The Need for an International Effort
I have been hearing mixed signals about how the decommissioning of the damaged Fukushima units is likely to proceed. On the one hand, I have seen several reports in the news indicating the interest of various countries, and of private firms in those countries, in participating in the decommissioning of the units. The sense has been that the collective effort of experts around the world would be helpful in forging new solutions to address the unprecedented scale of the needed clean-up effort, and that the entire international nuclear community would benefit from the knowledge gained by working on this effort.
On the other hand, I have also heard whispers that the Japanese government was not prepared to open its doors to foreign involvement. Whether because of embarrassment or because of the hope that Japanese firms might gain a commercial edge around the world by being the sole beneficiaries of the lessons to be learned from cleaning up from this accident, there has been concern that this project might remain off limits to the international community.
Therefore, I was heartened to see a recent publication from Takuya Hattori, President of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), arguing strongly that the Fukushima decommissioning project be conducted openly, transparently, and with international involvement. His key thoughts are:
1. We are all "in the same boat." Because many countries use nuclear power, once an accident occurs somewhere, its effects do not remain domestic.
2. Japan has a responsibility to the world. Many countries have indicated that they will continue to use nuclear power, so Japan has a responsibility to release relevant information to help contribute to improving the safety of nuclear facilities worldwide.
3. Japan has appeared to the world to be reluctant to cooperate. Immediately after the accident, Japan didn't provide enough information to the world, leading to concerns that Japan was concealing information. Following that, although many countries offered help or suggestions, Japan has not been prepared to respond properly. Hattori-san indicates that Japan was not organized to receive input and hadn't decided who was responsible. This has led to further criticism that Japan is not transparent and not willing to cooperate with the international community.
4. Decommissioning needs the united wisdom of the world. Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will be a major, long-term effort (30-40 years) requiring new R&D on working in highly radioactive environments and removing melted fuel. It should proceed as rapidly as possible.
5. There are parallels in other disciplines for such international collaboration. Hattori-san specifically cites as an example the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which invited research proposals internationally to study asteroid samples brought back to earth by the unmanned spacecraft, Hayabusa, in June 2010, and selected the winning proposals through the use of an international committee.
With that as background, Hattori-san proposes two specific actions:
A platform for international R&D should be established. Hattori-san suggests bringing resources from around the world to a common forum to be discussed openly so that appropriate technologies can be identified for the Fukushima decommissioning efforts. The forum should be open to the world, but he mentions particularly the cooperation that has already been offered by the US, UK, France, Russia, and Canada. Existing international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA) should be used, but Japan should take the initiative to get this effort started.
An international decommissioning research center should be established. Hattori-san proposes that an international base for R&D be established in Fukushima, close to the plants. The purpose of this center would be to develop new tools in robotics and other areas that will be useful not only for Fukushima, but for the other reactors around the world that are already shut and awaiting decommissioning, as well as for currently operating plants and even future plants as they reach the ends of their lives. He sees such a site as fostering both cooperation and competition, of supporting current human resource efforts for the nuclear enterprise, and of contributing to the restoration and revitalization of the Fukushima region.
JAIF is an industry organization and is not the government, so the fact that the President of JAIF has offered this vision does not make it an accomplished fact. Still, the logic for having some sort of effort along these lines is compelling, and with a model from another field, one hopes that his suggestions will get a receptive hearing from the halls of Kasumigaseki.