Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
This edition of The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Update is abbreviated as a result of reduced news coverage during Japan’s annual Golden Week holidays. Extended coverage will return next week.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO admitted this week that 13 of 22 samples of groundwater collected near belowground water storage pits adjacent to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors are contaminated, with radioactivity measuring between .03 to 0.48 Bq/ml. The samples collected include traces of strontium-90, which can cause both bone cancer and leukemia. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.9 years. Three of the seven storage pits there have recently leaked highly radioactive water, and the utility is struggling with how to handle and where to store an ongoing influx of groundwater, which enters reactors at a rate of 400 tons per day. That water also becomes contaminated and then needs to be stored. TEPCO officials are insisting that the water, which was gathered in monitoring holes ranging between five and 15 meters deep, falls within a normal range of radioactivity, and the contamination was not definitively caused by the recent radiation leaks.
Now, a panel of government-appointed experts is exploring new ways of preventing additional groundwater contamination, including a plan to build subterranean walls around the crippled reactors. Two firms, Taisei Corporation and Kajima Corporation, have submitted proposals to build walls of absorbent, clay-like material.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is once again pushing to promote nuclear power at the expense of the Japanese people. Speaking to a group of TEPCO executives last week, Abe promised that he will provide additional governmental financial support to the company to cover burgeoning costs of compensation to victims of the disaster, decommissioning of the crippled reactors, and decontamination of areas destroyed by radioactivity—in essence, passing those costs to the Japanese people. In addition, Abe formally requested that Kazuhiko Shimokobe, Chairman of TEPCO, stay on in his post. Shimokobe’s term is set to expire at the end of June. “We must accelerate efforts to deal with the accident and to rebuild Fukushima. To do so, it is extremely important to properly revitalize TEPCO as a private company. I want you to be committed to the work,” Abe said to Shimokobe.
Meanwhile, TEPCO is working to improve its public image by employing more women in high-visibility positions, including the chairperson of its press conferences, a daily news briefer, and recently, one of its executive positions. Nuclear power in Japan has traditionally been a male-dominated profession.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan has formally decided not to order mandatory power saving targets this summer, although it will ask residents and businesses to observe “voluntary” power conservation on weekdays between 9 am and 8 pm, starting on July 1 and ending September 30. Despite fear mongering over the last year by power companies, which threatened widespread blackouts while just two of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors are operating, Japan suffered no power outages last summer even through record-breaking heat. Now, utilities have admitted that they expect a 6.3% power surplus this summer.
Japanese nuclear utility Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) is actively planning to restart two more nuclear reactors at its Takahama power plant in Fukui Prefecture, once the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s (NRA) revised nuclear safety standards are released on July 18. KEPCO currently operates the only two online reactors in the country, at the Oi nuclear power plant, also in Fukui Prefecture. Company officials said that they believe upgrades they are making to the reactors there will allow them to pass NRA inspections, but obtaining consent from municipal leaders may prove far more difficult. Protests against the restart of the Oi reactors sparked nationwide anti-nuclear demonstrations, and recent polls show that 70% of Japanese people oppose nuclear power. In addition, inspection requests from other nuclear power companies could slow down the NRA’s response time, delaying any possible restarts.
In a sign of the vastly different world that has emerged in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a cooperative formed between the municipal government and a Tokyo food distribution firm has opened a new hydroponic vegetable factory in Kawauchi. The group aims to grow vegetables in a sealed factory, away from fresh air and sunlight, in an effort to protect them from ongoing threats of radiation contamination there, as well as to renew consumer faith in Fukushima-raised produce, which has suffered considerably since the nuclear crisis first began. The new facility will eventually employ 25 workers and will produce over 100 varieties of vegetables beneath LED and florescent lights when it reaches full capacity over the next three years. The cost of the project is 580 million yen; of that amount, 200 million yen came from government reconstruction subsidies.
Takumi Nemoto, Japan’s Minister of Reconstruction, will travel to Ukraine next week in order to tour Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe. Nemoto said he hopes to find “common points and differences” and learn more about waste disposal and reconstruction from local officials there.
Japan’s nuclear industry is at risk of eventually becoming irrelevant, as the vast majority of its domestic nuclear reactors remain offline, and efforts to export nuclear technology to foreign countries are threatened by Russian state-operated nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. The Russian firm, which produces pressurized water reactors (PWRs), successfully elbowed out Japanese firm Toshiba for a contract in Finland. Rosatom has also competed with Japanese nuclear companies for contracts in Vietnam, Lithuania, South Africa, and Turkey.