Silence reigns in crippled nuclear plant

By Julian Ryall

Scientists estimate that decontamination at Fukushima will take at least 40 years.

Radiation at Fukushima's power plant has declined to acceptable levels. Photo / AP
Radiation at Fukushima's power plant has declined to acceptable levels. Photo / AP

The control room for the crippled No 1 and No 2 reactors is coated in pink plastic sheeting. The lights on the monitoring panels are all out. There are no sirens.

It is a far cry from the scenes of chaos that unfolded three years ago , when the plant at Fukushima was rocked by Japan's biggest earthquake in living memory and the tsunami that it triggered.

Radiation levels have declined sufficiently in the control room for journalists - in heavy protective gear - to be permitted to enter the nuclear facilities for the first time.

The corridors leading to the nerve centre are littered with broken equipment, debris and grime. Plaques on the wall presented by General Electric Nuclear Energy Co offer praise for "outstanding performance" before the disaster.

Rooms are stacked to their ceilings with shelves of helmets, boots and protective clothing. Computer terminals, telephones and tools left where they fell in the immediate aftermath of the disaster have since been gathering dust and radiation.

As soon as the relentless waves of the tsunami knocked out the final power supply, the lights in the control room went out and the reactors' temperatures began to spike.

The 10 personnel on duty that day had to work by the light of torches. Their frantically scribbled notations of times and rising temperatures remain alongside the gauges showing the heat of the reactors. The faint pencil marks show that, within the space of an hour on March 12, 2011, the temperature of No 2 reactor rose another inexorable nine degrees.

Every one of the men in the centre on that day was exposed to a massive dose of radiation and has since retired on medical grounds or moved to the safety of the company's administrative offices.

While radiation levels are now nowhere near as high as they were then, the operator of the plant does face a range of new challenges and the region and its survivors are still in the recovery stage, materially, physically and emotionally.

Scientists estimate it will be at least four decades before the reactors are rendered safe, decontamination work is completed and the tens of thousands of people who used to live in the exclusion zone around the plant can return.

Some believe that time-frame is optimistic.

- additional reporting: by Danielle Demetriou in Tokyo

- Daily Telegraph UK

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