If taxpayer money is used to deal with the contaminated water problem at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the government should consider having Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, go bankrupt or nationalizing it, Sumio Mabuchi, who served as an aide to the prime minister on the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, told The Asahi Shimbun in a recent interview.
Mabuchi, 53, is a lawmaker of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power when the nuclear accident unfolded in March 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The leakage of water contaminated with radioactive materials at the crippled Fukushima plant is becoming serious. To solve the problem, the government, now led by the Liberal Democratic Party, is considering measures with TEPCO, including a costly project of constructing a frozen soil wall around reactor and turbine buildings to prevent groundwater from flowing into them. Excerpts from the interview follow:
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Question: About two weeks after the nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima plant, you assumed the post of special adviser in charge of the accident to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Immediately after that, you said contaminated water would become a serious problem.
Mabuchi: In the compound of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, TEPCO constructed buildings on sites lower than the groundwater table by lopping off a cliff. Therefore, it was natural to consider the possibility that groundwater could flow into the buildings and be contaminated by radioactive materials. But TEPCO denied the possibility, saying, “There are no effects (of groundwater) at all.”
Then, I checked the data for the years starting in 1971 when the nuclear plant started operations. As a result, I found the fact that groundwater repeatedly flowed into the buildings of the No. 1 to No. 4 reactors, and TEPCO conducted work to stop the inflow. I felt that the buildings were standing in the path of the groundwater flow. I studied four kinds of impermeable walls, and adopted one in which four sides of the area of the buildings are dug to the clay layer at a depth of 30 meters, and walls made of clay-like materials will be constructed to that depth, like a (huge) square bathtub.
Q: But the idea never materialized?
A: As the project will cost about 100 million yen ($1 million), Kan and then Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda agreed to make it a governmental project. But a day before the project was to be announced on June 14, 2011, TEPCO “overturned” the planned announcement.
Q: Why did TEPCO do so?
A: At that time, TEPCO was in a period of being audited on its financial statements ahead of its June 28 shareholders’ meeting. The reason for overturning the plan was that if people felt that TEPCO had a new debt of 100 million yen (for the construction of the wall) and, as a result, the utility’s liabilities could exceed its assets, the market would be plunged into turmoil.
Sakae Muto, then TEPCO executive vice president, told Kaieda, “Please allow us to announce that we will implement (only) research on the impermeable wall.” I accepted Muto’s proposal because he promised that TEPCO would implement (construction of the impermeable wall) without delay.
Q: Did the DPJ-led government make a mistake in its judgment?
A: No, it didn’t. It is one view that if TEPCO’s liabilities exceed its assets, the market will be plunged into turmoil. The problem is that though we decided to implement the construction of the wall, the decision was later overturned. I don’t know the reason as I was dismissed as a special adviser on June 27. But I deeply regret (that the decision was overturned).
Q: How should the government deal with the contaminated water problem?
A: Prime Minister Abe says that he will deal with the problem under the government’s responsibility. But if the government will use taxpayers’ money, it should consider having TEPCO go bankrupt or nationalizing it. As for the frozen soil wall now being considered by the government, I doubt whether the wall can be constructed uniformly in the ground and can prevent inflows of groundwater. I think that an impermeable wall made of clay-like materials is best.
Q: In the presentation held before the International Olympic Committee’s vote to choose the host country of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Let me assure you the situation (of the contaminated water at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant) is under control."
A: Even if he wanted to win the vote to choose the host country of the 2020 Summer Olympics, he made a mistake in stating the actual condition of the plant. The international community will ask Japan, “Is it really under control?” I think that people around Abe advised him to say so. What judgments politicians should make responsibly when facing such a big issue is a permanent challenge.
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