The initial cost of decommissioning Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was estimated to be USD $19 billion (2 trillion yen). But now it appears that actual expenses are escalating much beyond what was previously projected. The decommissioning effort has already made the coffers lighter by USD $770 million (80 billion yen) over just the last three years.
According to the latest estimates by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the total costs of safely decommissioning the wrecked nuclear power plant alone are likely to snowball from 2 trillion yen to 8 trillion yen – 4 times the previous approximation.
Besides the cost of decommissioning, there are added expenses that would involve the costs of compensation and decontamination of the site (removal of trees, building and radiated topsoil). This cost inflation is largely attributed to increasing construction and labour costs not to mention the challenges faced in finding and extracting hundreds of highly dangerous blobs of melted fuel rods. It is estimated that the entire operation would take decades to complete.
In March 2011, an earthquake triggered a huge tsunami that claimed the lives of nearly 19,000 people and crippled the Fukushima power plant – resulting in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The catastrophe sparked fuel meltdowns at three of the plant’s six reactors – luckily the other three were under scheduled repair so not operating on the day. The meltdowns ended up causing explosions that released nuclear radiations into the environment – forcing more than 160,000 people to evacuate. Health experts believe that the psychological repercussions due to evacuation, relocation, fear from radiation exposure and social discrimination could be more damaging to health than the risk from radiation.
Tremendous efforts and money have already gone into cleaning Japan’s ground zero. But 6 years after the disaster, these efforts are still rolling at a very slow pace. And the researchers from the Tokyo Electric Power Company are seemingly clueless on how to clean up radioactive materials in the coastal waters near the facility.
The exact location of the spent fuel rods, which melted through their containment vessels, is yet to be confirmed. Dangerous radiations make it impossible for humans to get inside the nuclear plant. The early attempts to send in remote-controlled robots have also proved largely ineffective.
TEPCO could extract 1,535 used fuel-rod assemblies from the pool in reactor building #4, where the radioactivity was relatively less, but the efforts have remained unsuccessful in establishing the exact location of melted fuel rod assemblies in the plant’s reactor building #3 and commencing removal. According to Naohiro Masuda, Tepco’s head of decommissioning, when the robots reached the reactor cores, high amounts of radioactivity damaged their wirings, making them useless. This added to further delays as each robot needs to be custom-built for each building and it takes nearly two years to develop one such robot .
Hi-tech robotics companies are now working with renewed focus to design more powerful robots that specialize in decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power facilities and navigate through the harsh challenges faced in their search for melted nuclear debris.
The melted fuel makes the Fukushima Daiichi site a huge threat to the country and by the look of it the removal of fuel debris is not likely to begin before 2019. Until TEPCO locates the fuel without lingering doubt, it is tough to assess the progress rate or the final costs.
As we discussed in our previous article ‘Six years after the meltdown’, the dismantling and clean-up efforts have already been plagued by a series of bad decisions and errors in the methods by which radioactive waste and water was handled by the authorities.
For example, as a part of the decommissioning effort, a steady stream of water is being pumped into the containment vessels to cool down the melted and radiated reactors. The site has hastily built storage tanks, hundreds in numbers, to hold the highly-radioactive water. There is a huge concern of these storage tanks leaking radioactive water into the ocean.
The radioactive earth and soil collected from the surrounding area by the government at a staggering cost of $1.5 billion also sits at the site packed in thousands of black bags.
Additionally, the underground ice wall built at a mind-blowing cost of $320 million seems to have been largely ineffective. This highly controversial and expensive project was conceptualized in a bid to stop the groundwater from flowing into the damaged reactor buildings and becoming contaminated; and also to prevent the irradiated water from leaking into the Pacific Ocean.
Initially, the Japanese government was looking into adding the total costs of decommissioning the wrecked nuclear facility to power transmission fees. But this plan was soon dropped owing to public pressure. According to The Japan Times, the government now plans to legally oblige TEPCO to deposit money to cover the associated costs, “A draft of a bill to revise the law on the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corporation states that business operators that caused nuclear accidents are obliged to deposit funds to cover related costs with the organization every fiscal year.”  Eventually, the decommissioning effort is going to weigh heavily upon the Japanese economy.
The international community continues to watch closely as Japan strives to erase traces of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, even though it looks like an uphill battle both strategically and financially.
- Reuters. The Robots Sent Into Fukushima Have ‘Died’. Newsweek. October 2016.
- Law to make Tepco retain money for decommissioning costs. The Japan Times. January 2017.