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 is continuing to struggle in its efforts to manage highly radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, as the situation goes from bad to worse. Earlier this week, the utility announced two leaks in belowground pits, where highly radioactive water used to cool the crippled reactors there was being stored.  Approximately 120,000 liters (32,000 gallons) of radioactive water leaked into the ground from tanks #2 and #3. TEPCO continues to insist that none of that water reached the ocean, which sits 800 meters away, but local fishermen, who have already had their lives destroyed by the nuclear disaster, are skeptical.  In response, workers were ordered to transfer 9,200 tons of water from tank #2 to tank #1. There are seven pits at the facility—TEPCO calls them tanks—each consisting of a hole dug into the ground and then lined with two layers of polyethylene, and an outer layer of clay. Each layer is separated by felt. Most are the size of several football fields. Two belowground tanks are currently not being used; one other one contains 3,000 tons of less-contaminated water.

On Tuesday, TEPCO admitted that tank #1 was also leaking, meaning that three of the seven tanks were suddenly compromised. Initially, officials planned to move the water from leaking belowground tanks to others that were not leaking. Despite protests from local residents, as well as their own misgivings, officials said there was not enough room in the aboveground tanks to accommodate almost 27,000 tons of water currently being stored in the pits, as well as 400 tons of contaminated water that is produced each day in the process of keeping the reactors cool. Aboveground tanks currently onsite can only accommodate an additional 21,900 tons. Leaks in the reactor buildings mean that groundwater may continue to seep into basements, becoming contaminated and exacerbating the problem, for up to four more years before that problem will be fixed, according to TEPCO officials. Masayuki Ono, TEPCO’s General Manager, said, “We cannot deny the fact that our faith in the underwater tanks is being lost.” However, he added, “We can’t move all the contaminated water to above ground tanks...There isn’t enough capacity and we need to use what is available.”

However, by midweek, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), had forbidden TEPCO from continuing to use the belowground tanks, and criticized the company for its slow response to an increasingly serious situation.

Accordingly, TEPCO said that it will build 38 new aboveground steel tanks, with a combined capacity of 19,000 tons, by the end of May. Transferring the water to the new tanks will take until approximately the end of June, which means highly contaminated water will probably continue to leak into the ground until then. TEPCO has promised to increase the number of radiation monitors in the area. Water from tanks #1 and #2, where leaks are most significant, will be moved to existing tanks on the premises. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose promised that none of the contaminated water would be released into the ocean. “That will never happen,” he said. “There is no change in our policy to use all available means to manage the water.” Immediately following the onset of the disaster, TEPCO was criticized for releasing vast amounts of low-level radioactive water into the ocean, a move with garnered widespread international criticism.

On Thursday, the utility encountered more difficulties, when 22 liters of highly radioactive water containing 6.3 billion becquerels of radioactivity leaked from a pipe being used to temporarily transfer water from tank #2 to another pit, which officials do not believe is leaking at the moment.

Meanwhile, TEPCO admits that it still has no idea what is causing the leaks in the tanks, and has now begun arguing with Maeda Corp., the construction firm that installed the belowground pits, over who should be blamed for the issue, which is clearly widespread and may affect all seven of the belowground tanks. Maeda Corp. constructed the pits using plans provided by TEPCO, and says that the design was unconventional for a belowground tank. TEPCO insists that the design has successfully been used in the past for farm reservoirs, with no issues. Experts surmise that a leak-detecting pipe inserted between the polyethylene sheets may have caused a gap, and the immense weight of the water then displaced it. However, workers will not be able to determine the exact cause until the tanks are completely drained. 

In other news, TEPCO officials announced this week that an underwater fence installed in an ocean port near the plant, which was designed to keep radioactive sea life from further contaminating the food chain, has been damaged in two places during a recent bout of inclement weather.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has approved draft regulations that will be required to restart Japan’s nuclear reactors, and has opened them up to the public for comment for the next 30 days. Once finalized, they will be enacted beginning in July. Experts say that the rules, many of which require time-consuming and expensive upgrades, may render some reactors not worth restarting, and will result in others not being able to be restarted for years. Although utilities will have a five-year grace period in order to construct off-site control centers, other requirements will be mandated immediately, and restarts will not be allowed until they are completed. The new rules include installation of filtered vents in all boiling water reactors, something that will affect more than half of the country’s 50 reactors; installing new ones could reportedly take years. Plants close to the sea will be required to build seawalls in order to reduce damage from tsunamis. Companies hosting reactors on fault lines or near volcanoes will have to submit studies showing that they are not at risk—another process that is both time-consuming and expensive. And, electrical cabling at all plants will be required to be flame retardant. Analysts note that many older plants may have to be completely rewired, at astronomical cost and significant technical difficulty. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, all of Japan’s reactors were taken offline. Two, reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, were restarted last year, despite widespread public protest, but those will be shut down again in September for routine maintenance. The Oi reactors will then also be required to meet the new NRA standards before being brought online again.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

