“ PETER LLOYD: To nuclear issues of another kind now, and Japan has finally accepted international help to sort out the mess at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
It’s agreed to let the French help decommission and dismantle it.
Our Tokyo correspondent Mark Willacy says it’s a climb-down that signals how little success Japan has had stopping the spread of contaminant since the earthquake two and a half years ago.
MARK WILLACY: Well there are a couple of factors, Peter. Firstly, there’s been a lot of international attention and consternation, as you’d imagine, about these leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant. We have the seepage of about 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater into the sea every day.
We’ve also been told that there was a leak of 300,000 litres of highly radioactive water from a storage tank at the site. And that some of that water could have gone into the ocean. That’s according to the operator TEPCO.
So there’s not just concern about that in Japan, but there’s also concern in neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China. So there’s a sense that Japan needs outside help, particularly to stem this flow of groundwater under the plant.
But secondly, there was the pledge by Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month that the situation at Fukushima was “under control”. And that pledge was made to an international audience and was aimed particularly at the International Olympic Committee. And of course we now know that hours later, Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games.
So there’s a feeling in the government here in Tokyo that TEPCO needs help to get the plant and its problems in order. And to do that, may finally mean accepting international help and international technology.
PETER LLOYD: What sort of know-how do the French bring to the table? What do we know about the agreement they’ve made?
MARK WILLACY: We don’t know a lot about the agreement. We do know that the Japanese prime minister, Mr Abe, did meet on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting in New York with the French president Francois Hollande. And that this agreement was struck. We don’t know much more than that. We don’t know how the French will help. But we do know that France is one of the world’s leaders in nuclear technologies. We know that the French nuclear firm Areva designed a radiation filtration system that was used for months at the Fukushima plant.
So it seems French help may now extend beyond that but it appears the detail has yet to be fleshed out.
PETER LLOYD: Right. And the French aren’t the only ones. The Russians are on the sidelines offering help too.
MARK WILLACY: That’s right. In fact the Russians offered to help more than two years ago, but that offer of help was never taken up. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom sent Japan a sample of what it said was a special absorbent to help clean up contaminated water but the sample just wasn’t used by the Japanese.
The Russians have said all along that pumping in water to cool the melted reactors was always going to cause more problems than in was worth. That it was just going to create more radioactive water. And in fact we now know that’s what TEPCO is grappling with at the site. So the Russians did offer this absorbent technology but as I say it was never used by the Japanese.
However, the Russians are now reporting a more positive attitude in Tokyo towards accepting their help. After all, Moscow has pointed out in the past that there’s no such thing as a national nuclear accident. They are all international accidents. And after Chernobyl, the Russians would know.
PETER LLOYD: Is there, for the Japanese, a loss of face in this kind of climb-down?
MARK WILLACY: Well there’s certainly been this sense in Japan that they can handle it themselves. In fact not only can they handle it themselves but they left all the running to TEPCO, the company was held at fault by many for this accident. So yes, there has been that sense of isolationism here about, look, we don’t need outside help.
But then we saw the government step in and say to TEPCO, look, we need to play a bigger role in helping you with this. And I suppose now the government has said well to do that we’ll need international help. So maybe there would be a loss of face.
But I think it goes beyond that, and especially with Japan having the Olympics in a few years time, there could be more international scrutiny about the safety issues at Fukushima which means that they may need to accept more international help to assuage those concerns.
PETER LLOYD: Mark Willacy is the ABC’s North Asia correspondent. “