Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has raised the stakes in his gamble concerning the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
His visit to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on Sept. 19 was designed to reinforce the impression that the central government was taking charge of the situation. But by bringing greater attention to the accident, Abe has opened himself up to potential criticism if problems and setbacks continue to emerge in a cleanup process that has so far been anything but smooth.
Abe told workers at the plant site, “While the work you are doing is difficult, the future of Japan rests on your shoulders.”
The fate of the Abe administration could also depend on the work there.
The prime minister made headlines by telling an International Olympic Committee meeting earlier in September that the problem of radiation-contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant was under control.
After his reassuring words helped Tokyo win its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, a technological adviser to the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., contradicted Abe’s claim.
During his visit to the plant, Abe focused on efforts to prevent the contaminated water from leaking into the ocean. He was shown tanks that have been leaking radioactive water as well as the Alps multi-nuclide removal equipment, which can eliminate 62 radioactive substances from contaminated water.
He also observed the silt fences that were installed to stem the flow of water inside the harbor at the Fukushima plant site.
TEPCO officials explained that radioactive materials were often below detectable levels in waters outside of the harbor.
Abe asked the officials what constituted a range of 0.3 square kilometers in the harbor. He had cited that figure when he told IOC members that Tokyo would not be affected by the contaminated water problem.
After his visit to the nuclear plant, Abe again used that figure to emphasize that his understanding of the problem had not changed.
“The effects of contaminated water have been completely blocked within a range of 0.3 square kilometers within the harbor,” he told reporters.
Although Abe used the term “blocked,” the silt fences in the harbor cannot prevent all water from flowing out into the ocean. Radioactive materials pass through the silt fences and mix with the ocean, becoming so diluted that they are difficult to detect.
Even Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said the measures at the Fukushima site are not stopping all of the water within the harbor.
Abe explained that his visit to Fukushima had been in the works for some time and was not added to his schedule because of the increased international attention to the situation.
During the visit, Abe instructed TEPCO President Naomi Hirose to decommission the No. 5 and 6 reactors of the plant and purify the contaminated water being stored in tanks at the site.
“We will secure an additional 1 trillion yen ($10 billion) for decommissioning and complete purifying the contaminated water by the end of fiscal 2014,” Hirose told Abe.
Some officials say the central government will inevitably have to pump in more public funds to deal with the Fukushima crisis now that it has put itself in charge of ending the contaminated water problem.
“The situation will likely arise in which the central government will also have to deal with decontaminating areas in Fukushima polluted by radioactive materials as well as constructing the interim storage facility for the removed soil,” a source close to Abe said.
A former Cabinet minister said measures to address the various problems related to the Fukushima nuclear accident will have a major effect on the nation’s fiscal condition.
Opposition parties plan to question how the government is handling the Fukushima situation.
“One thing we will have to think about in the future is what to do should the problem become drawn out,” a high-ranking government official said.
(This article was written by Norihisa Hoshino and Tomoyoshi Otsu.)
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