A parliamentary panel, which was formed after the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission advised parliamentary monitoring of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, is being criticized for its strongly pro-nuclear makeup and the fact that it took close to a year to even bring the group together for the first time. In its inaugural meeting on April 8, the Special Committee for Investigation of Nuclear Power Issues met with former members of the Commission, whose report, published in July, said that the disaster was “man-made.” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who led the Commission, criticized how long it had taken the panel to meet for the first time, noting, “I have been given an opportunity [to speak to this newly-formed group] nine months after submitting the report to the Lower House Speaker.” Members of the panel apologized. Kurokawa was blunt about current conditions at the plant, saying, “The disaster has not been brought under control.”

Analysts have noted that of the 40-person panel, 24 are members of the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and several others are declared proponents of nuclear power. One LDP senior official admitted, “We avoided anti-nuclear lawmakers,” even snubbing a high-ranking member of their own party who wanted to join the group but who had made anti-nuclear statements. The report urged Parliament to investigate the root causes of the Fukushima disaster, which have never been determined; many suspect that the March 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused fatal damage to the Fukushima reactors, but TEPCO continues to dispute that, and actively discouraged a group of Diet investigators from doing onsite evaluations by lying about dangerous conditions there, including claiming “pitch black darkness” within a building when, in fact, strong lighting with backup had already been installed. Another LDP member was frank in his assessment of the possibility of investigations into the cause of the meltdowns. “If we conduct an additional onsite investigation, the establishment of the regulations standards will be pushed back from July, delaying the restarts of reactors.” Prime Minister Abe and the nuclear industry have both been exerting significant pressure to restart reactors across Japan. Currently, no date has been set for the Parliamentary panel to meet a second time. 

For the first time since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, Japan’s central government will reportedly not require residents and businesses to observe power saving targets this summer, a period in which usage normally increases because of hot weather. Officials will make a final decision later this month. Japan is producing more thermonuclear fuel than before the disaster and last summer, residents reduced their overall power usage by as much as 15% in some areas. Sources quoted by the Asahi Shimbun said that the government expects power companies to produce a 6.3% average surplus nationwide, even though 48 of 50 of the country’s nuclear reactors are currently offline; as a result, power-saving goals will not be put into place. The predicted surplus notwithstanding, Prime Minister Abe is continuing to push for restarting reactors, despite widespread opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that it plans to send inspectors to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant next week to investigate process in decommissioning the reactors there, as well as a slew of recent mistakes and equipment failures that have threatened the safety of the plant. Over the past few weeks, there have been two power outages, one of which was caused by a rat running across a wire, and one which occurred when workers failed to disconnect power while trying to install rodent-proof netting; they accidentally touched the wiring, shorting out the system again. A water purification system was shut off when a worker accidentally hit the wrong switch. Radiation detectors malfunctioned. Three separate leaks occurred in belowground holding tanks containing highly contaminated water. And, there have been other, more minor, equipment malfunctions. Some experts say that TEPCO is incapable of managing the disaster, and the task should be given to the government and outside experts. The IAEA team will be led by Juan Carlos Lentijo.

Anti-nuclear campaigners who have been camped out in front of the METI building since September 2011 (six months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster) say that they will fight a lawsuit newly filed by the government in an effort to force them to move their tents. One of the activists highlighted the importance of the demonstration effort, saying, “I’d like to appeal to the public for the importance of the tents. They represent the public’s voice for a nuclear-free Japan.”  Katsutaka Idogawa, former mayor of Futaba, which is still a ghost town after residents were forced to flee in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, agreed: “State-owned land belongs to the public,” he said. “We want the government to listen to the voices of the public.”

Decontamination and Nuclear Waste

The Environmental Management Bureau, which operates under the auspices of Japan’s Environment Ministry, has begun conducting surveys in Naraha for possible temporary storage sites for radioactive soil and other waste. Eight other municipalities are also candidates for the storage facility, but surveys have not yet been done in any of them. Naraha has been named a “zone preparing for the lifting of the evacuation order”, and the government plans to allow residents were evacuated to return in the near future. However, many have expressed grave concern about their safety if they return to an area hosting a nuclear waste repository, and said that although the government has promised that the facility will only be a temporary one, they worry that it will become permanent and they will be stuck with it forever.