Reuters journalist Aaron Sheldrick wearing a protective suit, visits Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Jan 15. Photo: TEPCO/via REUTERS
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Inside the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant: radiation, risk and reporting

19 Comments
By Aaron Sheldrick

Reuters was recently given exclusive access to Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, where three reactors melted down in 2011 after a powerful earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the seaside facility.

It was my fourth visit to the plant since the disaster to report on a massive clean-up. Work to dismantle the plant has taken nearly a decade so far, but with Tokyo due to host the Olympics this summer - including some events less than 60 kilometers from the power station - there has been renewed focus on safeguarding the venues.

Nearly 10 years into the decades-long clean-up some progress has been made, with potentially dangerous spent fuel removed from the top of one damaged reactor building and removal underway from another.

But the melted fuel inside the reactors has yet to be extracted and areas around the station remain closed to residents. Some towns have been reopened further away but not all residents have returned.

This time I was taken to the site's water treatment building, a cavernous hall where huge machines called Advanced Liquid Processing Systems (ALPS) are used to filter water contaminated by the reactors.

On my first visit in 2012 I had to wear full protective gear put on at an operations base located in a sports facility about 20 kilometers south of Fukushima Daiichi called J-Village, where the Olympic torch relay will start in March, then taken to the site by bus.

This time I was driven by van from a railway station in Tomioka, a town re-opened in 2017, about 9 kilometers there was not easy.

Before entering the plant itself, which is about the size of 400 football fields, I was asked to take off my shoes and socks, given a dosimeter - a device that measures radiation levels - three pairs of blue socks, a pair of cloth gloves, a simple face mask, a cotton cap, a helmet and a white vest with clear panels to carry my equipment and display my pass.

I put on all three pairs of socks and the rest of the gear given to me, later including rubber boots. I was to change in and out of different pairs of these boots many times - I lost count - color coded according to the zone we passed through, each time putting them in plastic bags that would be discarded after use.

After reaching the ALPS building in a small bus, I was decked out in protective equipment, a full-body Du Pont Tyvek suit along with two sets of heavy surgeon-like latex gloves that were taped fast to the outfit.

I also had to put on a full-face mask after taking off my spectacles since it would not fit otherwise and told to speak as loudly as possible due to the muffling effect of the gear.

"Will you be able to see?" asked one official from Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the plant's operator. I nodded with as much conviction as I could muster and we entered the building which was quite dark, making it even harder to see.

In the ALPS building I was taken up and down metal stairways that passed around piping, machinery, testing stations, changing in and out of the rubber boots as we crossed yellow and black demarcations, warnings signs everywhere for areas that could not be entered.

As well as being dark, it was surprisingly quiet given the machinery. My dosimeter alarm kept going off as the radiation levels rose.

TEPCO officials later showed me containers of crystal clear water that had been through ALPS. They said it would be safe to release the liquid into the environment after mixing it with fresh water to meet regulatory standards.

About 4,000 workers are tackling the cleanup at Fukushima, including dismantling the reactors. Many wear protective gear for entering areas with higher radiation.

The plant resembles a huge construction site strewn in areas with twisted steel and crumpled concrete, along with cars that can no longer be used, while huge tanks to hold water contaminated by contact with the melted fuel in the reactors increasingly crowd the site.

Some wreckage is still so contaminated it is left in place or moved to a designated area for the radiation to decay while the important work on the reactor buildings is underway.

As we moved back into the so-called green zone we passed through a building where I was to take off the protective gear in precise order in stages with each piece going into a particular waste basket for each item. Gloves were first, then the face mask, after which the suit and socks were taken off at different locations till I was left with one pair for passing back through the various security cordons.

I was then given my external dosimeter reading, which was 20 microsierverts, about two dental x-rays worth.

See related story here.

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

19 Comments
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One person’s experience inside the plant with no real information on how the clean up is progressing. I wish I hadn’t wasted two minutes reading it.

14 ( +15 / -1 )

This time I was taken to the site's water treatment building, a cavernous hall where huge machines called Advanced Liquid Processing Systems (ALPS) are used to filter water contaminated by the reactors.

To be later unceremoniously dumped into the Pacific Ocean...

9 ( +10 / -1 )

my first visit in 2012 I had to wear full protective gear put on at an operations base located in a sports facility about 20 kilometers south of Fukushima Daiichi called J-I was then given my external dosimeter reading, which was 20 microsierverts, about two dental x-rays worth.Village, where the Olympic torch relay will start in March, then taken to the site by bus.

