have failed to control the crisis, further damaged Japan’s flagging credibility, and only deflected hard decisions into the future. Some critics said the government’s new proposals offer more of the same.
“Japan is clearly living in denial,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who led Parliament’s independent investigation last year into the causes of the nuclear accident. “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”
Problems at the plant seemed to take a sharp turn for the worse in July with the discovery of leaks of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Two weeks ago, TEPCO announced that 300 tons of water laced with radioactive strontium, a particle that can be absorbed into human bones, had drained from a faulty tank into the sea.
Contaminated water, used to cool fuel in the plant’s three damaged reactors to prevent them from overheating, will continue to be produced in huge quantities until the flow of groundwater into the buildings can be stopped — a prospect that is months or even years away. At the same time, delays and setbacks in the enormous effort to clean up the countryside are further undermining confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on its promises and eroding the public’s faith in nuclear power.
Officials and proponents of the cleanup say difficulties are inevitable given the monumental scale of the problems. But a growing number of critics say the troubles are at least partly a result of fundamental flaws in the current cleanup, and they wondered whether Tuesday’s announcement might have been made with an eye to the International Olympic Committee, which will decide shortly on the site of the 2020 Games.
The cleanup efforts to date, critics said, were grandiose but ultimately ill-conceived public works projects begun as a knee-jerk reaction by the government’s powerful central ministries to deflect public criticism and to protect the clubby and insular nuclear power industry from oversight by outsiders.
The biggest public criticism has involved the government’s decision to leave the cleanup in the hands of TEPCO, which has seemed incapable of getting the plant fully under control. Each step TEPCO has taken seems only to produce new problems. The recent leaking tank was one of hundreds that have been hastily built to hold the 430,000 tons of contaminated water at the plant, and the amount of that water increases at a rate of 400 tons per day. The discovery on Saturday of high radioactivity at other spots near the tanks raised the possibility of still undetected leaks.