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It has been nearly three years since a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed nearly 20,000 people. Another victim: the Fukushima nuclear power plant. There was a meltdown at three reactors there. Cleaning up and shutting down that plant involves huge challenges and risks that are expected to last for decades.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently went inside one of the damaged plant's nuclear reactors, and he filed this report.
HIDEAKI NORO: (Foreign language spoken)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: One micro Sievert per hour, says Hideaki Noro, measuring the radiation as we roll through the deserted town of Tomioka, on the way to the nuclear plant. Noro is a public relations officer with the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, or TEPCO, which owns the Fukushima facility. We drive within sight of the pacific coast, past abandoned, snow-covered houses and rice paddies. Once we get to the plant, the first thing to do is get suited up.
I am now, you could say, dressed to the nines for Fukushima. I've got three layers of cloth and rubber gloves, sealed shut with tape at the wrists. And I'm breathing through a respirator, and I've got an orange safety helmet on my head - not a sliver of skin showing anywhere, here.
One of TEPCO's priorities now is to remove nuclear fuel rods from reactor number four. When the quake and tsunami hit, this reactor was turned off, so there was no meltdown, unlike at reactors one, two and three. In we go.
I'm essentially walking through the ruins of this number four reactor. They've erected scaffolding to get up inside it, and I'm going up this metal staircase.
We clamber through dark spaces cluttered with debris, and arrive at the giant pool of water used to store the nuclear fuel rods. TEPCO is moving them to a safer location. It's an urgent and delicate task.
So we're now looking at a mechanical hand, a robotic arm, which picks up the spent fuel assemblies out of the pool of water and puts them in a cask for transportation out of the reactor. What is the risk of that hand dropping a fuel assembly by accident?
Engineer Takashi Hara replies.
TAKASHI HARA: (Through Translator) This arm system has a special lock. Even if the power is cut, there's a failsafe that locks the system so that it won't drop or break the fuel rod.
KUHN: Hara says removing fuel rods is a fairly routine procedure. But there are daunting problems elsewhere. Every day, 400 tons of water flows out the mountains towards the beach. It passes through the plant and becomes contaminated.
YUKIHIRO WATANABE: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Down by the waterfront, Yukihiro Watanabe explains to me that TEPCO is building chemical and metal barriers to block that water from entering the Pacific. And then, to store all that contaminated water, they have to build a new storage tank every two-and-a-half days.
There's another major problem TEPCO cannot show visitors. There's just too much radiation inside reactors one, two and three for anyone to go in there. They're still trying to figure out just how to clean up that mess. For now, they're just going to let it cool down until around 2020.
Back outside the plant, Hideaki Noro says that TEPCO's multiple safety measures cannot completely eliminate risk.
NORO: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Put simply, risk is unavoidable, he says. We just have to take that into consideration in our work.
TEPCO admitted last week that 100 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked out of storage tanks. The radiation was more than seven million times what the government says can safely go into the sea. This follows news that TEPCO released figures for the presence of the radioactive isotope strontium that were five months late and 10 times higher than they originally said they were.
Hideka Morimoto, Deputy Secretary General of Japan's nuclear regulator, says his agency will step up its supervision of TEPCO.
HIDEKA MORIMOTO: (Through translator) We think it's a big problem that TEPCO can't handle such basic things as measuring radiation, much less dealing with the other problems.
KUHN: Veteran science journalist Haruo Kurasawa explains why TEPCO is so hard to regulate.
HARUO KURASAWA: (Through translator) Frankly speaking, Japanese electric companies, especially TEPCO, are too big - big enough to be able to influence politics and regulatory agencies, big enough to be able to hide their mistakes, wrongdoing and accidents. This is the structure of the Japanese nuclear industry now.
KUHN: Kurasawa salutes the many TEPCO workers who work courageously under difficult and dangerous circumstances. But he deplores what he calls TEPCO's moral hazard, by which he means unethical management, and a disaster for which Japan's taxpayers, not TEPCO, foot the bill.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.
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