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
In response to worsening news about the radioactive water crisis in Fukushima, Shinji Kinjo, the head of a Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) taskforce, said this week that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has reached a state of “emergency,” and TEPCO’s efforts to fix the crisis are failing. The statement came in response to a new discovery that highly radioactive water has breached an underground barrier and may soon flood the area aboveground, eventually flowing into the ocean. Shinjo criticized TEPCO, saying its “sense of crisis is weak,” adding, “This is why you can’t just leave it up to TEPCO alone” to handle the ongoing and burgeoning disaster. “Right now, we have an emergency,” he said. Meanwhile, the utility released a statement estimating the amount of radioactive tritium that has contaminated the ocean since the beginning of the nuclear crisis at 20 trillion to 40 trillion Becquerels. Tritium has a half-life of twelve years. Officials are still trying to determine how much strontium, which can accumulate in human bones, causing cancer, has poured into the sea.
TEPCO’s water woes have been steadily worsening since the nuclear crisis first began to unfold in March 2011. Each day, 400 tons of groundwater seep into the basements of damaged reactor buildings, mixing with highly radioactive water and subsequently becoming contaminated and requiring storage. However, TEPCO is running out of room to store the water. Meanwhile, although experts (including Greenpeace) have long suspected that contaminated water was flowing into the sea, the utility has consistently denied that claim. Finally, this month officials admitted not only that the water has been pouring into the ocean since shortly after the nuclear disaster began, but also that they had known about the contamination since last January and failed to inform the government and public. TEPCO blamed the incident on poor interdepartmental contamination.
Since May, radiation levels in wells near reactor buildings, which were dug in order to measure radiation levels there, have been steadily rising. This week, TEPCO said that levels of radioactive cesium taken from 13 meters below the surface near reactor #2, on the ocean side of the plant, had reached astronomical levels, noting that samples taken from deep underground were far more radioactive than those gathered at shallower locations. Cesium-134, which has a half-life of two years, measured 300 million Bq/liter, and cesium-137, which has a half-life of approximately 30 years, measured 650 million Bq/liter, for a total of 950 million Bq/liter. Cesium has been known to cause cancer.
In addition, levels of other radioactive substances, including strontium-90, have reached 520 million Bq/liter. Salt concentrations there were ten times higher than those taken from one meter and seven meters below the surface, signaling that ocean water is flowing in and out.
Officials now believe that the contamination is coming from an underground pit, which became connected to the basement of reactor #2’s turbine building when the tsunami damaged a wall there, creating a water channel that leads to the ocean. Significantly, TEPCO said on April 17, 2011 that it would “[shield] the connection between the pit and the turbine building.” It never did so, although officials are now insisting that they thought gravel poured into the end of the pit was adequate. That statement is contradicted by a list of “reliability enhancement measures” the utility released in May 2012, in which the company said that it would make efforts to block that leak, but again, never did so. “[The work] has not been done to this day because of the technical difficulties involved,” said one official. Analysts contend that had TEPCO effectively blocked the flow of water there, the current leak would not be an issue, and oceanic contamination would not be occurring in this location. The reactor basements hold an estimated 11,000 tons of radioactive water and are connected by a tangle of pits that were designed to hold cables and pipes. Groundwater seeping into the basements has exacerbated the problem.
Meanwhile, water samples taken from a groundwater well located near reactor #2 on August 2 contained 960 Bq/liter of cesium, approximately 15 times higher than that of a sample taken from the same location less than a week earlier. Similarly, levels of strontium and other radioactive substances had increased by 47 times that of the previous sample. Engineers are still trying to determine the source of that contamination, and determine why it has suddenly begun to rise so rapidly.
Recently, TEPCO announced that it was injecting waterproof materials into the ground in order to prevent radioactive water from continuing to pour into the sea. But this week, workers realized that the water has breached the barrier, which, because of technical issues, sits 1.8 meters below the surface of the ground. Some analysts estimate that it will be a mere three weeks before the highly radioactive water overflows and begins to flood the ground, which will almost certainly increase the rate at which the water flows into the ocean. “If you build a wall, of course the water is going to accumulate there,” said Masashi Goto, a former Toshiba Corp nuclear engineer. “And, there is no other way for the water to go but up or sideways and eventually lead to the ocean. So now,” he asked, “the question is, how long do we have?” The NRA agreed, “[concluding] that new measures are needed to stop the water from flowing into the sea that way,” according to Kinjo. TEPCO has talked about pumping water out of the pits, at a rate of at least 100 tons per day, but said that it cannot do so for several weeks because it is currently working on constructing the belowground barriers. Meanwhile, the company is fast running out of places to store the highly contaminated water. The NRA criticized the company for once again failing to report the rise in water levels in a timely manner. “TEPCO has no sense of crisis at all,” complained Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the NRA.
TEPCO and Worker Safety
TEPCO has released new figures showing that although 9,640 people who worked at the plant between March 11 and December 31, 2011 and received radiation doses of at least 5 millisieverts are eligible to receive workers compensation should they eventually develop leukemia, few are aware of that fact. By June 2013, that number had risen to 13,667 workers, and is expected to continue to increase as decontamination efforts proceed over the next few decades. Adding insult to injury, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare admitted that it does not have an effective way of contacting workers to inform them of their rights. Officials said that they are considering distributing informational flyers, but Saburo Murata, Deputy Director of Hannan Chuo Hospital, slammed the Ministry. “The government does not appear to be serious about protecting workers. It should provide medical checkups on its own responsibility as a way to steadily carry out decommissioning,” he said. Currently, Fukushima workers are only eligible for free health checks if they were exposed to at least 50 millisieverts of radiation per year—so that many of those eligible for workers’ compensation may never know that they are developing leukemia. So far, only four workers have applied for compensation, and free medical checkups are only available to 10% of workers at the plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority and Reactor Restarts
Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), operator of the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture, has submitted a report to the NRA stating that if an earthquake were to strike the idled plant, spent fuel pools containing approximately 1,700 fuel assemblies would not be in danger, even if cooling water flow was halted. Officials are insisting that ambient air temperatures would be enough to cool the fuel, although admitted that the assemblies’ temperatures could rise to 420º C. The NRA ordered JAPC to submit the report after it determined that a fault line running beneath reactor #2 is active. JAPC continues to contest that assessment, but submitted the report in order to avoid being fined by the agency.
The President of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., Yoshihiko Kawai, has announced that the opening of the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant, located in Aomori Prefecture, will be delayed yet again. This time, the postponement is a result of new safety regulations being released by the NRA, which the company will be expected to observe and follow. The plant’s opening has already been delayed 19 times before. (Source: JiJi Press)