Japanese government under fire over disaster plan

2011-04-18 09:18

A blueprint for ending radiation leaks and stabilising reactors at Japan’s crippled nuclear plant drew a lacklustre response today, as polls showed diminishing public support for the government’s handling of the country’s recent disasters.

The plan issued by Tokyo Electric Power Co over the weekend, in response to a government order, is meant to be a first step toward letting some of the tens of thousands of evacuees from near the company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant return to their homes.

Those forced to flee due to radiation leaks after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the plant’s power and cooling systems are frustrated that their exile will not end soon. And officials acknowledge that unforeseen complications, or even another natural disaster, could set that timetable back even further.

“Well, this year is lost,” said Kenji Matsueda, who is living in an evacuation centre in Fukushima after being forced from his home 20km from the plant. “I have no idea what I will do. Nine months is a long time. And it could be longer. I don’t think they really know.”

Pressure has been building on the government and Tepco to resolve Japan’s worst-ever nuclear power accident, with opposition leaders urging Prime Minister Naoto Kan to resign.

“Japan has never before faced a crisis like this. We are doing our utmost,” Kan said in response to criticism today in Japan’s parliament.

Polls by several Japanese national newspapers released today showed widespread dissatisfaction, with more than two-thirds of Japanese unhappy with how Kan’s administration has dealt with the nuclear crisis.

“Nothing concrete,” said a headline in the Mainichi newspaper of the plan. “The nuclear timetable does not show enough consideration for the residents,” said the Nihon Keizai, a financial newspaper.

A majority of those surveyed in the polls by the Mainichi, Nihon Keizai and Asahi newspapers expressed support, though, for tax increases to pay for reconstruction of areas devastated by the tsunami.

Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister and member of his nuclear crisis management task force, said the government would closely monitor Tepco’s implementation of its crisis plan and hoped it could be carried out ahead of schedule.

The timetable’s first step focuses on cooling the reactors and spent fuel pools, reducing radiation leaks and decontaminating water that has become radioactive, within three months. The second step, for within six to nine months, is to bring the release of radioactive materials fully under control, achieve a cold shutdown of the reactors and cover the buildings, possibly with a form of industrial cloth.

Nuclear safety officials described the plan as “realistic” but acknowledged there could be setbacks.

“Given the conditions now, this is best that it could do,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, adding that conditions at the facility remain unstable.

Explosions, fires and other malfunctions have hindered efforts to repair the stricken plant and stem radiation leaks.

“There is no shortcut to resolving these issues. Though it will be difficult, we have to go step by step to resolve these problems,” he said.

Even with the announcement of the timeline, it remained unclear when evacuees might be able to return home.

The area would need to be decontaminated, including removing and replacing the soil, Nishiyama said.

Hosono said the evacuees would not have to stay in gymnasiums for such a long period, but would be moved into temporary housing.

Some evacuees were unswayed by Tepco’s plan.

“I don’t believe a word they say,” said Yukio Otsuka, a private school owner whose home is about 5km from the power plant. “I don’t trust them. I don’t believe it is possible. We have really drawn the short stick on this one.”

Activists criticised the delay in the roadmap’s announcement.

“Tepco has taken far too long to provide an indication of the direction it plans to take to bring the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi under control,” said Philip White of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre, a group of scientists and activists who have opposed nuclear power since 1975.

“We hope Tepco meets its targets, but there are many challenges ahead and many uncertainties.”

The unveiling of the roadmap came two days after Tepco - also under pressure from Kan’s government - announced plans to give 1 million yen (about R82?000) in initial compensation to each evacuated household, with much more expected later.

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