Speaker: Richard Tanter, senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne
TANTER: Well I think it's extremely important in material terms, the revelations about the new hotspots, about the leaks into the ocean, the continuous groundwater coming into the basement of the turbine rooms, and as your correspondent said, the extraordinary problems of the storage of more than 300-thousand tons. This is not a new problem, it's really been there since the beginning, and the question now is how important is this politically? And that's why Prime Minister Abe has moved today to begin to setup a new government process beyond TEPCO.
LAM: Indeed as you say the government says it's not just up to TEPCO and now it will have to come up with a solution. Quite how well equipped is the Japanese government to do that, will they need help from overseas experts for instance?
TANTER: Well they certainly will need help from overseas, but one of the core problems with as your correspondent mentioned, the government is considering setting up a government agency for decommissioning Fukushima and perhaps other plants in future. The core point there however is there really has been no effective decommissioning of a commercial nuclear power plant anywhere in the world, even in the best of times this is a 20-30 year process. So Japan is embarking on this under the worst possible circumstances. And of course all but one of the nuclear power plants, there's 55 in Japan, is closed down, and the last one closes down in I think a week and a half from now. And that will again raise the issue of what other plants really have to be decommissioned rather than starting up again.
LAM: And Professor Tanter it's been over two years since the disaster, and of course the situation as we've just found out is far from stable. In layman terms, what do you think is the biggest technical challenge facing the ruined nuclear plant to make it safe again?
TANTER: Well the first one and most immediate one is the news that the reactor unit 4, the one which had a very large amount of stored fuel in its fuel storage pool, that that is sinking, according to former prime Minister Kan Naoto that has sunk some 31 inches in places and it's not uneven. And this is really not surprising given what's happened in terms of pumping of water, the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami, but the continuing infusions of water into the groundwater area. This is an immediate problem and if it is not resolved there is an extraordinary possibility we really could be back at March 2011 again because of the possibility of a fission accident in that spent fuel pond in unit no. 4. Beyond that the core question is what on earth are they going to do with this huge amount of water which has been contaminated, and that problem has been there since day one. And it's worth just pointing out that while the Economy Minister, Mr Motegi in Prime Minister Abe's administration has now turned on TEPCO, which indicates that as with previous prime minister Kan Naoto, the government has lost trust in TEPCO, he said that TEPCO has been playing 'Whack-a-mole' and now it's time for the government to take some comprehensive action. It's entirely reasonable to ask why that was not clear when the Abe government came into power more than a year ago. And so to that extent there is a certain amount of posturing going on, and it's not clear what the Japanese government can do beyond setting up a new agency to do this. What we really need to see is comprehensive plans for shutting down Fukushima completely and safely. That's not on the horizon yet.
LAM: And the political implications aside, just very briefly, if the hundreds of tonnes of contaminated water has to be pumped into the Pacific, what does this mean, how dangerous is this?
TANTER: Well if they're talking about pumping the larger part of the 300-thousand tonnes they have at present, that's extraordinary. The levels of contamination and we'll be hearing about new hotspots, presumably also diffusing into that contaminated water. This is the core problem which it's faced from the beginning. If that water goes into the Pacific Ocean it will circulate and putting it mildly, the views of the neighbouring countries are going to be very dire indeed.