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It has been more than two years since an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, but the delicate cleanup is really just beginning.
The process will take decades and could cost $100 billion. And there are questions about the ability of the plant owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to do the job.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, who will be going into Reactor No. 4 at the Fukushima power plant tomorrow. There’s a huge amount of spent nuclear fuel in a cooling pool in that reactor.
“There are 1,300 uranium fuel rods inside this pool, a huge amount of material, more than was in the core of the reactor at Chernobyl when it blew up in 1986,” Wingfield-Hayes says.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This week officials in Japan will start preparing to decommission one of the crippled reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. It's been more than two years since an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant, which forced the evacuation of 150,000 people. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes will be heading into Reactor 4 tomorrow. He joins us from Fukushima to talk about the situation there. Rupert, welcome back.
RUPERT WINGFIELD-HAYES: Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, first of all, tell us what things are like there in Fukushima.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Well, the situation is much more under control than it was, you know, two years ago or even a year ago or even six months ago, when I first went into the plant. The operation to start decommissioning the plant is about to get underway at Reactor 4. So for those who don't remember, three reactors at Fukushima melted down. The fourth reactor did not melt down but has a huge amount of spent nuclear fuel in a cooling pool inside this building that is very, very badly damaged.
There was a huge explosion two and a half years ago that damaged the building. This nuclear fuel is still inside that building. And sometime later this week or next week, they are supposed to start removing the fuel from that pool, and that is really the beginning of the work to try and decommission the plant and get eventually all of the fuel out of the melted reactors and everything.
But you know, this is going to take years and probably decades to achieve. This is the first step that they're going to take in the next couple of weeks.
HOBSON: And you are going to go into Reactor 4 tomorrow.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: That's right, so we're going to be taken in to be shown the preparation work for this very, very delicate operation to remove this fuel. There are 1,300 uranium fuel rods inside this pool, a huge amount of material, I mean more than was in the core of the reactor at Chernobyl when it blew up back in 1986. So you know, it's a very, very serious amount of nuclear material there.
It's going to be a very delicate operation to pull it out and put it into a safe storage site. That's why it's so important this work is done because at the moment this fuel pool is, it's 30 meters up inside this damaged building, and it's been sitting there for two and a half years.
We all know that Japan is a country that regularly suffers from large earthquakes, and so everybody's been very nervous that another earthquake could damage this building further, and that's why it's so important to get this work underway.
HOBSON: Well, and I'm glad you brought that up, because there was a comment made by a prominent Japanese-Canadian scientist, David Suzuki, who says that the Japanese government has been lying through its teeth about the extent of the nuclear disaster, and he has been warning that if there is another earthquake measuring seven or above, that it could be, as he says, bye-bye Japan and everybody on the West Coast of North America should be evacuated.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Yeah, you know, it's very difficult. This is a very difficult subject, Jeremy. None of us are nuclear specialists, and I'm not a nuclear specialist. I've learnt a lot about it in the last year, but the nuclear scientists and engineers that I have talked to in the last six months all have said the same thing to me, which is yes, it is a delicate and dangerous situation; yes, this is a difficult decommissioning process, but there is a huge amount of exaggeration going on in the media, on the Internet, about the dangers to the planet from the current situation at Fukushima.
That fuel inside that pool has had two and a half years to cool down since the disaster, and so it is much less dangerous than it was when the disaster happened. In 2011 it was very, very hot. If all the water had leaked out of the pool, then we could have seen a serious fire and a massive release of radiation.
The experts I've spoken to in the last couple of weeks say that is a very, very distant possibility now. Even if all the water leaked out, yes, it would be very bad, but it would not be bye-bye Japan; it certainly would not be bye-bye the west coast of the United States.
HOBSON: What about what we're hearing from the Japanese government? There's been a lot of criticism all along about whether they are telling the full extent of what is going on. Has that situation gotten better? Are they being more forthcoming about what's happening at Fukushima?
WINGFIELD-HAYES: They are, but I think there's a real cultural issue here, which is that Japanese corporations are very bad at communication with the public. I've heard this over and over again, both from foreign experts and also from Japanese experts here, who say TEPCO and the Japanese government has done a disastrous job at getting their message across about the work that is going on and what they're trying to achieve.
They put a lot of information out now. We get oceans of numbers from TEPCO every day. Every day my inbox, my email inbox, has long emails with new information, with lots of figures, much of it very difficult to understand. What TEPCO and the Japanese government aren't doing is saying this is what we need to do, this is what, you know, what are the potential dangers.
But, you know, this is the only choice we have. For example, with the issue of water, we've talked a lot in recent months about radioactive water leaking from the plant, but often the figures that are given by TEPCO about the radiation levels in that water are very misleading.
And you know, I'm afraid they are their worst own enemy when it comes to explaining and trying to get the public to calm down and to trust them again. And the trouble is there is a massive loss of trust ever since the disaster. No one believes what the Japanese government or TEPCO is telling them. They tend to think that they are always trying to hide the truth.
The fact is that most of the time they're not. It's not deliberate burying of the truth. A lot of it is incompetence and inability to get their message across clearly.
HOBSON: The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes joining us from Fukushima, Japan. Rupert, thanks so much and stay safe tomorrow.
WINGFIELD-HAYES: Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.