Decommissioning Fukishima now estimated to cost £150 billion and take 40 years of work

February 11, 2017

Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC, 3 Feb 2017

On March 11th 2011, at 2.46 pm a massive earthquake registering 9 on the Richter scale damaged the nuclear plant at Fukushima and cut off the supply of electricity.  Even though the reactors were shut down,  it was necessary to pump coolants around the reactor cores, so that the fuel rods would not overheat.  The coolants were pumped by the back-up diesel generators which kicked into action when the energy to the power station from the electricity was cut off.  Unfortunately, less than an hour later at 3.30 pm, the power station was hit by a fifty-foot-high tsunami which destroyed the fuel tanks for the generators. With no coolant circulating, the fuel began to meltdown.  This was the beginning of an extraordinary saga which is destined to last at least 40 years and will cost an estimated £150 billion. [1]

The trouble with having a serious incident at a nuclear plant is that the damage continues long after the initial accident. Because it is so radioactive, plutonium has to be kept out of contact with humans for 200,000 years.  In the spring of 2017, radiation levels inside a damaged reactor at Fukushima nuclear power station are at their highest since the plant suffered a triple meltdown almost six years ago. According to Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) the company that runs the plant, readings as high as 530 sieverts an hour have been recorded inside the number 2 containment vessel. This was one of the three reactors that melted down after the accident in March 2011. [2]

A single dose of one Sievert will cause radiation sickness and nausea.  When you increase it to five Sieverts, this will kill half of those exposed within a month. Ten Sieverts would kill a person within weeks.   Engineers realise that these high levels of radioactivity in the plant will make it very difficult to dismantle it; they will have to create various forms of robots  to  accomplish their task.

The complexity and difficulty of the task and the extraordinary radiation readings, five years after the accident, are the reason why experts are calculating that it will take 40 years to decommission the plant, at a cost of £150 billion.

Tepco has used imaging technology to examine each of the affected reactors at the plant.  They have admitted finding a one metre wide hole which they believe was created by nuclear fuel that melted and then penetrated the vessel when the coolant liquid was cut off because of the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

Tepco intends to send  a remotely-controlled robot  into reactor 2 to assess the full level of damage.  This robot will be able to tolerate exposure of up to 1,000 sieverts for about two hours before it begins to malfunction.  Tepco has yet to identify and locate the melted fuel in the three reactors which were damaged in the 2011 accident.  Everyone agrees that removing the melted fuel presents a challenge unprecedented in the history of nuclear power.

The cost estimates for decommissioning continue to rise and will be born by the public at large, not the companies which made claims about the viability, safety, and desirability of nuclear power.  In December 2016, the Japanese government revised the cost of decommissioning the stricken plant, decontaminating the surrounding environment and paying compensation. The most recent estimates are that this will come to £150 billion which is twice what they had estimated in 2013. And there is no guarantee that it will not become even more costly as the decommissioning processes continues. Most of the costs of this operation will be borne, not by Tepco, but by the Japanese taxpayer.

The enormous sums of money involved here should act as wake-up call for all of us.  Many British citizens believe that the agreement to build Hinkley is linked to the military use of nuclear power in upgrading the Trident weapons  programme operated by the Royal Navy.  An article in The New York Times  claimed that the British government was “hiding the true costs of a project like Trident by promoting a questionable and ruinous project like Hinkley Point C distorts the economics of both the defense and the civilian energy sectors. It also skews energy policy itself.,”[3] The estimated cost of building Hinkley is in the region of £22 billion.  The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) estimates that replacing the Trident missile system will cost around £205 billion, far more than previously estimated.[4]

[1] Richard Cray and Michael Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear firm was warned of tsunami risks,” The Sunday Independent,  March 20th 2011,  page 20.

[2] Justin McCurry, “Fukushima radiation levels at highest level since 2011 meltdown,” The Guardian, February 3rd 2017.

[3] Peter Wynn-Kirby, “, Britain’s Nuclear Cover-Up,” New York Times, October 10th 2016.

[4] Richard Norton-Taylor “Replacing Trident will cost at least £205bn, campaigners say,” The Guardian,   March 12th 2016.