TOKYO - There is something surprising in the radioactive wreck that is the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant: opportunity. To clean it up, Japan will have to develop technology and expertise that any nation with a nuclear reactor will one day need.
Eyeing dozens of aging reactors at home and hundreds of others worldwide that eventually need to be retired, Japanese industry sees a profitable market for decommissioning expertise.
It may sound surprising, given all the ongoing problems with the coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, including massive leaks of contaminated water and other mishaps that followed its devastation by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
This aerial file photo taken in Aug. 2013, shows No 4, 3, 2, 1, 5 and 6 reactors, from bottom to top, at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Futaba town, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. Eyeing dozens of aging reactors at home and hundreds of others worldwide that eventually need to be retired, Japanese industry sees a profitable market for decommissioning expertise.
But many experts and industry officials say the experience and technology such as robotics being developed can be used in any decommissioning in the future. That could represent new opportunities for Japan Inc., which has lost some of its global clout to competitors from countries such as South Korea, China and the U.S.
"There is decommissioning business here beyond Fukushima and it's a worldwide business," said Lake Barrett, a former U.S. nuclear regulator who headed the Three Mile Island cleanup. "I think it's an exciting new area," he said. "Japan can be a world leader again."
Japan's government hopes an offshoot will a boom in the country's nuclear technology exports.
Japan on Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters known as 3.11 that killed 15,884 people and left 2,636 unaccounted for in vast areas of its northern coast. The country has struggled to rebuild tsunami-hit communities and to clean up radiation from the nuclear crisis, and has earmarked 25 trillion yen ($250 billion) for reconstruction through March 2016. About 50,000 people from Fukushima are still unable to return home due to concerns over radiation.
Despite the Fukushima meltdowns that experts say are far more challenging to deal with than the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to sell Japan's nuclear plants and technology overseas. He boasts that Japan can offer the world's highest safety standards that reflect lessons learned from Fukushima.
More than 400 nuclear reactors are already in operation in more than 30 countries, with dozens more under construction. More new reactors are expected, including hundreds planned in China alone by 2050.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs Fukushima Dai-ichi, is setting up a separate company in April to clean up the plant.
Tentatively called the Decommissioning Company, it is overseen by the government's economic ministry and could evolve into a decommissioning organization for other plants at home and abroad. Academics, construction giants, electronics makers and risk management firms are rushing to get on the bus.