Turning the Page on Fukushima

shutterstock_149275463This month, the world paused to remember the victims of the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and honored the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. For years, this has driven the conversation surrounding nuclear energy in Japan and around the world, especially on Forum on Energy.

Five years later, however, a turning point has been reached.

Slowly but surely, the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has made considerable progress. The water filtration system that went online in September 2015 has operated effectively for nearly seven months, earning even the approval of local fishermen. The infrastructure for the ice wall designed to reduce significantly the volume of water contaminated by radiation is in place and slated to come online this year. Hundreds of damaged fuel rods have already been removed.

Though there is no single guidebook for the ever-evolving practice of nuclear decommissioning, and though Fukushima Daiichi is certainly not a conventional project, Tepco’s head of decommissioning, Naohiro Masuda, recently indicated, “Now it really does feel like the situation is settling down and we can move ahead.” Five years out, therefore, is an ideal time to shift the dialogue away from damage control, and instead focus on the innovations that can shape the nuclear industry moving forward, together with the ever-shifting global nuclear energy market.

Robotics is a prime example of this shifting paradigm. When initially facing the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi, technology was not advanced enough to withstand the unprecedented levels of radiation within the reactors. There were several reports of early models entering the site only to succumb to the harsh conditions. Over time, however, companies such as Toshiba became trailblazers in the field of nuclear robotics innovation. Countless models have since been deployed into the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and the findings of their work is helping spur new ideas and applications for robots in the decommissioning process. Focusing on the future implications of technologies such as these will drive the Forum on Energy conversation forward.

Our new focus comes at a pivotal time. In 2016, the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, the U.S. presidential election, the continued efforts of the Japanese government to restart nuclear energy, and the tumultuous geopolitics of nuclear energy are dramatically changing the industry.

The effects of Fukushima – on the industry, as well as the public – will never go away. Forum on Energy will continue to monitor progress related to Fukushima, yet will at the site, as well as frame new developments within the context of Fukushima. As we move past the fifth anniversary, we will reset our focus on formative technologies and best practices that have emerged as a result of the disaster and the contours of a nuclear industry that has been transformed because of the tragedy, and the opportunities and challenges that face the nuclear energy sector in the months and years to come.