After weeks of haranguing, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the hapless operator of the stricken Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant finally produced a timeline on Sunday for getting the situation under control. The utility said that it would be aiming to achieving cold shutdown at the troubled reactors within six to nine months, in what is basically a three-step plan.
In a three-step process, TEPCO hopes to cool the reactors until they reach the stable condition known as cold shutdown, cool and stabilize the spent fuel rod pools before ultimately removing the fuel, begin storing and processing the thousands of tons of contaminated water and place new covers over the damaged reactor buildings.
The roadmap was announced days after the nuclear crisis was upgraded to the maximum level 7 on the scale of nuclear disaster severity. The upgrade was inevitable, but still produced a flurry of stories comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl, the only other accident to receive the maximum rating. However, according to Japan’s nuclear safety agency, Fukushima has only released about 10 percent the radiation that was emitted at Chernobyl, and although radiation levels within the plant itself still fluctuate worryingly, levels elsewhere have been trending downwards.
Neither the upgrade in the severity rating nor the timetable for stabilization has been well received. For local residents—many now essentially refugees in their own country—it’s confirmation that it will be a long time before they can return to their homes, and they are understandably irate. Compensation announced to date has been grossly inadequate—just $12,000 per household so far for the loss of homes and livelihoods. Some experts are meanwhile skeptical that the timetable can be achieved. Increasingly, the Kan government is being pilloried by opposition parties and local media for its handling of the crises.
With these announcements, however, the government does at least now have in place a framework for managing public expectations. It’s now acknowledged that the crisis is exceptionally severe, and will be time-consuming to fix. Future news coming out of Fukushima can be placed in that context, and barring any major setbacks (experts fret over the repercussions of a major aftershock) the public will be able to slowly come to terms with the situation: this is how bad it is and this is how long it will take to fix. That, I argued last week, was one of the criteria for limiting the economic repercussions of the crisis. If work does proceed more or less according to plan, the focus can shift to issues like reconstruction and compensating victims.
Of course, if the situation deteriorates markedly and the timeline becomes obviously unrealistic, then the uncertainty returns and the implications will be that much worse.
James Pach is the publisher of The Diplomat and the founder of Trans-Asia Inc., a Tokyo-based translation and investor relations company.
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