Don't let Fukushima nuke disaster devolve into another Battle of Guadalcanal

Things are going badly. There's radioactive water leaking, and it can't be controlled.

The minister of economy, trade and industry has said that the central government will now "man the front lines" in the war to tame the Fukushima nuclear crisis, but if the workers on-site do not consent to join battle, if they cannot muster the courage to keep up the fight, then we cannot expect real progress. At least, that's the impression I got after talking with one of those workers, an employee of Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).

"The managers don't go outside to the work sites," the worker told me last week. "There are a lot of managers who get almost no radiation exposure, and then they just quit. There's some unhappiness about that where I work. Some people actually tell the managers, 'Go out to the site!' and do the inspections or the maintenance. But in the (plant decommissioning) plan, it actually says that operations have to be 'directed from indoors.' The managers use that as an excuse."

I cannot write the worker's name, or age, or job description here. But I can say that he is not an agitator or loose cannon, stirring up dissatisfaction. Rather, he is a completely average employee, laboring in an environment plagued by a chronic lack of information, beset by haphazard orders, and hampered by poor communication.

"Now, at the plant, they're talking about how to assign people to the contaminated water tank patrols," the worker continued. "The (TEPCO) vice president went ahead and told a news conference that we'd do 'four checks a day,' didn't he? But we're not getting any extra staff. The management says 'do this' and 'do that,' but I don't think they really consider the workers' radiation exposure doses at all.

"Recently, some government minister came here (to the plant) and ran his mouth, right? When I see stuff like that, I think, 'Gimme a break! What the hell do you know about anything?'"

Some radioactive water was seen flowing into the ocean back in April 2011, soon after the three-reactor meltdowns. Sumio Mabuchi, a former minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism and an aide to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, called immediately for an underground earthen wall to stop the flow of ground water beneath the plant grounds. TEPCO ignored him. After long and meandering discussions, that subterranean barrier plan is finally being implemented, but in this as in all else, TEPCO remains passive and reluctant to take action.

The contaminated water issue jumped back to the top of the priority list in April this year, when an underground storage tank for contaminated water sprang a leak. TEPCO had intended to begin dumping water detoxified with the Toshiba Corp.-built Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) into the ocean after gaining the consent of local fisheries cooperatives. The ALPS equipment, however, broke down in June. Then in August, an aboveground storage tank erected to deal with the excess water also sprang a leak and yet more radioactively contaminated water flowed into the Pacific, spreading panic with it.

The government official overseeing the situation called the leak "incompetent management. It's just not acceptable." With matters coming to a head, the prime minister and the industry minister finally began saying the government would assume responsibility.

I've heard the officer in charge of the Self-Defense Forces efforts at the Fukushima plant describe the situation as being "the same as war." In fact, the chaos that has erupted because of the toxic water leaks reminds me of the Imperial Japanese Army's planning in World War II's Battle of Guadalcanal.

Almost 20,000 Japanese officers and men died of starvation on that southern Pacific island because they were not properly resupplied. This logistical failure was due to overconfidence and a critical underestimation of the American enemy. Japanese strategy in the battle lost view of the broader situation, and the operations ordered from on-high stank of grandstanding. Those at the top of the command structure, looking at their maps in Tokyo, could not grasp the realities of the hard-fought battle.

All this bears a striking similarity to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Leadership has underestimated the contaminated water problem, put too much confidence in storage tanks and ALPS, and put the plant workers under ever greater strain as miscalculation is piled upon mistake.

We cannot let Fukushima devolve into another Guadalcanal. The government's real intentions, whether it really is willing to "man the front lines," will be revealed in the monies and personnel it commits to the nuclear disaster. On Aug. 27, the industry ministry named Director-General for Policy Planning and Coordination Toshihide Kasutani, 52, to lead the "contaminated water special policy secretariat," which will also be given a budget. I'd like to believe that this marks the end of putting lowered costs over safety.

The workers at the Fukushima plant deeply distrust those in Tokyo, and this must be wiped away. The waters next to the plant have been subject to unprecedented nuclear contamination, and this must be halted. Diet discussions must be put to practical use, to strengthen the distribution of information both domestically and internationally. After so much continuous failure, we must repair the damage done to Japan's international reputation. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

September 02, 2013(Mainichi Japan)