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

For the third time in five weeks, vital cooling functions at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors’ spent fuel pools were halted as a result of an ongoing rodent infestation, highlighting ongoing hazardous, fragile conditions at the plant. Workers intentionally disabled cooling at reactor #2’s spent fuel pool, after two dead rats were found near a transformer controlling the cooling system. One of the rats had been electrocuted. Earlier this month, cooling functions failed for more than 29 hours when another rat ran across wires of an outdoor control box, electrocuting itself and disabling the entire cooling system. Then, as workers were later trying to install rodent-proof netting around the control box, they accidentally touched the wires, once again shorting the cooling system. Checking the system was expected to take three to four hours, at which point workers planned to reconnect power. If fuel in the spent fuel pools overheats, it could eventually begin to melt down and release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. TEPCO is now trying to rat-proof electrical equipment at the plant, but had not yet gotten to the transformer at pool #2.

Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessment team inspecting the Fukushima Daiichi plant for the first time since the 2011 nuclear crisis began, announced that decommissioning of the Fukushima reactors may exceed 40 years, far longer than TEPCO’s projected timeline. “In my view, it will be near impossible to ensure the time for the decommissioning of such a complex facility in less than 30, 40 years, as is currently established in the roadmap,” Lentijo said. He noted the makeshift equipment being used there and the recent spate of accidents and and glitches that have plagued the plant, including multiple power losses, numerous leaks of highly radioactive water, and worker errors. Dealing with radioactive water storage, he said, needs to be TEPCO’s highest priority, calling it “the most challenging issue.” But, he pointed out that equipment malfunctions are likely to continue, and emphasized the importance of responding to accidents in a timely manner. The IAEA team will release a report on the decommissioning process, as well as the current state of affairs at the plant, sometime within the next month.

TEPCO has resumed efforts to remove highly radioactive water from several leaking belowground storage pits at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Over the last month, three of the seven storage pits began to leak, and efforts to transfer the water to aboveground tanks were further hampered when additional water began to leak from pipes connecting the tanks. Approximately 23,000 tons of water needs to be transferred, but the utility is struggling with where to put it. Each day, between 300 and 400 tons of water is poured into crippled reactors there, in an effort to keep them cool; the process results in highly contaminated water. Experts estimate that an additional 400 tons of groundwater seep into the reactor basements each day through cracks and holes in the damaged reactor buildings; that water must also be stored. The recent leaks have resulted in at least 32,000 tons of water spilling into the ground. TEPCO said that it will not be able to transfer all of the water until at least June; since the utility has been unable to find the source of the leaks, ground contamination will continue until then. Officials insist that none of the water has reached the ocean, which is only 800 meters away. However, in other news, Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) officials released a new report this week showing that radioactive strontium-90, which can cause bone cancer and leukemia, could reach legal limits in groundwater at the plant within 10 years. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.9 years.

The water storage issue continues to become more dire, prompting Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), to announce that the ministry will partner with TEPCO to find better ways to address the crisis. TEPCO continues to try to build more storage tanks.

In the meantime, TEPCO is now admitting that 14 workers who were tasked with dealing with the highly radioactive water were working without dosimeters, meaning that it will be difficult to assess how much radiation exposure they received during the dangerous work. The infraction occurred on April 6, the day after the leaks were first discovered, and TEPCO became aware of the situation on April 8.

TEPCO

Despite the fact that Japan injected one trillion yen in government funding into TEPCO to keep it afloat, in effect nationalizing the utility, TEPCO officials are now refusing to reimburse the government’s Environment Ministry for 10.5 billion yen in costs required to decontaminate areas around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which were befouled in the wake of the nuclear disaster there. Under a Special Measures Act concerning decontamination, the government says that TEPCO is required to pay the costs, but officials are balking. “We don’t know if these costs are covered by the special measures law,” one said. The Ministry has already requested payment twice, but so far, TEPCO has refused to comply. Because the government did not specify any timelines in the legislation, no interest or fines can be levied against TEPCO for not paying, and if the utility refuses, those costs would be passed along to taxpayers.

TEPCO admitted this week that even more faultlines below its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture may be active, calling into question the future of the reactors there. Officials said that new data suggests that reactors #3, #5, #6, and #7 were built on top of active faultlines. Previous studies showed that reactors #1 and #2 also on top of active faults. In Japan, it is illegal to operate nuclear reactors that sit atop active fault lines. The NRA recently changed the definition of an active fault from that which has moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years to any movement within the last 400,000 years.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Analysis by The Daily Yomiuri (which recently rebranded itself as The Japan News in its online English versions) reveals that over 40% of 389 radiation monitoring stations across Japan have no backup power sources. Experts say that if a tsunami, earthquake, or other disaster were to disable the monitoring stations, officials would be hard-pressed to make accurate decisions regarding evacuation routes in the case of a nuclear disaster. To compound the problem, local municipalities are in charge of the stations, rather than the central government, resulting in inconsistencies in the way they measure radioactivity. For example, in Shimane Prefecture, two new monitoring stations were recently installed, but they only measure up to 10 microsieverts per hour. The national standard for evacuation is 500 microsieverts per hour, but these stations have no capacity to measure that amount. In addition, local officials complain that inadequate government subsidies make upgrades difficult. “The subsidies provided by the government were not enough to cover the costs of a [backup] power generator,” complained Hisnobu Ishiyama, an official with Niigata Prefecture.

Local elections in Kakegawa and Fukuroi have resulted in two incumbent anti-nuclear mayors being re-elected, calling into question the future of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station. Both towns are located in Shizuoka Prefecture. In addition, the mayors of nearby Kikugawa and Yaizu said that they “will not recognize” requests to restart the Hamaoka reactors. In Japan, local consent has long been considered vital to restarting nuclear reactors, although that requirement is not codified into law. Fukuroi Mayor Hideyuki Harada declared, “Even when the new safety measures at the plant are completed, I still will not approve reactor restarts.” Kagegawa Mayor Saburo Matsui agreed: “It’s very hard to say that this is really the place for a nuclear plant.” Hamaoka operator Chubu Electric had no comment.

Radiation Exposure

Tests performed by the Asahi Shimbun show that mud at the bottom of two school swimming pools, which have not been drained since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, contain as much as 100,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. A third pool contains at least 8,000 Bq/kg; Japanese law requires any waste containing more than 8,000 Bq/kg to be processed by the central government. Although water in the pool has prevented large amounts of radiation from escaping into the atmosphere, the Fukushima Prefecture Board of Education reports that 63 other swimming pools, possibly also containing highly radioactive mud, were emptied into rivers and irrigation canals. Two years after the disaster first began to unfold, many lessons remain unlearned. One Fukushima official in charge of decontamination noted, “We have concentrated on decontamination of the pools and not thought about the mud.”

Oi Nuclear Reactors

Kansai Electric Power Company, which operates the only two online reactors in Japan, submitted a report to the NRA this week, insisting that the Oi reactors are safe and will meet upcoming operating regulations that the agency will formally unveil in July. Last week, NRA officials agreed to make a special exception for the Oi reactors, allowing inspectors to examine the plant for safety violations now rather than waiting until July. Kansai Electric insists that the plant does not require an anti-tsunami wall, and said that there are no active faults beneath the facility. Seismic experts have disputed that statement. The NRA is in the process of conducting its own assessment of the reactors, including field tests, and plans to release its findings by the end of June. “It is difficult to say what we will finally decide about the Oi plant,” said Shunichi Tanaka, Chair of the NRA.