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Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

Noda gets close look at Fukushima plant

Trip to facility possibly pre-election publicity stunt


Staff writer

OKUMA, Fukushima Pref. — Wearing a full-face mask and white protective suit, Yoshihiko Noda visited the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Sunday, becoming the first politician to inspect the central control room and the first prime minister to enter one of the four wrecked reactor buildings.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, wearing a white protective suit, pauses for the photographers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Sunday
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, wearing a white protective suit, pauses for the photographers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Sunday, before inspecting the central control room at one of the four wrecked reactor buildings. KYODO

Noda also visited the nearby base camp for plant employees and met eight of the "Fukushima 50" — the heroic workers who stayed at the plant at the height of the nuclear crisis and barely averted a catastrophic disaster that could have contaminated much of eastern Japan, including Tokyo.

"Thanks to your dedication, we have Japan as it is today," Noda told the eight men at J-Village, a sports facility now used as a base camp for about 3,000 plant workers who travel to the Fukushima plant every day.

Among the eight were Masatoshi Fukura and Atsufumi Yoshizawa, both 54. Fukura was leader of the operations team for units 1 to 4 of the crippled power station, while Yoshizawa headed the team for units 5 and 6. The remaining six workers declined to be identified.

"First, I'd like to apologize to the people" of Japan for failing to prevent the nuclear accident, Yoshizawa said at the outset of the meeting.

Each of the eight men then briefly talked about their appalling experiences at the No. 1 complex, which saw three of its six reactors melt down following the Great East Japan Earthquake, leading to a massive release of radioactive materials into the environment.

"The (power generators) were knocked out by water from the tsunami. I thought it was all over," said one of the plant workers. "I thought, 'This is it; this is the end of it all.' "

When the monster quake hit the plant on March 11 last year, the workers successfully shut down all of the reactors and averted a catastrophic nuclear chain reaction. But after the ensuing tsunami crippled the reactor cores' critical power and cooling systems, the remaining decay heat from the melted nuclear fuel eventually burned through the pressure vessels.

"I asked my staff to repair the power facilities. But the night was dark, and they could have been electrocuted. . . . They were scared and asked me sternly, "Will we be able to return safely if we go out now?' " the worker recalled.

"My body still shakes when I remember the (hydrogen) explosion at reactor 3. The ground rocked with a massive 'Bang!' " another of the Fukushima 50 said.

Desperate to find a source of power to switch on critical meters to determine the condition of the reactors, he and his coworkers pulled batteries from their own cars and carried them to the central control room, even though each of them weighed 20 to 30 kg and the plant was being repeatedly rocked by strong aftershocks.

"My colleagues and I did our best," he said.

Later Sunday, Noda also visited nearby communities to check on ongoing decontamination work and radiation monitoring of locally grown rice before shipment to retailers.

The Fukushima trip may be an attempt by Noda to shore up his dwindling popularity before the next Lower House election. This is the second time he has inspected the Fukushima No. 1 plant, following a visit in September 2011.

A group of reporters were allowed to enter the complex with Noda, who even climbed to the top of the damaged building housing the No. 4 reactor.

Experts say that over the past year, the risk of another serious accident at the plant has considerably lessened, although long-term concerns about the durability of equipment and facilities remain since decommissioning the reactors could drag on for up to 40 years.

Plant workers are now speeding up work to remove about 1,500 nuclear fuel assemblies stored in a spent-fuel pool on the fourth floor of the No. 4 reactor building, which suffered extensive damage from a hydrogen explosion.

Tepco now plans to start extracting the fuel assemblies by the end of next year, and to finish moving them to another spent-fuel pool designed for long-term storage by the end of 2015.

Once accomplished, the likelihood of another serious accident will be even slimmer, according to Kyoto University professor Hajimu Yamana, who also sits on the committee overseeing the long-term management of the power plant.

"There won't be any more serious trouble unless something extraordinary happens," Yamana said, pointing out that simulations by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. showed the reactor 4 building can withstand an earthquake measuring upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7.

But it's better to move all the spent fuel to the second pool, which is more resistant to earthquakes and has a better cooling system, Yamana noted, because "you can't totally deny the possibility of (another) gigantic earthquake" striking the area.

Meanwhile, the remaining decay heat from the nuclear fuel in the damaged reactor cores is estimated to have fallen to 1 megawatt from 2.35 megawatts over the past year as radiation is emitted, according to calculations by Tepco.

This has considerably reduced the risk of another disaster at the complex "and as time passes, (Tepco) will get greater scope" to fix the critical water coolant system, Yamana said.

The decay heat is expected to fall to 0.61 megawatt by next October and to 0.42 megawatt a year later, according to Tepco's data.



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