Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO admitted that two more leaks of highly radioactive water were discovered at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant this week, bringing the total number of leaks that have been discovered within the last two weeks to at least five. Last week, the utility said that water was leaking from three of seven in-ground holding tanks. Initially leaks were discovered in tanks #2 and #3; over 120 tons of contaminated water (32,000 gallons so far) had seeped out of tank #2. Although workers tried to transfer that water to tank #1, they soon discovered that that tank was leaking as well, eventually prompting the NRA to forbid further use of belowground tanks. TEPCO has long struggled with where it will put the increasing amounts of contaminated water that are generated at the plant each day; approximately 400 tons of groundwater seeps through cracks of the damaged reactors each day, mixing with an additional 300 tons of water that the utility must pump in daily in order to keep melted fuel cool. All of the water is contaminated and must be stored, but TEPCO is running out of places to put it, and has finally admitted that the situation has reached a “crisis” stage.
This week, workers tried to move water from leaking tank #3 to tank #6, but their efforts were thwarted when they found that a pipe being used to transfer the water was also leaking. In just eight minutes, approximately 22 liters of contaminated water leaked out.
Then, a second pipe leak was discovered when water was being transferred from tank #2 to an aboveground tank. Although only six gallons of water leaked this time, the discovery is significant because it means that transferring contaminated water from tank #2 will once again be delayed, and the leak, which is considered significant, will continue. So far, TEPCO has not been able to locate the cause of the leaks, despite making considerable effort to do so. Workers are attempting to repair or replace the pipes.
In response, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose held a press conference, only the second since the leak crisis began, and apologized for the fiasco. He said that the utility is racing to build more aboveground tanks and promised that all water would be transferred by the end of June. A total of 23,600 tons of water needs to be relocated. Until then, radioactive water will continue to contaminate the ground near the tanks. Although officials insist that none of the water has reached the sea, the ocean is only 800 meters away.
A group of 12 experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began investigating the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, in an effort to assess decontamination efforts there. In addition, investigators are expected to question TEPCO officials about a recent spate of accidents at the plant, as well as to examine radiation levels and waste management issues, particularly those concerning water storage. In the past three weeks, there have been at least eight accidents, including multiple power losses, radiation monitoring malfunctions, accidental shutdown of a water decontamination system, and at least five leaks of radioactive water affecting both storage tanks and pipes. Three of the storage tank leaks are ongoing. Decontamination is expected to take at least 40 years, possibly longer, and many analysts have begun to question whether TEPCO can adequately manage the gargantuan task ahead. Equipment at the plant is steadily aging, and much of it is still makeshift and temporary, more than two years after the disaster first began to unfold. This is the first time that the IAEA has sent a team to evaluate the decommissioning process at Fukushima; they expect to produce a report within the next several months.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
On Wednesday, French nuclear supplier Areva sent a shipment of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from the French port of Cherbourg, bound for Kansai Electric’s Takahama nuclear power plant, which is still offline in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, in Fukui Prefecture. The move shows that Kansai hopes to restart reactors there soon; the fuel is slated to arrive in Japan within the next six to eight weeks. Despite the fact that 70% of the Japanese public opposes nuclear energy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is committed to restarting nuclear reactors there.
A group of children from Fukushima Prefecture are suing the town of Koriyama, charging that all children there should be evacuated in order to protect them for radiation contamination as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The case, originally filed in 2011 on behalf of the children by their parents and anti-nuclear activists, was rejected by a lower court and is now being heard by an appeals court. Japan’s annual radiation exposure limit is 20 millisieverts, and although most areas of the town measure lower than that, there are hot spots where contamination is more severe. However, plaintiffs charge that children should not be exposed to higher levels than international standards allow: 1 millisievert per year. The International Commission on Radiological Protection says that there is no safe threshold for radiation, but a lower court threw out the case, saying that there will be no danger to children unless exposure levels reach 100 millisieverts per year. Political activist Noam Chomsky, who is working to draw attention to the case, said, “There is no better measure of the moral health of a society than how it treats the most vulnerable people within it, and none are more vulnerable, nor more precious, than children who are the victims of unconscionable actions.”
Oi Nuclear Reactors
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has announced that it will begin the process of assessing reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture beginning on Friday. Although other offline reactors will not be assessed until at least July 18, when the agency formally releases new safety standards, officials agreed to make an exception for the Oi reactors, which are the only online reactors in Japan, so that they have continue running. Kansai Electric has promised that by the end of June, the reactors will meet the new standards.
Meanwhile, a Japanese court has rejected efforts to close the Oi reactors, after anti-nuclear activists filed suit claiming that the reactors are not safe to operate until investigators determine whether or not they sit atop active fault lines. The NRA recently decided to expand the definition of active faults from those that have moved within 130,000-140,000 years to any that have shown movement within the last 400,000 years, a far stricter definition.
Decontamination and Nuclear Waste
Officials in Yamagata Prefecture are refusing to accept soil from Fukushima Prefecture, which was destined for a local waste processing facility, out of concern by residents that it may be radioactive. The soil, which came from a former electronics component factory, is contaminated with high levels of lead; there are no waste facilities able to process it in Fukushima. This is the third time that Yamagata officials have refused waste from Fukushima Prefecture.