State of the Fukushima Reactors
In an effort to deal with its ongoing water crisis, TEPCO began to pump up contaminated groundwater from a new well at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant at the end of last week, in order to reduce the estimated 300 tons of radioactive water that are pouring into the ocean each day. Contamination levels in groundwater there have been rising since May, although officials have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause or location of the leak. Workers recently injected chemicals into the soil near reactor buildings to prevent it from flowing toward the sea, but groundwater is now building up underground near the wall. The wall, which is 2.5 meters wide and deep, is located near the #2 reactor.
Design challenges mean that the underground wall (which was only completed on Friday) ends 1.8 meters below the surface. The company now believes that groundwater is flowing over the wall, based on radiation readings of groundwater samples collected there. Officials have cautioned that they are not clear on whether or not pumping the groundwater will reduce the amount of water that is flowing into the ocean. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has called the situation there a state of emergency; an additional 400 tons of groundwater flows into damaged reactor buildings every day, where it mixes with radioactive water and consequently becomes contaminated, requiring storage. TEPCO is quickly running out of places to put it, although officials plan to build more storage tanks in 2014 and 2015.
Water samples from another newly-dug well on the Fukushima compound, completed last week, measured 34,000 Bq/liter of radioactive tritium on Saturday, up from 23,000 Bq/liter in samples just gathered two days earlier. That well is located 4 meters from the Pacific Ocean (and 4 meters from the water intake for reactor #1.) It is 160 meters north of a trench connected to reactor #2, from where officials suspect that a significant amount of contamination is originating.
In response to the ongoing leak crisis, Serge Gas, Director of Public Information for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released a statement. “Japanese authorities have explained their planned countermeasures against current leakage and further leakages…[it is] of the utmost importance to have adequate measures in place for detecting leaks promptly and mitigating their consequences.The IAEA continues to be ready to provide assistance on request,” it said. Gas added that the agency had previously warned TEPCO about accumulating radioactive water at the plant in a report issued in April.
TEPCO has admitted that 10 Fukushima Daiichi plant workers who were waiting for a bus were sprayed with radioactive water—but officials said that they do not know how that water became contaminated. Those affected were exposed to as much as 10 Bq/cm3 above the neck; all have been advised to get full-body radiation scans to determine internal exposure levels. Of equal concern is the fact that workers in that building have also been warned not to use tap water, which is also contaminated—raising questions about whether more workers might have been exposed. In addition, a radiation monitor near the building detected contamination in dust, but officials said that levels at other areas of the plant remained stable.
Prosecutors have been investigating a suit filed by 15,000 people against high-ranking government and TEPCO officials, charging criminal negligence for evacuation-related deaths connected to the Fukushima disaster. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the investigators will reportedly declare that the suit has no merit, and that the nuclear disaster—along with the massive earthquake and tsunami that preceded it— could not have been anticipated. A formal announcement is expected later this month. The assessment contradicts a conclusion reached by a Diet investigative committee, 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.
Radiation Contamination and Its Effect on the Fishing Industry
The recent Fukushima water troubles are wreaking havoc on the prefecture’s fishing industry, which was already decimated by the 2011 nuclear disaster. Plans to begin test fishing in the near future have been cancelled, as fishermen realize that even if radiation levels in catches are low, consumer confidence has all been destroyed at this point. Many fishermen are very frustrated, and some despondent; Japan’s National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations (NFFCA) recently sent a letter to TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, calling the ongoing oceanic leaks “an act of treason to all fishing industry workers and to all members of the public in Japan.” “The image of contamination started spreading again, just as we were preparing to resume operations,” said Yuichi Manome, who is with the Iwaki City Fishing Cooperative.
Kazuo Niitsuma, a fisherman from Hisanohama, lamented, “I haven’t been able to fish since the tsunami. People want to be reassured that they are buying fish that is safe to eat, and we can’t give them that guarantee at the moment. At times like this, it feels like the nuclear problem will never be resolved, and for that, TEPCO and the government must take responsibility.” He added, “Even if we could catch fish for sale, no one would buy them. We are talking about the Pacific Ocean—it’s not just Fukushima Prefecture that’s affected by the contamination. If TEPCO allows more water to leak into the sea, the criticism will be worldwide...The nuclear disaster has left us with no motivation. Nothing has changed, so there’s nothing to look forward to.”
Hisayo Takada, Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace Japan, agreed. “More than two years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government isn’t any closer to taking control of the situation. The government must hold the nuclear industry responsible for the catastrophe and seek expert assistance from other countries,” she said. “The leakage of radiation from the Fukushima plant into the ocean is a disaster for marine life and Japanese fisheries, but TEPCO has consistently hidden and understated the seriousness of the leaks. TEPCO is clearly incapable of dealing with the ongoing disaster and cannot be trusted to handle the situation appropriately.”
Researchers from Tohoku University and Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology are now working to gather and analyze approximately 50 different samples of seaweed and marine life, collected from areas 50 km north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in order to determine contamination levels. Analysis is expected to take up to two months. Late last year, TEPCO reported it had caught perch in its port containing 254,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium; later, it captured greenling containing 740,000 Bq/kg.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) announced this week that it plans to re-evaluate how the country will dispose of nuclear waste. A plan to bury it 300 meters below ground was created in 1999, but widespread local opposition to hosting such burial sites has prevented construction from moving forward. Experts have questioned whether burying highly radioactive waste is safe, in light of Japan’s high propensity for earthquakes.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan has experienced record-breaking heat this summer, prompting six utilities—TEPCO, Chubu Electric, Hokuriku Electric, KEPCO, Shikoku Electric, and Kyushu Electric Power Company—to post their highest power demands since the nuclear disaster began in March 2011. Despite the high usage, and the fact that only two reactors are operating across the entire country, electricity supplies have been adequate and no blackouts have been reported.