Earlier this year, remotely piloted robots transmitted what officials believe was a direct view of melted radioactive fuel inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s destroyed reactors—a major discovery, but one that took a long and painful six years to achieve. In the meantime, the program to clean up the destroyed reactors has seen numerous setbacks and concerns, including delays on Japanese electrical utility Tepco’s timetable to begin removing the highly radioactive fuel and continued leakage of small amounts of radioactive substances.
Japanese officials are now hoping that they can convince a skeptical public that the worst of the disaster is over, the New York Times reported, but it’s not clear whether it’s too late despite the deployment of 7,000 workers and massive resources to return the region to something approaching normal. Per the Times, officials admit the recovery plan—involving the complete destruction of the plant, rather than simply building a concrete sarcophagus around it as the Russians did in Chernobyl—will take decades and tens of billions of dollars. Currently, Tepco plans to begin removing waste from one of the three contaminated reactors at the plant by 2021, “though they have yet to choose which one.”
“Until now, we didn’t know exactly where the fuel was, or what it looked like,” Tepco manager Takahiro Kimoto told the Times. “Now that we have seen it, we can make plans to retrieve it.”
“They are being very methodical—too slow, some would say—in making a careful effort to avoid any missteps or nasty surprises,” Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety director David Lochbaum added. “They want to regain trust. They have learned that trust can be lost much quicker than it can be recovered.”
Currently, radiation levels are so high in the ruined facility that it fries robots sent in within a matter of hours, which will necessitate developing a new generation of droids with even higher radiation tolerances. Authorities have built a crane on the roof of one melted-down reactor, unit No. 3, to remove fuel, Phys.org reported, though it will not actually be in use until at least April 2018. Disposal of low level waste such as “rice straw, sludge and ash from waste incineration” has only just begun, the Japan Times wrote. The eventual disposal of more dangerous waste will be much more difficult.
At the same time, criticism of the government’s approach is also mounting with concerns it is pressuring residents to return to an area where radiation exposure remains many times the international standard.