State of the Fukushima Reactors

Japan’s problems with contaminated water leaks reached a new crisis point this week, as the government released estimates that approximately 300 tons (75,000 gallons) of “highly” radioactive water is flowing into the Pacific Ocean each day. The numbers were released by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, a division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which said that groundwater flows downhill toward the sea, mixing with contaminated soil at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and becoming radioactive before it pours into the ocean. “It’s a race against the clock. The top priority is to keep the water from escaping into the sea,” said Toyoshi Fuketa, a Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Commissioner, highlighting the urgency of the task. Dale Klein, head of a TEPCO-appointed panel of experts and former Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), agreed. He strongly criticized the utility: “[The leaks] brings into question whether TEPCO has a plan and is doing all it can to protect the environment and the people…For the next two to three years, I think water management would be their biggest challenge…But there will be more surprises [such as unexpected power outages and leaks].”

Many experts have long believed that the plant was leaking toxins into the sea, a claim that TEPCO vehemently denied until last month. Company officials recently admitted that engineers had discovered evidence of ocean leaks back in January, but blamed their failure to inform the government and public on poor interdepartmental communication.

At a meeting between TEPCO and NRA officials this week, TEPCO was unable to answer how or where the leaks occurred, specifically where the water is flowing, or how to solve the problem. However, the government suspects that the leaks stem from underground trenches containing cables and pipes, which, as a result of the 2011 tsunami, are now connected to the reactor buildings. In April 2011, TEPCO said that they had plugged any leaks there, but they did not. Last week, officials estimated the total amount of radioactive tritium that had been released into the ocean at up to 40 trillion Becquerels; they are still working to determine how much strontium-90 has been released. Radioactive strontium can accumulate in human bones, causing cancer. NRA officials have asked TEPCO to pump up some of the contaminated groundwater and store it, although it is running out of room to do so. 

In May, in an effort to prevent further oceanic contamination as radiation levels in groundwater began to rise, TEPCO began to pour waterproof chemicals into the ground to solidify soil. Unfortunately, water built up around the wall and is now overflowing, and threatening to flood the immediate area. A TEPCO spokesman, Yoshikazu Nagai, admitted that the utility was too slow to address the issue, concentrating instead on cooling the reactors there. 

An additional 400 tons of groundwater enters damaged basements of reactor buildings each day, mixing with highly contaminated water and consequently also becoming radioactive and requiring storage. So far, TEPCO is holding 320,000 tons of water in tanks peppering the compound, and currently has room to store 60,000 more tons. Officials are building more tanks, and hope to have storage for a total of 700,000 tons by 2015 and 800,000 by 2016. 

Local officials, including municipal leaders from nearby cities and villages, expressed grave concern about the vast volume of contaminated water pouring into the sea, and travelled to the plant on August 6 to express their displeasure and participate in an onsite inspection of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

In response to the worsening crisis, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the government will, for the first time since the disaster began to unfold almost two and a half years ago, provide technical assistance. “The contaminated water problem is one that the Japanese people have a high level of interest in and is an urgent issue to deal with. Rather than relying on Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), the government will take measures to deal with it. We must deal with this at the national level.” TEPCO has long been accused of being incapable of handling decommissioning of the site of the triple meltdown, and many analysts have urged closer government monitoring of the situation, but the Abe administration, which is staunchly pro-nuclear, has maintained a hands-off approach. Nevertheless, Abe instructed Toshimitsu Motegi, head of METI to “implement swift and multilayered measures.” METI is responsible for the promotion of nuclear energy in Japan, and some analysts are criticizing the move, saying that outside experts should be brought in to maintain transparency and technical expertise.  Dr. Rianne Teule, International Energy Campaigner and nuclear expert at Greenpeace International, noted, “Greenpeace calls for the Japanese authorities to do all in their power to solve this situation, and that includes increased transparency…as well as getting international expertise to help find solutions.” Abe also requested that Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the NRA, intervene, saying, “To ensure safety, I would also like the head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority to do his best to find out the cause and come up with effective measures as a regulator.” 

