The crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is far from over.
The government has yet to call off the state of nuclear emergency it declared on March 11, 2011, when the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami set off the nuclear accident.
Water contaminated with radioactive materials keeps leaking from the crippled plant, polluting underground soil and the sea in the area.
This fact clearly shows that the nuclear disaster is still going on.
Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the continued leakage of contaminated water is “a pressing problem."
“The government will take effective measures to tackle the problem instead of leaving it entirely to Tokyo Electric Power," he said.
Abe made these remarks at a meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, set up in line with the government's declaration of the state of nuclear emergency. Abe is head of the task force.
By clearly defining the respective responsibilities of the utility and the government organizations involved in responding to the situation, the government needs to make flat-out efforts to contain radiation and resolve the crisis.
The government has made a big mistake by leaving it entirely to TEPCO. As a result, measures to stop leaks of radioactive water have been ineffective, allowing environmental pollution to escalate. The government's move to step in and get involved in the efforts to sort out the problem came far too late.
Abe told industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi to give appropriate instructions to TEPCO as soon as possible. He also called on Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, to ensure that the nuclear regulatory body will direct all its efforts toward identifying the causes of the problem and take effective steps to secure safety.
Although TEPCO will remain in charge of cleanup work at the site, the government said it will now take concrete actions to support the efforts. The industry ministry has indicated it will cover part of the costs of implementing a plan to freeze soil around the nuclear facilities to prevent groundwater from flowing into the contaminated areas of the plant.
But the ministry will provide the money to partly finance the measure as research expenses. Given the urgency of the situation, the ministry's commitment to tackling the situation is far too weak.
The NRA is not showing an all-out commitment to the challenge, either.
“TEPCO and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy are playing a central role (in dealing with the problem)," Tanaka said. “Our role is to provide advice (for the efforts) as an observer."
It would be shameful if TEPCO, the industry ministry, which has been a champion of nuclear power generation, and the NRA, the nuclear regulator, try to shuffle off responsibility onto one another or make their responsibility vague, thereby causing delays in the implementation of necessary measures.
The NRA's role is crucial.
Ahead of receiving the request from Abe, the nuclear watchdog set up a task force to discuss measures to stop leaks of contaminated water.
The group has shown a willingness to provide guidance for TEPCO's efforts to deal with the situation by raising some specific questions that need to be answered, such as: “How effective will it be to pump up groundwater?" “How far has polluted water spread in power cable ducts?"
The NRA should demonstrate a stronger commitment to the challenge and offer useful ideas by using all its expertise and other intellectual resources.
The chief of the now defunct Nuclear Safety Commission was not even a member of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, but the NRA chairman is deputy chief of the headquarters. The entity should make the most of the powers vested in it according to lessons learned from the disaster.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 17
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