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 workers reconnected power to the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #2 on April 22, after it was out for almost six hours. The utility was forced to intentionally disconnect power to vial cooling functions at the pool after two dead rats were discovered near a transformer; one had been electrocuted, fueling fears that they had damaged or shorted out the system. In addition to testing cooling equipment, workers repaired yet another hole through which the rodents had chewed in order to enter the transformer casing. 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. TEPCO is now trying to rat-proof electrical equipment at the plant, but had not yet gotten to the transformer at pool #2 when the most recent damage occurred.
In response to orders from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to install multiplex power distribution systems in an effort to prevent further power outages, TEPCO intentionally disconnected power to the spent fuel pool at reactor #3 yesterday. Officials estimate that it will take 33 hours before the work is completed and power can be reconnected. They also plan to install a multiplex power distribution system in the spent fuel pool at reactor #4; power will be disconnected from that pool for approximately nine hours. In both instances, TEPCO said that temperatures in the pools are not expected to rise past safe levels.
A monitoring group established by Fukushima Prefecture to oversee decommissioning at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, where three meltdowns occurred in 2011, said this week that efforts to store massive amounts of radioactive water at the plant are being poorly managed. “It requires sophisticated supervision to store contaminated water. The work is sloppy,” the report said. The panel conducted on-site investigations of belowground storage pits and aboveground tanks. Over the past month, three of seven storage pits experienced leaks; efforts to move the contaminated water to aboveground tanks were further complicated when pipes leaked on two separate occasions. One council member noted, “The leakages could have been prevented if [the lining of the storage pits] had been 50 cm to one meter thick.” In actuality, the innermost layer was only 6.4 mm thick.
In an effort to meet new safety regulations that are scheduled to be enacted by the NRA in July, TEPCO will reportedly develop its own version of filtered vents for its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture. Generally, utilities contract such design work to specialists, but TEPCO hopes to save considerable time and money—the design and manufacture of such equipment can take several years—by cutting corners and doing the work itself. Filtered vents help reduce the amount of radiation that escapes from reactors during nuclear emergencies. They were previously not required for boiling water reactors (BRWs) in Japan, and when the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant began to melt down, massive amounts of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere.
In a rare move, Tohoku Electric Power Company said this week that it will seek over 20 million yen ($203 million) in damages from TEPCO for lost business in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Since the crisis began, Tohoku has experienced a 10% drop in electricity sales, as many of its customers were forced to evacuate, and businesses that purchased its power went out of business. In addition, Tohoku announced last month that it was shelving long-standing plans to build the Namie-Odaka new nuclear plant, located just 10 km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after realizing that nearby residents would never grant permission for reactors there to go online. TEPCO continues to be hit with lawsuits resulting from the disaster, and has so far doled out more than 2 trillion yen in damages to residents forced to evacuate. That number is expected to rise.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said recently that he believes that at least one nuclear reactor could be restarted by autumn. New, stricter NRA safety regulations will be unveiled on July 18, and NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka has said that safety assessments of each reactor will take at least several months. However, even if the NRA declares reactors safe to operate, Japanese nuclear operators have traditionally been required to obtain consent from nearby municipalities. That task promises to be difficult; anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan has been growing since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Recent polls show that 70% of the country supported abolishment of nuclear power.
For the first time since the Fukushima disaster, Japan is on the verge of signing deals with both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to export nuclear technology. In the case of Turkey, Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. will partner with French firm Areva to build four nuclear reactors. Work there is expected to begin in 2020 and is worth 2 trillion yen. The move is controversial in Japan, where anti-nuclear sentiment has grown significantly since the Fukushima disaster first began, and many people disapprove of exporting nuclear technology.
The city of Osaka, which is the largest shareholder of Kansai Electric Power Company, plans to once again submit a proposal during a June shareholders’ meeting to eradicate nuclear power generation by the company. This is the second time that the city will be presenting such a plan; last year, the proposal was rejected.
Residents of Shimane Prefecture have filed suit against Chugoku Prefecture, in an effort to prevent the utility from starting a new nuclear reactor there, which is currently under construction but almost completed. The 428 plaintiffs charge that 469,000 residents living within 30 km of the reactor will be in danger if a nuclear accident occurs.
A panel of seismic experts appointed by the NRA to determine whether or not fault lines beneath reactor #2 at Japan Electric’s Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture are active will reportedly release their findings in May. 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. An earlier report by the panel said that the fault lines were probably active, but the NRA agreed to review additional data submitted by the plant’s operator and others.
The Sendai High Court has rejected an appeal filed on behalf of children in the city of Koriyama, which argued that the city was required to evacuate school children because of their risk of radiation exposure. 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. Attorney Toshio Yanagihara, who argued the case, criticized the ruling, saying, “[the children are] victims with absolutely no responsibility for the nuclear accident.” The original lawsuit was filed in June 2011, but was rejected in December 2011, and subsequently appealed. This decision is also eligible for appeal.
For the first time in more than two years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, Russia said this week that it will partially lift bans on food processed in Fukushima and other eastern prefectures of Japan. However, the ban remains on seafood originating from or processed in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamaguta, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Chiba, and Niigata Prefectures. Seafood from other areas of Japan will be subject to spot radiation testing. The nuclear disaster has had a profound impact on the livelihoods of fishermen, farmers, and other food manufacturers in the eastern part of Japan, after radiation fears led to drastically reduced production and sales of their products. Many have still not recovered.
Nuclear Waste Disposal and Management
Fukushima Prefectural officials are trying to figure out how to dispose of 17,000 tons of rice, much of it contaminated, which was produced in 2011. During radiation safety testing, some of the rice measured higher than government standards for radioactive cesium; those samples, along with other rice harvested from that district, were forbidden for sale or distribution. In all, rice from 71 districts in 13 municipalities was affected. Now, many waste disposal sites cannot effectively process rice without the small grains getting caught in their systems, and those that can are hesitant to accept it because of residents’ fears of radioactivity. So far, only 10% of the rice has been incinerated, despite a goal to dispose of it by the end of this year.