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editorial | radiation

Clearing the air at Fukushima

THE MONUMENTAL efforts to contain and close Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant took another bad turn this weekend when Tokyo Electric Power Company disclosed that a new water circulation system, intended to cool the reactors that were crippled by the March tsunami, was leaking. Since Japan’s nuclear crisis last spring, the company, known as Tepco, has repeatedly minimized the impact of radiation releases — and thus its own responsibility for a disaster that isn’t completely over. Despite the international implications of a massive radiation release, the world has been relying on the Japanese government to oversee the faltering cleanup. And while the nation understandably wants to move forward, Japan must first ensure that all radioactive material is properly contained.

If Tepco is to be believed, the company found a leak this weekend that released at least 45 tons — but perhaps up to 220 tons — of highly radioactive water into the plants’ basements, and some may have reached the Pacific Ocean. Tepco’s estimates of radiation leakage throughout the disaster have consistently been lower than international reports. The numbers matter, as the amount of radiation released into the environment determines the extent of health and evacuation warnings given to people in danger of exposure.


Tepco is big on assurances, but lacking in credibility. Last week, its report on its handling of the crisis last spring downplayed its slow reactions and false representations to the public in the days immediately following the earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, the company has paid only a fraction of claims owed to 70,000 residents of the area, many of whom have moved away from the contaminated soil and air.

The new leak suggests Tepco’s assurances that the plant will be completely shut down by the end of this month were premature. The company’s incentive to close the door on Fukushima isn’t simply to put the disaster behind them; stability at the plant is essential to the industry’s future plans, including exports of nuclear technology. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Nado has often seemed all too willing to accept Tepco’s handling of the situation, but the continuing social, environmental, and economic effects of the disaster are not easily ignored. Other nations, working through Pacific, Asian, or multinational organizations, must continue to impress on Japan the fact that Tepco’s problems are a global concern. The Pacific, after all, is a shared resource.