TEPCO, in conjunction with the government, now plans to build a so-called “ice-wall” around all reactor buildings at the plant, in order to keep radioactive water from seeping outward. Engineers will reportedly insert pipes around the buildings 30 meters into the ground, at one meter intervals, over 1.4 km (almost a mile), and then continually circulate cooling fluid kept at -50ºC.

However, no one knows if it will work, and the cost of doing so—a bill that taxpayers will foot— will be astronomical. Kajima Corp., the construction firm that proposed the ice-wall plan, has estimated the cost of building the wall, which will not be completed until 2015, at up to 40 billion yen. Pumping cooling fluid through the system over the next several years will cost considerably more. Shinji Kinjo, who heads the NRA task force on the issue, cautioned, “Right now, there are no details [for the ice wall proposal]. There’s no blueprint, no nothing yet, so there’s no way we can scrutinize it.” So far, the government has spent or allocated 100 billion yen for decommissioning “research and development” costs; 1 trillion for decontamination of areas destroyed by the triple meltdowns; 3.8 trillion to cover compensation due to victims of the disaster; and a 1 trillion yen injection into TEPCO’s coffers in order to keep the company from going under. Technically, TEPCO is supposed to pay back some of those costs, including those for compensation and decontamination, but the company has been floundering financially and as the company is largely in government hands now, the costs are ultimately borne by taxpayers.

For the first time, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that the government should help TEPCO pay for building the ice wall. “It’s unprecedented to create a water-shielding wall of this scale. The government needs to proactively support its construction” he said. Accordingly, METI will include a line item for “research and development” at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in its 2014 budget, but will not attach an amount. Some analysts have suggested that Abe’s motivation to fix the increasingly visible Fukushima debacle comes from his own desire to eventually restart nuclear reactors across the country.

In the meantime, TEPCO officials report that they plan to pump out some of the radioactive groundwater—approximately 100 tons each day—in order to prevent it from flowing into the sea—although experts caution that this will not necessarily solve the problem, since the utility still has no idea from where the leak is stemming, or why radiation levels in groundwater have recently surged.

Members of the local fisheries cooperatives, whose livelihoods have all been decimated by the Fukushima disaster, are up in arms and have decided to postpone test fishing that was scheduled for next month. They believe that even if radiation levels in the fish they catch are low, the recent news about ocean contamination will destroy consumer confidence. And, scientists from the University of Tokyo and National Maritime Research Institute reported this week discoveries of hotspots located 3.2 and 5.9 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Radioactive cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, measured as high as 40,000 Bq/kg in seabed soil collected by the researchers; in several other areas, the samples measured 5,000 Bq/kg. They blamed the hotspots on major leaks that occurred in April and May 2011, rather than this week’s discovery.


TEPCO and Reactor Restarts

Despite its high-profile water woes, TEPCO is still attempting to restart reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, which is the largest nuclear facility in the world. Although the utility obtained local approval from the mayors of the city of Kashiwazaki and the village of Kariwa this week (both of which have significant financial interests at stake), bringing the units back online remains an uphill battle: Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida refuses to grant permission until the root causes of the Fukushima disaster are uncovered, a process that could take years. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said he would like to meet with Izumida again in an effort to sway his opinion.


Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

A new analysis by the Mainichi Shimbun reveals that Japan’s recent efforts to export nuclear technology—specifically to Jordan and Turkey—may violate a 2008 government promise to create guidelines that would prevent the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) from financing nuclear technology for other countries, unless residents of that country were informed of the safety risks, had means to dispose of nuclear waste, and could deal appropriately with a nuclear disaster.  Those guidelines were never written, despite a 2010 reiteration by an official from the Ministry of Finance (which oversees the JBIC), who said, “the JBIC has said that the content of the guidelines and when they’ll be finalized are both being considered with the utmost gravity,” adding that the Ministry was “in full agreement” with the 2008 promise. Even once those guidelines are compiled, the government may hit more snags: previously, the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) conducted assessments on countries looking to export Japan’s nuclear technology, but its replacement, the NRA, has refused to do so, citing a conflict of interest in working to promote nuclear power, rather than just regulate it. A METI official admitted the quandary, saying, “If the guidelines are not in place, then the JBIC cannot provide financing and nuclear technology exports become impossible.”