(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
A Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) memo has revealed a 2002 secret meeting between METI officials and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO)’s Chairman, President, and Vice President, in which participants discussed abandoning the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. METI was concerned about several problems with the plant, including major budget issues. Costs for the project were originally estimated at 760 billion yen, but estimates bloomed to more than two trillion yen (25 billion USD), plus another trillion in demolition costs. A follow up meeting was scheduled but never took place, because TEPCO’s president and chairman resigned over a cover up regarding damaged equipment. The Rokkasho project - combined with similarly crippled Monju fast breeder reactor - played a central part in Japan’s nuclear fuel plan, and these revelations may influence the Japan Atomic Energy Commission as it establishes new nuclear policies this summer.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced last week that Japan will continue to export nuclear equipment and technology to those countries that want it, in spite of a lack of popular support for the idea in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan’s Diet is set to approve nuclear accords next week with Jordan, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam. The country is also in discussions with Turkey, India, and Brazil.
TEPCO has released an interim report on the ongoing nuclear crisis at its Fukushima Daiichi plant. The report claims that TEPCO employees made no errors in the handling of the disaster and attributes the cause of the meltdowns to the tsunami, not the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The utility said that such a large tsunami could not have been anticipated, in spite of the fact that it ignored its own research from 2008 showing that a tsunami exceeding 10 meters was possible.
However, experts are criticizing the report and the company’s lack of transparency. They say the report fails to address questions about why workers shut down a cooling system that could have prevented meltdowns at the reactors, as well as why the utility has been unable to discover the source of continuing water leaks at the plant. Moreover, TEPCO was not able to explain the large spike in radiation levels on March 15, nor does it know why hydrogen explosions occurred at the plant. Tetsuo Sewada, an assistant professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said, “TEPCO should not have had a system that doesn’t work in an actual emergency.”
Significantly, a majority of members of a government panel investigating the nuclear crisis doubt TEPCO’s claims that the tsunami caused the disaster, instead believing that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake contributed to the problems at the Fukushima plant, including damaging the piping responsible for cooling the reactors. This could have crucial impact on the decision to restart other reactors around the country, most of which are currently idled.
Japan’s central government and TEPCO could jointly announce that the utility has achieved cold shutdown status at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant as early as 16 December. Some experts have questioned the validity of that assessment, when the internal condition of the reactors is still unknown and the company is struggling to keep the situation at the plant under control. The plant has suffered numerous issues in the past month, including a large leak of radioactive water.
TEPCO revealed this week that at least 45 tons of radioactive water have leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and may have flowed into the ocean, which is only 500-600 meters from the site of the incident. It took workers 21 hours to identify the issue, which occurred after water flooded a purification device and then poured through a cracked wall. The water was used to cool the plant’s reactors. TEPCO officials estimate that the contaminated water contained one million times the legal limit of strontium (100 million becquerels per liter) and 300 times the legal limit of cesium (45,000 becquerels per liter). Both substances can be absorbed by humans and are cancer causing.
The new admission means that up to 220 tons of contaminated water have reached the sea since March. The fisheries cooperative association in Fukushima Prefecture has filed a complaint against TEPCO, citing concerns about the effect on sea life and demanded details on which areas of the ocean were affected. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ordered TEPCO to determine the cause of the leak and outline how it will prevent it from recurring. In the meantime, the utility insists that the incident will not affect efforts to establish cold-shutdown status at the plant.
TEPCO said that it will replace part of the water decontamination system at the Fukushima plant this week, a move that it hopes will improve decontamination efforts and reduce waste generated by the process. US based Kurion built the current system; previously, it was used in conjunction with a system made by Areva. However, the Areva system has been plagued with problems and is no longer working.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
The Japan Chemical Analysis Center said that the Fukushima nuclear disaster resulted in a release of xenon-133 that exceeded normal levels in Chiba Prefecture by 400,000 times. However, researchers said that the excessive measurements—which took three months to return to normal—did not pose a risk to humans. The Center revealed the new data at a meeting sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).
Japan plans to establish three zones around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, signifying different contamination levels. In the zone with the highest radiation readings, the government may purchase land from evacuees. In other areas, decontamination and reconstruction plans will be implemented.
New bans were placed on rice shipments from Fukushima’s Watari District, 60 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after officials discovered rice containing 590 Bq/kg of cesium. Japan’s legal limit is 500 Bq/kg. The move follows bans on rice shipments from the Onami District and Date City, and will affect 406 farms. Previously, Fukushima prefectural officials had said that all rice from the prefecture was safe to consume.
Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal
A scientist from Osaka University and a former professor at the Tokyo University of Science are calling for radioactive soil, contaminated as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, to be dumped into the sea. The researchers, who were speaking at a study meeting at Osaka University, said they would submit a proposal to do so to the central government. Experts say that the proposal would violate the London Convention, which prohibits dumping of waste into the ocean. In addition, the move is expected to spark criticism from the international community.
Fukushima Prefectural officials have unveiled a white paper outlining decontamination plans for farms and forests in the prefecture. Officials plan to spray decontamination agents; remove topsoil, tree bark, and leaves; and employ water jet cleaners, in order to reduce contamination levels within two years. The prefecture will also assist local municipalities in drawing up contamination plans.
TEPCO’s compensation office in Tokyo began accepting applications this week for a second round of compensation, covering September through November. The center, which employs 5,000 workers, receives approximately 700 applications each day, but already has a daily backlog of about 100 applications. Takashi Nakamura, who heads the center, apologized for the delay and said that TEPCO did not expect to receive so many applications. In addition, he said, the company is not accustomed to such work.
Other Nuclear News
The United Kingdom is planning to become the first county to bury plutonium stores in Cumbria, in an effort to reduce terrorist threats and reduce maintenance costs. Officials said they will encase the plutonium in concrete and bury it hundreds of meters underground. Disposal is scheduled to begin in 2040. By that time, the country expects to have over 130 tons of plutonium--enough to construct over 10,000 nuclear weapons should it reach the wrong hands. Each weapon requires only 8 kg of high-grade plutonium.