Fukushima 6 years later: radioactive boars and $188 billion in clean-up costs

Nuclear safety may not come cheap, but lack of safety is very costly indeed.

Workers wearing protective gear are seen through a bus window during a media tour to the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Feb. 2017. CREDIT: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool Photo via AP
Workers wearing protective gear are seen through a bus window during a media tour to the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Feb. 2017. CREDIT: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool Photo via AP

Six years after an earthquake and tsunami led to three nuclear reactors melting down, Japan is still generating and struggling with staggering amounts of radioactive waste.

In November, the Japanese government said cleanup and compensation costs for the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster would be an unprecedented 20 trillion yen ($180 billion) — double the previous estimate. Nuclear safety may not come cheap for an industry that is increasingly noncompetitive nationally and globally, but lack of safety is very costly indeed.

Soaring costs and accumulating waste aren’t Fukushima’s only problems. While the government wants to start lifting evacuation orders on some towns within the 12-mile exclusion zone, potential returnees have to deal with hundreds of radioactive wild boars roaming the streets. Reuters reports that some boars have “levels of radioactive material 130 times above Japan’s safety standards.”

“After people left, their ecosystem changed,” explained one local hunter hired to deal with the boars. “They began coming down from the mountains and now they aren’t going back. They found plenty of food, and no one will come after them. This is their new home now.” More than 13,000 boars have been hunted so far.

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Perhaps more shocking is that six years after the meltdowns, Fukushima is still generating and dealing with unimaginable amounts of contaminated waste.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is still “pumping water nonstop through the three reactors to cool melted fuel that remains too hot and radioactive to remove,” as the New York Times explained Saturday. That generates some 400 tons of contaminated water each day. With more than 962,000 tons now stored on site, storage space is running out. Some officials have contemplated whether they could dilute the waste and dump it in the ocean. Unsurprisingly, “local fishermen are vehemently opposed.”

There are also more than 3,500 shipping containers holding radioactive sludge left over from the initial efforts to decontaminate all that water.

On top of that, every day, some 6,000 cleanup workers dispose of their protective hazmat suits and other gear, so far generating nearly 65,000 cubic meters of gear — enough to fill 17 million one-gallon containers. TEPCO plans to burn it all at some point.

Another 80,000 cubic meters of contaminated tree branches and tree trunks is being stored, cleared from 220 acres of now-deforested land around the site. It is also awaiting eventual incineration.

In addition, TEPCO estimates it is storing 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive rubble — the concrete, pipes and metal destroyed in the initial reactor explosions. That could fill another 3,000 standard shipping containers.

Workers have put 3.5 billion gallons of soil in thousands of plastic garbage bags in the area around the plants. The government will need thousands of acres (bought from local landowners) to finish an enormous “interim” storage facility — but says it will still need new sites by the 2040s.

Finally, there are more than 1,500 nuclear fuel rods. Most are spent fuel in cooling ponds that are inside the reactors and which TEPCO hopes to start removing next year.

But the most dangerous are the rods that were powering the reactors when they melted down. Radiation levels are so high in some areas they would be fatal to a human being in under a minute. In fact, the levels are so high that even robots designed to handle high levels of radiation keep failing.

TEPCO hopes to start removing that highly-radioactive debris in 2021. But the danger of doing so may be so great that they are ultimately forced to simply encase the entire mess in “a concrete and steel sarcophagus like the one used at Chernobyl.”

The Fukishima disaster is not the main reason market economies have essentially stopped building new nuclear plants. Rather, the industry has simply priced itself out of the market for new power plants.

Even the French can’t build an affordable, on-schedule, next-generation nuclear plant in their own nuclear-friendly country. Their newest Normandy plant was projected to cost €3 billion ($3.3 billion) and start producing power in 2012, but it won’t start until 2018 and the cost is now a whopping €10.5 billion ($11.3 billion).

In this country, the industry is so noncompetitive that half of existing nuclear power plants are no longer profitable — which just underscores the fact that new multi-billion nuclear power plants make no economic sense whatsoever.

But what the ongoing hot mess at Fukushima does highlight is that the nuclear industry can’t afford to skimp on safety: Disasters are simply too devastating. Yet as a 2015 analysis of the ever-escalating costs for French nuclear reactors concluded, “Our last result says that those reactors with better safety performance were more expensive. Then achieving higher safety levels also helped to explain the cost escalation in the French nuclear fleet.”

Bottom line: Nuclear safety may not come cheap, but lack of safety is very costly indeed.