Emergency Preparedness

Regional Security and the Decommissioning of Fukushima’s Unit 4

Published: November 14, 2013

Few issues on the Asia-Pacific security horizon are more worrying and potentially more destabilizing to the region than the decommissioning and cleanup of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

In the coming weeks, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the nuclear facility, with support from the United States and others in the international community, will work to carefully remove spent fuel rods from the notorious Unit 4, which is in a structurally precarious state.  This is a serious concern because the situation is dangerous enough that a single mistake could potentially lead to a radiological disaster far worse than the initial disaster that occurred two years prior.

That there has not yet been a major disruption in Fukushima that could cause another meltdown and potentially affect the lives of millions in the Asia-Pacific and on the western coast of the United States is an incredible relief to all. But, as some scientists have asserted, the situation in Fukushima is so fragile that a number of things could go wrong at any moment to make the currently risky situation turn globally catastrophic. An earthquake or severe storm, for example, could cause damage to and expose the spent nuclear fuel rods, leading to the massive radiological contamination of the Pacific region, which would endanger the lives of millions of people and force mass evacuations. 

Moreover, there are various factors that make the spent fuel rod removal operation itself a perilous task.  One of the factors include the fact that the structural integrity of Unit 4 is unstable, and with each day that passes it is worsening.  Another factor is that the condition of the equipment that houses or encases the materials being extracted is either unknown or the equipment is believed to be damaged, and not knowing what to expect in this regard adds dangerous unknown variables to the workers’ task.   Given the number of fuel rods that need extraction, the operation must be repeated more than a thousand times without any incidents.  Nuclear radiation exposure will require the constant rotation of on-site workers, taking away from the continuity of operations.  Finally, if the spent fuel rods are mishandled and break open, it could cause the release of highly radioactive material which could lead to yet a nuclear disaster.  The margins for error are therefore slim to none, but the implications are immeasurably significant.

To the consolation of many, TEPCO just recently accepted the offer from the United States to aid in the cleanup. Although it is positive news that the U.S. and others are able to offer nuclear expertise and technological support to Japan during this procedure, it is by no means a panacea, since it does not change the fundamental calculus of the dangerous variables and implications involved. The international community can only hope that U.S. involvement will not prove to be too little or too late.

In the context of regional security, it is important to acknowledge that the situation in Fukushima poses a substantial risk to the stability of the Asia-Pacific. If an incident occurred during the decommissioning of Unit 4 or other sections of the nuclear facility, it would impact systems such as the social and political stability of Japan as well as countries in the region; food security; public health; trade and commerce; the global environment; and regional politics. Governments in the Asia-Pacific would do well to anticipate a variety of emergency scenarios that could unfold during the upcoming and most fragile phases of decommissioning.

Image courtesy of IAEA Imagebank via Flickr Creative Commons.