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Now is not the time to change our nuclear laws – just look at Japan

Inside the exclusion zone, near Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Photo/Getty Images

Every now and then, someone pops their head up to suggest that New Zealand rethink its nuclear-free policy. Usually it’s an American, indignant that – 30 years on – we are sticking to our principles and refusing to bow to theirs.

One American official dealing with North Korea some years ago liked to give me a hard time about our nuclear-free stance, going on about energy efficiency and clean fuel. Listen, I said to him, you have a much better chance of denuclearising North Korea than you do of nuclearising New Zealand. Stick to a goal you might actually achieve.

If anyone – inside or outside New Zealand – who is sceptical of our nuclear-free policy needs proof of the devastating consequences of nuclear accidents in a seismically active country, look no further than Japan.

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Six years on from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on Japan’s east coast, the problem just keeps becoming more and more insurmountable.

The latest bad news: an underwater robot has captured photos of what appears to be melted nuclear fuel at the bottom of one of the three damaged reactors. Piles of lava-like nuclear debris, some of them a metre high, were spotted below the pressure vessel, the part of the reactor that is meant to contain the fuel.

Water has been pumped into the reactors to try to keep the fuel cool, and now the utility company that operated the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), has finally managed to get the floating robot close to the No 3 reactor.

It’s taken six years for Tepco to get the robot – which has lights and two cameras and has been nicknamed “Little Sunfish” – this far into the site. The utility hasn’t even been able to look for melted fuel in the other two damaged reactors because radiation levels remain too high.

Who knows how long it will take to actually get the nuclear material out and safely contained?

Efforts so far are not encouraging. Acres and acres of land around the nuclear plant are filled with rows of huge black plastic sacks holding contaminated soil, while huge tanks store contaminated water that has been used to keep the reactors cool. Most of the contamination can be filtered out of the water, but the element tritium is notoriously difficult to get rid of.

Japanese authorities don’t know what to do with the soil or the tritium-tainted water, so they have just kept adding to the piles and the tanks.

Tepco recently announced it will dump about 700,000 tonnes of water contaminated with tritium into the Pacific Ocean, which – not surprisingly – triggered vehement protests from local fishermen already struggling to convince consumers to trust their catches.

But executives at the power company have been saying that tritium does not pose a major health risk in small doses and will be diluted, and they have vowed to press ahead with the plan.

Meanwhile, Tepco is pressing ahead with efforts to re-open other nuclear power plants, including some with the same kinds of reactors that melted down at Fukushima. That should concern New Zealanders. After all, we share not only adjoining tectonic plates but an ocean too.

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.