” Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s shortcomings, the Finance Ministry’s stubbornness and the industry ministry’s need for a scapegoat combined to create the radioactive water crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
And while the three key players refuse to be held accountable for Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, this “troika of irresponsibility” is still bickering over the cleanup process as contaminated water continues to leak into the plant ground and the ocean.
The risks of radioactive water leaks were known months after the plant was rocked by the Great East Japan Earthquake and swamped by the ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Plans to contain the potential water problem were drawn up at the time. But TEPCO was unwilling to spend money on such measures, some of which were adopted two years later by the government.
The utility has, in fact, shown little sense that the Fukushima accident is its problem.
The Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, meanwhile, have been busy fighting over who should pay for cleaning up communities contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Five months after the triple meltdown at the plant, ruling and opposition lawmakers in August 2011 enacted a special measures law on decontamination, authorizing the government to seek payments for such work from TEPCO.
According to Yoshimi Okunushi, a senior Environment Ministry official familiar with the discussions, the Finance Ministry guarded against committing taxpayer money and maintained that “the polluter-pays principle” must apply.
Issei Tajima, a former Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan who was involved in drafting the bill, said the Finance Ministry had some “harsh talk” on expenses.
The industry ministry, left out of the loop in the process, lobbied the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this year to revise the law and inject taxpayer money into the decontamination efforts, saying such work should be implemented as public-works projects.
A task force of the ruling coalition submitted a package of proposals to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 11, calling for greater government involvement in decontamination, decommissioning and the radioactive water problem.
On the surface, the industry ministry appears to have gotten its way, but the language in the proposal reflects the Finance Ministry’s fierce opposition to such an attempt.
The proposal said costs for decontamination work already planned should be borne by TEPCO, but that “further efforts” should be made “from the standpoint of public works.”
“‘Further efforts’ do not mean decontamination,” a senior Finance Ministry official said. “We will continue to seek payments for decontamination work from TEPCO.”
A senior industry ministry official admitted that it failed to influence the coalition task force as it had hoped.
“The Finance Ministry mounted a sweeping offensive to (tone down) the language,” the official said. “We suffered one setback after another.”
But the industry ministry has never stepped forward to take control of the Fukushima situation, especially in talks about the huge task of decommissioning the crippled reactors, which is expected to take more than 30 years.
Soon after the Fukushima nuclear disaster started, many officials proposed setting up a government agency in charge of decommissioning, saying the unprecedented task cannot be entirely left in TEPCO’s hands.
But it wasn’t until Nov. 11 this year when the coalition task force called on the government to act as a command center for dealing with decommissioning and the radioactive water problem.
The proposal suggested that TEPCO’s division in charge of decommissioning be reorganized into an in-house company, spun out as a separate company or turned into a government-affiliated independent administrative agency.
Industry ministry bureaucrats oppose state involvement, saying the government cannot handle the decommissioning process. They point to the scandal-ridden Japan Atomic Energy Agency, an independent administrative agency that operates the problem-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor.
A midlevel official indicated that the industry ministry does not want to take responsibility.
“The ministry hates to lose a scapegoat,” the official said, alluding to TEPCO.
The industry ministry has called for taxpayer money to fund the decontamination work partly because TEPCO will be unable to draw up a viable rehabilitation program if it is required to cover the enormous costs, estimated at 5 trillion yen ($49 billion) or more.
Also in the months after the nuclear disaster started, a plan was drawn up to build walls to prevent groundwater from flowing into the reactor buildings. But that idea never materialized due to TEPCO’s opposition to spending.
Only in August this year did the government decide to install frozen soil walls partly with public funds after radioactive water found its way into the ocean.
A government committee on measures to deal with radioactive water noted that this method has never been used for a large-scale project spanning more than 10 years.
“People say TEPCO can (build walls) on its own if common technology is used,” committee chairman Yuzo Onishi, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University, said. “A national budget can be obtained only for incomplete, advanced technology.”
The government plans to spend only 47 billion yen on the radioactive water problem, including the frozen soil walls.
Onishi is critical of the approach.
“They are mobilizing resources step by step, much like the wartime Japanese military,” he said.
The Fukushima nuclear crisis may also have something in common with the nation’s “lost two decades,” the economic stagnation caused largely by the government’s reluctance to inject public funds into disposal of bad bank loans. ”