Six years on, nation gropes for viable energy policy as cleanup costs soar
This Feb. 3 photo shows the No. 3 reactor unit at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
TOKYO — Nearly six years after a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, the catastrophe still looms large over Japan’s energy policy.
Most of the country’s nuclear plants remain offline due to safety concerns. The finances of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings — the operator of the ill-fated Fukushima facility — are in a shambles. Cleanup costs continue to mount, with no ceiling in sight.
On the night of Feb. 16, footage from inside Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 2 reactor containment vessel was beamed to Tepco’s head office in Tokyo. It was captured by a robot nicknamed “scorpion,” due to the camera on the tip of its tail, which can be pointed forward a la the arachnid.
After moving forward about 2 meters, however, the robot became stuck in material deposits several centimeters thick. It was unable to approach its intended target: a spot just under the pressure vessel, where some melted nuclear fuel is suspected to have leaked through.
Tepco hopes to decide this summer how to remove melted fuel from the plant, but as things stand, simply determining the location and quantity of the debris is a challenge.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which supervises the electric power industry, estimated at the end of last year that dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster would cost 21.5 trillion yen ($190 billion). That figure, which covers decommissioning the reactors and compensating victims, is roughly double the 11 trillion yen METI estimated three years ago.
The financially strapped utility will never be able to cover the costs on its own, and its straits may well grow more dire. Many experts say the costs will rise further.
Decommissioning work alone — including the disposal of contaminated water — is now estimated at 8 trillion yen, up from an earlier projection of 2 trillion yen. If the costs continue to swell, Japan’s consumers could pay a heavy price.
Forget “cheap” energy
Meanwhile, the central government is still urging the heads of local governments to approve reactor restarts in their communities, but it has stopped using the word “cheap” to describe atomic energy.