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 continues to struggle with a worsening situation at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, as ground water enters reactor buildings at 75 gallons per minute, and then becomes highly contaminated. Coupled with between 200 and 400 tons of water intentionally poured over the reactors each day to keep them cool, officials are scrambling to figure out where to put all of the radioactive water—and will need to do so for years. Recent leaks in belowground storage pits have heightened concerns about storage options and contamination of the ground and nearby ocean. Indeed, greenling fish captured within TEPCO’s port in February contained a record 740,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, showing that nearby ocean waters there are highly contaminated. Insiders say that TEPCO assumed it would be able to release the water into the ocean, but public opposition to such a plan has been strong, and the international community expressed outrage when the utility did so immediately following the disaster in 2011. Experts warn that radioactive ocean water that washes ashore could evaporate, sending radioactive particles back into the environment to be rained down upon inhabited areas.
Currently, storage tanks cover 42 acres of the facility, and TEPCO is planning to mow down a nearby forest to build more. Right now, the company is storing more than 280,000 tons of water—enough to fill 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools—but that figure increases daily, and will for several more years, until workers are able to repair the reactor buildings. TEPCO spokesman Masayuki Ono recently admitted that the problem is overwhelming: “The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep, or work. It feels as if we are constantly being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front.” Tastsujiro Suzuki, who helped TEPCO draft its cleanup plan, said, “We were so focused on the fuel rods and melted reactor cores that we underestimated the water problem. Someone from outside the industry might have foreseen the water issue.”
The ongoing water crisis, along with numerous other recent incidents, including power and equipment outages, have many experts questioning whether or not the plant will be able to withstand the next large earthquake, as well as how makeshift equipment setups will survive the decommissioning process, which is expected to take more than 40 years. In addition, they say, TEPCO is ill-equipped to see the process safely through its completion, and the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has appointed only nine inspectors to oversee an army of 3,000 workers. Tadashi Inoue, a nuclear expert who helped draw up the decommissioning roadmap, said, “TEPCO is clearly just hanging on day by day, with no time to think about tomorrow, much less next year.”
Meanwhile, a team of 19 inspectors from the NRA met for the first time to study the root causes behind the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, including whether or not the massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused damage to the reactors there. Such a discovery would have an immense impact on the nuclear industry across Japan, a country that is riddled with seismic faults. A previous panel appointed by the Diet, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said that the earthquake did cause damage before the subsequent tsunami struck, although a similar government-appointed panel disputed that claim. Early in 2012, TEPCO willfully misled Diet investigators who wanted to enter the plant to conduct an onsite assessment of possible earthquake damage, telling them that the area was shrouded in “pitch-black darkness” and unsafe to enter. In fact, that was not true. In addition, the NRA group will examine how the reactors’ fuel rods melted; how a massive plume of radiation escaped the plant; what caused an explosion in reactor #4; and what caused a still-unexplained leak in reactor #1 immediately after the earthquake, including whether or not isolation condensers were damaged there. The team will conduct onsite surveys, and plans to submit a report to the IAEA by the end of this year, in advance of a report that will be released by that agency by the end of 2014. (Source: NHK)
Eight utilities across Japan have posted record losses this fiscal year, totaling 1.59 trillion yen ($16 billion), in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. TEPCO experienced the biggest deficit, 685.2 billion yen, marking the third consecutive year that the company has lost money. Officials attribute the losses to ongoing maintenance costs for idled reactors, significant safety upgrades required by the NRA in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, and a rise in natural gas prices. In the case of TEPCO, those cost burdens also include massive compensation payments to victims of the nuclear disaster. Although TEPCO President Naomi Hirose has said that the company will once again earn profits by the end of fiscal 2014, analysts say that the prospect of actually doing so is dim: the company’s business plan required restarting all seven reactors at the company’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture beginning this April, but new NRA safety regulations will not even be unveiled until July, and safety assessments are expected to take at least several months, assuming that no additional upgrades are ordered by inspectors. TEPCO’s own surveys recently showed that fault lines beneath almost all of the reactors there are probably active, in which case most or all would have to be decommissioned. Hirose acknowledged the difficulties during a recent press conference, saying, “Unless we make efforts with considerable determination, it will be difficult to move into the black.”
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud this week, in order to discuss exporting Japanese nuclear technology. Two days later, Abe signed an agreement with United Arab Emirates President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, finalizing a similar technology exchange agreement. This is the first nuclear export technology deal signed by Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold in March 2011. Many people in Japan oppose the export of nuclear power, questioning both its safety and its morality.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which operates the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, submitted a report to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) this week, insisting that eight faults located beneath the reactor are not active. The report was a response to a request from the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), after new information emerged about an active fault line 500 meters away from the reactor. The NRA has promised to conduct its own safety assessment on Monju, as well as at other reactors where faults are suspected of being active, including those at the Oi power plant, where the only two operating reactors in the country reside. (Source: NHK)
Japan’s National Police Agency has unveiled two new radiation-proof vehicles, which come equipped with air-pressurized interiors and radiation monitors. The two lead-laden cars are designed to be used during a nuclear emergency, and will be stationed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and in Tokyo, respectively. Officials said that the Tokyo-based car will be on standby in case a nuclear crisis unfolds in other parts of Japan, but did not clarify what would happen if access to roads were impeded by earthquake or tsunami damage, as well as traffic from those evacuating. The cars, each of which weighs 21 tons, cost a combined $3 million.
Nuclear Waste Management and Disposal
Japan’s Environment Ministry will begin test drilling in nine locations in Naraha, Okuma, and Futaba next week, in an effort to determine the best location for temporary storage sites for over 28 million cubic centimeters of radioactive waste. However, local opposition to the plan has been significant, threatening the schedule for waste disposal, which is scheduled to begin in January 2015. A Ministry official acknowledged the challenges, admitting, “We are at the 11th hour [of our deadline].” (Source: Jiji Press)