Is TEPCO, the hapless operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, even remotely interested in trying to repair its shattered reputation? After another cover-up was revealed at the plant this week, we doubt it.
This is the story. Reactor #4 at Fukushima was out of operation, and the fuel assemblies were out of the reactor, when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the plant and triggered the failures that led to the catastrophic meltdowns of reactors #1, #2, and #3. The building of reactor #4 was subsequently damaged by hydrogen explosions and fire from the disaster at its sibling reactors.
Inside the reactor #4 building, 100 feet above ground level, is a storage pool containing the reactor’s over 1,500 nuclear fuel assemblies, 1,300 or so used ones that are still very hot, and another 200 or so that are unused. The hot assemblies need continuous cooling. Each assembly of spent fuel contains radiation equivalent to 10 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
The building is vulnerable to further earthquakes. If any of the fuel assemblies were to be exposed to the atmosphere through a mishap during the operation, dangerously high levels of radiation could be released into the environment. So TEPCO has decided to remove the fuel assemblies and transfer them one at a time to a less vulnerable storage pool.
They've come up with a complicated system of cranes and mobile storage casks for the task. It is a system that worries the head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority.
The work is expected to begin Monday and take over a year to complete.
Three of the fuel assemblies inside the reactor #4 storage pool are damaged and cannot be removed using the system TEPCO has come up with. At this stage TEPCO do not know how they will remove the damaged assemblies. Two are cracked and leaking radioactive gases.
Well, you're probably thinking, some damage is only to be expected with the plant having been hammered with such force by earthquake and tsunami. This is where the cover-up comes in.
The fuel assemblies weren't damaged by the 2011 disaster. It happened earlier. One of them was damaged in 1982 after being mishandled - nearly 30 years ago - and they have lain forgotten or ignored ever since.
A massively complicated operation just got more complicated. If TEPCO had addressed the problem at the time instead of ignoring it, their job now would be a little bit more straightforward.
But that's TEPCO. They have a nasty habit of covering up problems only for those problems to come back to bite them (and the people of Japan).
You may remember, in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster, TEPCO saying there was nothing it could have done to prevent the Fukushima plant being inundated by a tsunami of that size. Except it had been warned in 2008 that a tsunami of that size could occur and that the plant's defences weren't up to the job. TEPCO decided to ignore the warnings.
And it goes on. In July 2012, it emerged that workers at Fukushima were "urged to disguise their exposure to radiation." In July 2013, the company was forced to admit what it had been denying - that contaminated water had been leaking from the Fukushima plant and into the ocean since 2011. How about its heavily redacted accident response manual? What about TEPCO investigating itself and finding it had made no errors in its response to the disaster?
The cover-ups and scandals go back further than 2011. In 2002, it was found that TEPCO covered up its failure to conduct safety tests on its reactors during the 1980s and 90s. The company had also falsified test results.
Now we hear that TEPCO has asked Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority to conduct safety tests at its troubled Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant with a view to restarting two reactors there. Are they serious? After all TEPCO has got up to in the last few years - the lies, cover-ups and incompetence – we don't trust them to run a bath let alone a nuclear power plant.
(Image: Satellite image showing damage at Fukushima 1 Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant after an earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Source: DigitalGlobe)