OKUMA, Fukushima -- With two weeks to go until the sixth anniversary of the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant here, the Mainichi Shimbun visited the plant on Feb. 24, obtaining a first-hand view of working conditions and the persisting problem of tainted water.
The number of areas on the plant site requiring full face masks has decreased considerably, and the overall working environment has improved greatly. However, the issue of having to replace the tanks that hold radioactively contaminated water lingers.
Dealing with contaminated water requires significant manpower. According to TEPCO, about half of the approximately 6,000 people working daily at the No. 1 nuclear power plant are involved in handling contaminated water.
There are roughly 1,000 tanks of contaminated water inside the No. 1 plant site, forming a forest of containers with nowhere else to go.
During the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster in 2011, a considerable number of tanks known as flanges were placed within the site. However, as concerns continue to grow about contaminated water leaking from these tanks due to dilapidation, TEPCO has taken action and is working on dismantling them.
Although covering the ground at the No. 1 plant with concrete has made it possible to work in about 90 percent of the site without a protective uniform, all those working near the old tanks must wear full face masks and Tyvek suits as the tanks once held highly contaminated water. Wearing this kind of protective clothing makes the work much harder to perform -- as it can be difficult to breathe -- and it is physically exhausting, even in the middle of winter.
Hiroshi Abe, 55, of Shimizu Corp. -- the company overseeing the dismantling work -- states, "As we work toward recovery from the disaster, we want to ensure that all workers are protected from radiation exposure and injuries."
Presently, the level of radiation in the vicinity of the buildings housing the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 reactors is high. During the Mainichi Shimbun's visit to the site on Feb. 24, the radiation level near the No. 3 reactor was found to be more than 300 microsieverts per hour, and near the No. 2 reactor building, it was discovered to be 137.6 microsieverts per hour.
Furthermore, an "ice wall," which was built to restrict the flow of contaminated water underground, has not been as effective as initially expected.
A spokesman for TEPCO, Takahiro Kimoto, who accompanied the Mainichi Shimbun on this visit, said, "Nearly six years have passed since the disaster. Our decommissioning work is now about to enter the main stage of extracting melted fuel."
However, with TEPCO and the government's decommissioning work set to continue until around 2041-2051, there is still a long way to go until they can reach the "main stage."