Dismantling Fukushima: The World's Toughest Demolition Project

Selling Nuclear Safety to the Public

In a mock-up control room at the Fukushima Daini plant, 10 kilometers down the coast from Fukushima Daiichi, workers in blue tracksuits man their stations, monitoring the screens and dials that display the operating parameters of a nuclear reactor. Then a thunderous roar booms through the room, and a shout goes up: “Earthquake!” The workers brace themselves and hold on to metal rails—but the room is not actually shaking. It’s just a safety drill. TEPCO routinely conducts these training sessions, varying the disaster scenarios to en- sure that its workers are ready for any kind of malfunction or natural catastrophe.

These drills are part of a campaign by Japan’s big utilities to convince the government and the public that the country’s nuclear reactors should be reopened, and that they should get back to the business of providing electricity. Before the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, 54 reactors provided about 30 percent of the country’s electric power. Right now, not a single reactor is in operation. Utility companies are importing fossil fuels to make up the shortfall, but that work-around is taking an economic toll on the companies and their customers alike.

Japan’s current administration supports reopening some nuclear plants, and in 2012 the government established a new oversight agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, to set stricter safety standards. The NRA has declared that no reactor built over an active seismic fault can reopen, and it has already targeted one re- actor for closure on that basis. The agency also set new requirements for defenses against earthquakes, tsunamis, and power outages, and the utility companies are scrambling to bring their facilities up to code.

At TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest nuclear power station, workers are erecting a 15-meter-high wall between the build- ings and the sea to guard against future tsunamis. Each of the plant’s seven reactors has three emergency diesel generators to power its cooling systems, but if all of those fail the plant can now rely on gas turbines aboard trucks stationed on a hill 35 meters above sea level; these turbines can provide power to the reactors for two days. A new water reservoir, 45 meters above sea level, can provide all the cooling water the plant would need for one week.

But even if TEPCO builds a wall up to the sky and installs a miniature ocean on the hilltop, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant still might not reopen: The local government hasn’t yet given its approval, and many residents are opposed to the restart. Throughout the country, people express considerable unease about a return to nuclear power. In a recent newspaper poll, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they don’t agree with the government’s pro-nuclear policies. Back at Fukushima Daini, where workers diligently conduct their safety drills, TEPCO has made some upgrades to its buildings and emergency power systems. But Noriyuki Imaizumi, deputy superintendent of the power station, says there is no official plan to restart the plant and that the prefectural government is against it. Imaizumi says the deciding vote will ultimately come from the people of the towns near Fukushima Daini—towns that are still evacuated due to radioactive contamination.

“I feel we have to get the residents’ approval if we are to restart,” Imaizumi says. For now, Fukushima Daini’s workers will come to work each day on a company bus that drives down empty roads and through empty towns. They’ll conduct their drills and keep vigil over the plant’s four reactors, making sure they’re safe and stable—and that they can be restarted should conditions allow. “The residents will return eventually,” Imaizumi says, “and when they do, we have to show ourselves ready to do whatever they decide.”