Tokyo, Japan - The tsunami-devastated nuclear reactor in Fukushima continues to seap contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, and a risky move to remove spent fuel rods is the next hurdle in the two-and-a-half-year-old crisis.
The beleaguered Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that operates the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant will attempt to take out spent fuel rods in Reactor No 4 - an extremely dangerous process that could unleash high levels of radiation if something goes wrong.
"Any error in the removing of these is going to be disastrous. We are all in a sense crossing our fingers," nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri told Al Jazeera.
Japan's nuclear regulatory body approved TEPCO's plan on Wednesday, and the removal of 1,500 rods is expected to begin in November once a crane needed for the work is constructed. Each four-metre long rod as wide as a thumb will be removed one by one.
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The task at hand has been described as unprecedented. Weighing some 400 tons, the radioactivity of the rods is equivalent to 14,000 times of what was released in the Hiroshima bombing in 1945.
"Handling spent fuels involves huge risks," said Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. "It would be a disaster if radioactive materials come out of the metal rods during the work."
The removal is the latest development in the ongoing crisis after the March 11, 2011 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 15-metre-high tsunumi crippled the Daiichi plant. Tanaka admitted in July that contaminated water continues to flow into the Pacfic Ocean, and it was unclear exactly how to stop it.
Concerns have also been raised about TEPCO's handling of the situation since the 2011 quake-tsunami, and whether the government should step in and take over the operation.
"This is an unprecedented undertaking," declared Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso on August 27. "From a technical point of view as well, this is not something that a single company can handle ... It’s obvious that the government will have to take charge."
In spite of the deputy prime minister’s comments, however, the reality has been that TEPCO - the same company whose negligence allowed Fukushima Daiichi to operate for decades without sufficient preparation against the possibility of a sudden power loss at the plant - remains the primary organisation in charge of managing, decontaminating, and compensating for the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster.
In the early months after the accident, there was little choice but to leave TEPCO in charge of the site.
Naoto Kan, who was Japan’s prime minister at the onset of the crisis, said he immediately established a nuclear emergency response headquarters as required by law. But Kan said he quickly discovered the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government regulator that was supposed to manage a nuclear accident, was incapable of carrying out its responsibilities.
As Kan put it in a recent interview with the Japan Times: "NISA was unable to provide any information - not about what was happening at TEPCO, nor at the plant - nothing."
However, as months wore on, leaving TEPCO in charge of on-site management of the Fukushima disaster became less of a necessity and more of a political choice.
Prosecutors decided on September 9 that no individuals would be held criminally accountable - and all official investigations from the beginning seem to have been premised on the notions that either the accident was entirely "unforeseeable," or that everyone was responsible and, therefore, no one was.
Each time a typhoon comes we hear news about contaminated water spreading further and flowing into the ocean. And even though there has been a change in government, the policy hasn’t changed at all.
Moreover, the Japanese government stepped in and saved TEPCO from the financial consequences of its Fukushima disaster by injecting tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to keep the enterprise afloat.
Theoretically, this involved the "nationalisation" of TEPCO in May 2012, but in reality the government left the same management in charge.
The Shinzo Abe administration, which came to power last December after defeating the former ruling party in a landslide election, is far more committed to reviving the nuclear power industry than its predecessor.
However, the administration has made no immediate changes in the country’s pre-existing disaster management framework, including the leading role being played by TEPCO.
Anti-nuclear politicians, such as Akira Kasai of the House of Representatives, have been scathing on this point.
"Each time a typhoon comes we hear news about contaminated water spreading further and flowing into the ocean. And even though there has been a change in government, the policy hasn’t changed at all ... It remains a case of leaving it all to TEPCO."
The first signal that this hands-off policy would change came from Prime Minister Abe himself on August 8 when he told a Cabinet meeting: "We will not leave this to TEPCO, but put together a government strategy. We will direct TEPCO to make sure that there is a swift and multi-faceted approach in place."
Most opposition politicians say the time is long overdue for government intervention.
Satoshi Arai, a former state minister in charge of national policy who dealt extensively with the Fukushima crisis under the last government, told Al Jazeera that TEPCO lacks the expertise to handle the task that has been thrust upon it.
"It’s too difficult for TEPCO alone," he said. "A new framework and new law is needed. Almost everyone involved in this matter agrees on this point, though I don’t know how the TEPCO management itself feels about it."
Prime Minister Abe surprised most observers on September 7 when he declared to the International Olympic Committee that radioactive water flows to the ocean are "completely blocked" and that "the situation is under control" - two claims of dubious veracity that were widely attacked in Japan.
The Japanese prime minister followed up with a personal visit to the Fukushima Daiichi plant on September 19. Wielding his authority as the nation’s leader, Abe instructed TEPCO executives that the two reactors at the plant that had escaped major damage - Reactor No 5 and Reactor No 6 - should also be decommissioned.
TEPCO President Naomi Hirose did not immediately agree, but indicated a decision on this matter would be made by the end of the year.
But after a series of opinion polls taken by a Japanese news organisation made clear the public wants the government to take more direct responsibility for resolving the Fukushima crisis, the Abe administration looks more likely to try something new.
Several ideas have been floated, including one from Japan’s ruling party, that TEPCO should be divided into two companies, with one organisation taking over the work of cleaning up the Fukushima disaster, while the other company is allowed to focus on rebuilding the rest of the utility’s businesses.
But Arai questions the practicality of this scheme: "A private company has to think about profits. If one part of TEPCO is carved out to deal with Fukushima and can manage it well, that should be welcomed. But such a company cannot really exist, can it?"
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He concludes that any organisation created to manage Fukushima Daiichi would need so much government support that it might as well just be conceived as a government enterprise from the start.
Added to this point of view is the fierce critique of some local politicians such as Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida, whose region hosts the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest nuclear facility by power-generation capacity.
Izumida denounces TEPCO as "a company that can tell lies" and is unfit to operate nuclear power plants.
Japan’s nuclear power industry - especially TEPCO - is caught in a political tug-of-war whose outcome is difficult to predict.
The Abe administration is fully committed to a quick restart of the nation’s nuclear reactors as part of what it regards as a "responsible" energy policy.
Critics, including former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, an Abe mentor, argues that reactivating the reactors in an earthquake-prone nation and without a clear notion of how to dispose of radioactive waste is precisely what is most irresponsible.
Both sides have been digging in for what will inevitably be a long and passionate political struggle.
Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews