Three Years Later, A Harrowing Visit To Fukushima : Parallels The operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is under criticism for its management of the cleanup after the tsunami and subsequent meltdown in 2011. NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently went inside one of the Fukushima reactors to see the efforts himself.

Three Years Later, A Harrowing Visit To Fukushima

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The cleanup at the crippled nuclear reactor at Fukushima, Japan has been plagued by problems. Contaminated water has leaked into the ocean, radiation levels are higher than originally announced and the Japanese public is suspicious that the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, isn't telling the whole story. Next month is the three-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear disaster, and yesterday NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Fukushima and went inside one of the reactors. He joins us now from Tokyo. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What did you see inside that reactor?

KUHN: Well, the highlight of the tour was going inside the number four reactor, where they're in the process of removing spent and unused fuel rods. And they were trying to show me and trying to show the public, first of all, that they've reinforced the whole structure against any further earthquakes or tsunamis, that they are safely removing the fuel rods that are in there, and that they are trying to block contaminated water from flowing from the mountains through the plant and into the Pacific.

SIMON: Did you see the other reactors?

KUHN: The crucial ones I could not go into, and reactors one through three suffered partial meltdowns. And as a result, there is so much radiation in there that they cannot send people in there to look. They have to use robots and remote cameras to try to find out what's going on. But they still don't know exactly how bad the damage is from those partial meltdowns. They're not going to start dealing with that part of the thing until 2020, and the whole process of shutting down the plant could take 30 or 40 years, by TEPCO's estimates.

SIMON: And what problems have they been having just recently even in the clean-up?

KUHN: It's been a very tough week or few weeks for TEPCO. There's been word that there's too much cobalt radiation in reactor number four. The really harsh judgment came from Japan's nuclear regulatory agency, which says that TEPCO just doesn't know how to measure or handle radiation, and that's a regulator that was, you know, that has been accused of being too cozy with TEPCO. So, they're really struggling to regain the public's trust, and that's why I was allowed in there.

SIMON: Anthony, there's a lot of nuclear radioactive material at the plant. What are the dangers of another accident, another disaster?

KUHN: Well, experts and the public are very divided about this matter, as they are on the whole issue of nuclear power in Japan. Critics point out that a lot of the technology for removing the melted reactor cores and stopping radioactive water from going to the sea is still untested. TEPCO emphasized to me that they have multiple contingency plans in place to deal with every possible scenario. And they say they're making progress. At the same time, they admit that none of this is 100 percent risk-free.

SIMON: Anthony, may I ask, how are you?

KUHN: I feel good enough. I don't feel eradiated. I was wrapped from head to toe in protective gear, including three layers of gloves, a suit, a face mask, a respirator and a dosimeter, which measures radiation. It was uncomfortable, but I was only in there for a couple of hours. And then I came out. They scanned me numerous times. And at the end of the day, TEPCO's judgment was that I had absorbed about as much radiation as a chest X-ray. But who's to say?

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Tokyo. Thanks so much for being with us, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Scott.

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