Day 6·Q&A

Decade after disaster, journalist shares what Fukushima power plant looks like today

Tokyo-based journalist Jake Sturmer toured the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant site last month ahead of the 10th anniversary of a tsunami that led to its destruction. He says while much work has been done to remediate the site, still more awaits.

Tokyo-based journalist Jake Sturmer toured the site last month

This satellite image shows Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan on Nov. 15, 2009. Japan marked the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on March 11, 2021. (Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press)

A Tokyo-based journalist who toured the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant late last month says that while much has been done to remediate the site, plenty more work awaits.

Ten years after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima, Japan, 40,000 people remain displaced due to nuclear contamination from the power plant disaster.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, causing a 14-metre high tsunami wave that crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi plant, leading to a nuclear meltdown. To this day, it is the second-worst nuclear disaster ever after Chernobyl. 

A decade on, the job of keeping the reactor cooled is ongoing, parts of the plant are still dangerously contaminated with radiation and some of the communities surrounding it have turned to ghost towns. 

The Japanese government has spent more than 30 trillion yen (over $340 billion Cdn.) to remediate the area.

Jake Sturmer is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's North Asia correspondent. In February, he visited the power plant and shared his experience, as well as where Fukushima is at now, with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

Below is part of that conversation.

More than 1,000 water tanks filled with treated, but radioactive water, surround the decommissioned Fukushima Daiichii power plant. (Hiro Komae/The Associated Press)

What does that plant look like 10 years after the breach? 

You have a lot of ideas going through your mind before you go inside. To be honest, I was quite nervous. It's this huge, sprawling facility, a series of buildings, and [there is] a lot of security.

There are also these huge cubic rooms that stormed the reactors and a few of them are destroyed. The roofs are blown off, and around you, there are massive storage tanks that are carrying contaminated water. There are over 1,000 of these huge tanks that sprawl throughout the site.

It really is a massive facility and quite a hive of activity. There are always people coming and going, coming in and off shift from the decontamination effort, and it's a decontamination effort that's going to take another 30 to 40 years. 

What kind of protective gear do you have on to make sure that you don't get exposed? 

So this is quite interesting, and it has changed obviously a lot in the last 10 years, but at TEPCO, the plant's owners — the Tokyo Electric Power Company — they've done a lot of decontamination work around the site and at 96 per cent of the actual facility, you can wear normal clothes.

You don't actually need that full protective face mask and the white Tyvek suit. You can really just go around in plain clothes. In fact, we had gloves and a mask on, but that was more for coronavirus than dust and radiation.

They have been able to remove a lot of the radioactive soil and debris that was around the plant and around the reactors.

But as you get closer to those damaged reactors, you certainly need the full protective equipment and you can only spend a limited amount of time there.

There's a lot of people working there and some of them working very near to the damaged reactors. Who are those people? What are those jobs? 

There are thousands of people who work at the site every day. Those who work closest to the reactors themselves have been, over the last 10 years, working to stabilize and monitor the highly radioactive molten fuel debris that is inside those reactors.

The idea is that they'll eventually create a system using robots to be able to remove that fuel. They've had to do an extraordinary amount of exploratory and investigative efforts to figure out where that fuel is, and then how they can safely get it out.

That's a process that has taken 10 years already and they haven't even been able to remove any of the molten fuel debris at all. So, it's essentially getting in there, trying to find this fuel and then figure out how to get it out. 

Journalist Jake Sturmer says that it's safe to wear regular clothing in parts of the plant, and the surrounding area. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

It sounds like an extraordinary engineering problem. And are they using robots for that or some kind of mechanical arm? 

This is highly, highly, radioactive material that they're dealing with that melted down.

So essentially when the earthquake hit, it triggered that massive tsunami and then that tsunami overcame the plant and it cut the emergency power and that prevented the reactors from cooling themselves, and a couple of them exploded. That created all of this molten fuel debris that melted through some of the initial protective systems and is sitting in a concrete bunker basically below the reactors.

And so they've needed robots to get in there as it's far too radioactive for humans to get to, but it's actually been extraordinarily challenging to get robots in there. A couple of years ago what we saw, they described it as a robot graveyard. The radiation was so high that it was frying the sensors in the cameras and it proved quite an engineering challenge to get robots in there.

Eventually, TEPCO managed to work with some partners in the U.K. to get a robot arm that they think will be able to get in there and start removing some of that molten fuel debris. The problem is coronavirus in the U.K. has actually delayed that by up to 12 months. 

There is still all of this material that's been cleared from the site — contaminated soil and water that's been used to cool the reactors ... What's going to happen to all of that stuff? 

The contaminated water is the biggest and most pressing issue facing the operators of the plant right now, and also the Japanese government.

So with this highly, very hot, molten fuel that is sitting there, it requires an extraordinary amount of water to cool and that's what goes into these storage tanks — these thousand plus tanks spread out across the Fukushima Daiichi site itself.

But, there's a limited number of tanks and they are starting to fill up and they could fill up in around 18 months from now. And so there needs to be a decision on what actually happens to this water and that is up to the Japanese government.

An expert panel has advised the Japanese government that the best way to dispose of that is actually in the water. TEPCO says that it would be done in such small doses over such a long period of time that it wouldn't have any health impacts or any significant impacts.

They say that this is a process that is done across Japan and also around the world. But for the people of Fukushima and particularly the fishermen, whether or not there's a safety issue, that's not the most pressing concern for these fishermen. It's the reputational damage.

The idea that this contaminated water is being dumped in their fishing grounds, the fear is just going to finish off their industry and destroy it for good. 


Written by Kristy Kilburn with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Sameer Chhabra. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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