Great after all protective gear changes out only 20 microsierverts, but what about the many people we all saw on both media TV and photos posted of the many workers who were only wearing the typical hazmat white suits and masks? The suits this guy wore even in 2012 was surely much different than what they were wearing back then in many of the areas which had much rad levels higher than reported. Less we all forget that the GOJ upped the limits of rad exposure to ensure they were below the original levels.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

You were shown and told exactly what they wanted to show and tell you... Should have asked harder questions!

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Weak, say-nothing article.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

And people continue to say this is the safe clean green alternative to generating electricity.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Jeremy Rigby - And people continue to say this is the safe clean green alternative to generating electricity

it actually can be safe and green if managed properly and upgrades are not avoided. However, it is when it is not properly managed and upgraded due to cost cutting it becomes a total mess like this one. The biggest problem with Japan’s management of nuclear power (besides the corruption) is, there are no contingency plans in place. They have not done anything about storing silent fuel, except sending it to other countries at huge expense, of course. They have admitted this disaster was man made due to falsifying safety records and ignoring upgrade recommendations.

If nuclear power is responsibly managed and maintained and appropriate storage facilities for silent fuel are created, it is safe and green. However, it will never be cheap!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Edit: Spent fuel! Damn you autocorrect!

4 ( +5 / -1 )

And they want to dump the water in the sea?

It's insane

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Think Mr Burns might be in charge of this, Homer pushing buttons he has no idea what they do. Get too close to the truth and " Smithers release the Hounds" TEPCO obviously couldn't run a Nuclear Plant safely, after 9 years proven can't deal with a Nuclear Plant multiple melt down. Does anyone know what happened to that suit that drank the ground water from Fukishima to prove its safe? And why can't reporters talk to the clean up workers?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

but with Tokyo due to host the Olympics this summer - including some events less than 60 kilometers from the power station -

that's comforting....

You were shown and told exactly what they wanted to show and tell you...

exactly!

Should have asked harder questions!

He would have been told to leave and that would have been the end of it. TEPCO are a bunch of liars.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Unrecent exclusive number 4?

What a useless article. Glad it only took 1 minute to scan it.

Good luck.

By the way, I am still pro nuclear.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The article does not give us any info update.

One of the most critical and dangerous situations is the spent fuel in the reactor pools 1-3. Should another powerful earthquake hit the plant those weaken structures with the pools could collapse, spilling out the cooling water and even releasing the spent fuel to the environment, which would release more radiation than the original disaster.

TEPCO are well aware of the problems and dangers. The spent fuel was removed from No4, which wasn't difficult and now the spent fuel is being removed from No3 which must be done remotely. It's taking longer than expected.

Removing the spent fuel from the No1 will be difficult and from No2 the most difficult because of the dangerous levels of radiation. Even the No1 stack is being removed remotely because of the radiation and that's a simple operation.

The workers at the plant are limited to radiation exposure of 50 millisievert per year, or a maximum of 100 millisievert over 5 years.

TEPCO are having problems securing enough workers for the plant which in the end will exceed more than 100,000 over the life cycle of the disaster. For those temp workers are too many layers of contractors and subcontractors and too many being ripped off with various deductions.

Foreigners are now allowed to work at the plant if they can speak basic Japanese but I haven't heard of any working there.

The reporter could have at least taken the time to ask some serious questions.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

what is not mentioned is the amazing heroism of the plant staff during the disaster and after. they deserve mention and honour. As for the report, i was and am grateful for it. I am once again sad to see the need some posters here always or often seem to feel the need to be critical of anything and everything. I am happy and grateful for the coverage and effort it went into it. Thank you to the author and to TEPCO

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Cris no one is discounting the heroism of those actually involved hands on. What people or I are talking about is the management you know those in the office? PM Kan was, is hugely respected out side of Japan. And those who created this mess continue to exasabate the mess are nameless, incompetent and highly paid. 9 years to think about how to dispose of the toxic water? Err into the sea. Ban on talking to the workers? Why? Couldn't run a nuclear plant safely can't clean it up safely. Time to take these dangerous toys off these immature Beauracrats. They would probably hurt themselves with a pencil sharpener and require 9 years of meetings to come up with no answer.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We are into nine years after the nuclear disaster. There were major investigations and reports which also stated the actions of the staff and also at the Daini plant where they were able to prevent another nuclear meltdown.

Today, what we need is up-to-date info about what's happening at plant which is using up trillions of yen of taxpayer money.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I agree with @Zichi here... Fukushima is another black hole for Tax payers money, and really open to fraudulent activity. Show me the money ... when it's going, I want transparency.... but of course, ... Welcome to Japan!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When=where :-x

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The costs of the Olympics pale when compared with the cost of the nuclear disaster.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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