State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) are reportedly discussing the feasibility of entombing the Fukushima reactors in concrete for a period of 75 years, which would allow the company to focus on the massive cleanup which will be required near the plant. Efforts to repopulate the area have been slow as a result of stalled decontamination efforts.
In the meantime, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has granted approval for the “implementation plan” of TEPCO’s efforts to decommission the crippled Fukushima reactors, a process expected to take at least 40 years. Approval of the plan was originally expected in March, but numerous issues at the plant, including leaks and power outages, led to a delay. Experts are cautioning that the process of removing 1,330 spent fuel assemblies (as well as 202 unused assemblies) from cooling pools is likely to be fraught with danger, especially at reactor #4, where the spent fuel pool is located on the top floor of a building that was heavily damaged in a hydrogen explosion in the days immediately following the disaster. The NRA has ordered TEPCO to deal with leaks at the plant and speed up use of its Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS). An NRA official said, “The move will enable us to conduct regulations under a legally based authority, so I believe we can regulate the site more properly.”
This week, TEPCO began to pump groundwater from the area near reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in order to reduce the 300 tons of highly radioactive water that are pouring into the Pacific Ocean each day. Experts suspect that water is flowing from a trench designed to hold pipes and cables there, and is seeping over a barrier formed when waterproof chemicals were injected into soil. Currently, officials estimate that the trench is holding approximately 210 tons of extremely contaminated water, which contains 2.35 billion Bq/liter of cesium; 750 million Bq/liter of radioactive substances, including strontium; and 8.7 million Bq/liter of tritium. Cesium and strontium have both been linked to cancer. Workers hope to remove 70 tons of groundwater per day, although experts caution that because the exact cause of the leaks has not yet been determined, the flow to the sea will not necessarily abate.
Meanwhile, the NRA has ordered the utility to inspect a trench connected to reactor #1, to determine whether it is now connected to the trench for reactor #2, as a result of earthquake or tsunami damage. Last week, levels of radioactive tritium in samples collected near reactor #1 spiked sharply, measuring 34,000 Bq/liter—far higher than that of samples collected near reactors #3 and #4, which measured between 210 and 1,500 Bq/liter. The NRA plans to conduct an onsite inspection on August 23, and has ordered TEPCO to find the cause of the leaks swiftly.
TEPCO will reportedly post a 34 billion yen pretax profit in fiscal year 2013 if it is allowed to restart reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture in January. However, the utility is in for an uphill battle: the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, has said he will not grant permission to restart any reactors at the plant until the root causes of the Fukushima disaster are uncovered. That process could take years. Otherwise, the utility said that it could post a 60 billion yen pretax profit provided it raises electricity rates by 8.5% beginning in January. But, because rates were raised just last year, that plan is expected to face stiff opposition from the public.
Worker Safety Issues
More details have emerged regarding an incident in which 10 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were sprayed with radioactive mist while waiting for a bus at the utility’s compound. TEPCO said that the mist was sprayed in order to keep them cool during the extreme heat wave that Japan is experiencing, but officials still do not know how the mist—as well as tap water in a nearby quake-proof building where they were working—became contaminated. The workers’ heads and necks were exposed to high levels of radiation, measuring up to 19 Bq/cm3, but officials say that full body scans came back normal. So far, no worker has reportedly exhibited signs of illness. The utility said that it is continuing to investigate.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Kansai Electric Power Company has announced that it will shut down reactor #3 at its Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture on September 2 for routine maintenance, and will take reactor #4 there offline on September 15. The move means that Japan will not have a single nuclear power reactor operating across the entire country. The NRA is performing safety assessments on several reactors that are already offline, but analysts do not expect any to be restarted until early next year. This is the first time in 14 months that the nation will be operating without nuclear power.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan has delivered a formal statement to prosecutors investigating the Fukushima disaster, denying any culpability for the nuclear crisis. Attorneys have been investigating charges that high level government and TEPCO officials are criminally negligent in the deaths of those who did not survive the arduous evacuation process following the disaster, as well as those who might die as a result of radiation exposure. Plaintiffs have accused Kan of impeding workers’ ability to cool the reactors when he visited the plant on March 12, 2011. A hydrogen explosion occurred later that day. Kan denied the charges, saying that there was “no problem” with his actions. Prosecutors are expected to decide that neither the government nor TEPCO could have anticipated the massive earthquake and tsunami that preceded the nuclear meltdowns—contradicting an earlier report by the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which called the nuclear crisis “the profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” It also comes despite TEPCO’s own reports, compiled as early as 2008, which said that a 15.7 meter tsunami was possible at the plant.