Challenges remain from Japan earthquake

Since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake shut down and paralyzed Tokyo Electro Power Company’s Fukushima plant in Japan, the problems stemming from the level-7 nuclear meltdown are still unresolved, and the local residents (those of the evacuated 300,000 who have returned) remain fearful of the future harms that radiation exposure could have on their health, food and water.

The instability of the plant, its recent leaks of contaminated water, and the subsequent failures by TEPCO to control the recovery site have outraged Japan’s government and anti-nuclear energy critics alike, igniting an international concern over the handling of the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986.

Immediately following the Tohoku earthquake (the most devastating Japan has ever seen and that killed over 15,000 civilians), the three running reactors’ fission reactions were suspended, and electronic coolant agents were activated to condition the fuel rods and prevent them from melting. The plant was stabilized momentarily.

The earthquake, however, had generated enormous tsunami waves (reaching heights of 133 feet) that swept over the plant’s walls and flooded the lower levels, damaging the emergency generators that had supplied power to the cooling system. The Fukushima operators struggled to repower the generators for two days before hydrogen explosions ensued, triggering a massive meltdown and causing considerable damage to the building surrounding reactors 1-3 and injuring several of the power plant’s employees.

One of the most difficult obstacles for TEPCO is to deal with the alarming amount of contaminated water that has been spent from the reactors as well as from the cleanup site and its constructions. Because they were pressed for time, TEPCO had sped through the building of a barricade to inhibit groundwater from spilling into the Pacific, and the company has admitted that its rushed plans have contributed to the high radioactivity of the surrounding ocean water, which had been recorded for the summer following the disaster.

TEPCO has been under harsh criticism from the Japanese government as well as international coalitions for its problematic handling of the devastation.

TEPCO has sought out support from outside sources but is still battling leakage from the large containers of toxic water they have built outside the plant and been pumping water into. Also to many critics’ dismay, TEPCO is preparing for a major operation to remove 1,500 of the spent fuel rods from the reactors and transport them each individually to more stable containers.

The problems that the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear disaster still remain although two years have passed since the plant was hit by Tohoku, and finding the solutions to Fukushima is still far off.