Research and Development on Decommissioning in Fukushima

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on Forum on Energy in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting nuclear energy. Today’s guest author is Takuya Hattori, President of Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc.

It is not even necessary to refer to the Fukushima accident to grasp the reality that once a nuclear accident occurs, its effects will not remain domestic but will instantly spread all over the world.  Given that so many countries around the world possess nuclear technology and enjoy the fruits of nuclear generation, it is easy to see that, quite apart from whether one individually supports or opposes nuclear power, we – people and nations – are all “in the same boat.”  Recognizing this, we who experienced the accident at Fukushima will have to share the lessons learned from it with the global community, and all of us must then make the best use of them to ensure nuclear safety.  In light of the further fact that, even after the accident, many countries have expressed their intention to continue their efforts to develop nuclear power, Japan, being the country directly involved, must consider its responsibility to actively release related information and contribute to improving the safety of nuclear facilities around the world.

In the immediate wake of the accident, insufficient information was provided by Japan to other countries and, as a result, many suspected that Japan was concealing something.  Thereafter, also, although multiple countries have offered help or made suggestions on handling the accident and toward decommissioning, Japan has not been prepared to properly respond – frankly, has not been organized to receive such input; have not known internally who should be responsible – bringing further criticism that Japan is less than enthusiastic about cooperating internationally and that transparency is lacking.

Decommissioning of the four units at Fukushima Daiichi is a long-term project.  It is expected to take 30 to 40 years and require new research and development on work in highly radioactive environments, including for the removal of melted fuel.  We have to unite our wisdom from all over the world to work on these.  In addition, it is important that concerns of the local people about decommissioning be eased as much and as soon as possible by showing them that the project is advancing with a sense of speed.

Aware and in the context of all these issues, I would like to propose the following two measures on how to effectively proceed with research and development on medium- and long-term issues, toward decommissioning the units at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station:

1. Establish a Platform for International Research and Development

Support and cooperation have been offered through various channels on decommissioning-related technology from countries including the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and Canada.  Holding an international symposium and publicly inviting proposals on element technologies, Japan has made efforts to understand and respond to such offers and suggestions.  Unfortunately, Japan is not yet ready to make use of them effectively in an open arena.  Throughout the world, in the process of nuclear development and utilization, various experience, technologies and know-how have been accumulated.  What is necessary now is to bring those resources to a forum, discuss them openly, and choose – transparently – the technologies most suitable for on-site needs.  To that end and on Japan’s initiative, a research and development platform open to the world should be established, making use of existing international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA).

There are also diverse issues related to technological development for decommissioning.  Issues requiring multiple tasks will have to be addressed horizontally, across fields and sections for overall effectiveness and efficiency, rather than vertically or separately.  An organization to serve as an international contact for research and development should be established.  Taking on program management function with international participation, the organization should effect overall coordination and steer international research and development.

2. Establish an International Decommissioning Research Center

Technology developed in the process of decommissioning at Fukushima will comprise advanced technology such as robots, adaptable even to very severe conditions.  At present, there are about four hundred thirty reactors in operation around the world, and more than a hundred shut down and awaiting decommissioning.  Including those to be built hereafter, we may think of a thousand reactors that will have to be decommissioned.  For doing this safely and efficiently, the experience of Fukushima will be a major asset for the world. I accordingly propose creating a new international research and development base in Fukushima, close to the nuclear power station.

It will be a major Japanese contribution to the world to provide a place where decommissioning-technology-related researchers, engineers and technicians can gather from around the world to carry out their work in harmony – and in competition – drawing on the reality of the decommissioning site.

Human resources in nuclear fields are now another common challenge globally.  Such an R&D base would be ideal as part of that effort as well.  Moreover, if exchange activities among international researchers, engineers and technicians continue over a long period, they would add to the restoration and revitalization of the Fukushima region – the biggest issue after the Fukushima accident.

When you look at collaboration between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. offered assistance immediately after the nuclear accident in March 2011. In April 2012, the two countries agreed to establish a U.S.-Japan Bilateral Commission on Civil Nuclear Cooperation, in order to further strengthen bilateral cooperation, building on the close U.S.-Japan collaborative relationship following the accident. At the first meeting of the Bilateral Commission in July 2012, they discussed decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and decontamination, and decided to establish the Working Group. The U.S. has a great deal of experience with decommissioning and decontamination at Three Mile Island, Hanford site etc. I hope that the U.S knowledge and experience would facilitate restoration of Fukushima, and hopefully it will be carried out under the platform for multinational cooperation to make the results be assets for the field of nuclear energy throughout the world.