(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 the Reactors
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has announced that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has achieved “cold shutdown conditions” at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, marking the end of phase two of the government’s plan to decommission the reactors. Normally, cold shutdown is established when fuel temperatures fall below 100ºC. However, because the Fukushima fuel has melted and fallen to the bottom of the reactor, and some fuel is assumed to have seeped through the containment vessel, making it impossible to accurately measure temperatures, officials have chosen to use the phrase “cold shutdown conditions.” In spite of the announcement, experts warn that the situation at the plant remains perilous, as a result of excessively high radiation levels, vulnerability of spent fuel pools to earthquakes, leaking contaminated water which continues to accumulate in the basements of the reactors, and a lack of information about the condition of melted fuel. Haruki Madarame, Chair of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, admitted, “The reactors are broken and we hardly know what it is really like inside the reactors and it’s difficult to predict what may come.”
In the meantime, the government now estimates that decommissioning will take up to 40 years, according to a revised timetable which TEPCO and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) will reportedly release later this month. According to the timetable, fuel rods will be removed by 2015, the containment vessel will be repaired and filled with water by 2021, and engineers will remove melted fuel from the reactors between 2022 and 2052.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan has admitted that it failed to report nuclear waste discovered at the Oarai Research and Development Center, which is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Uranium and plutonium have been discovered in the waste; both substances could hypothetically be used to create nuclear weapons.
A new nationwide poll conducted on December 10-11 by the Asahi Shimbun reveals that 57% of Japanese people now oppose nuclear power, up from 48% in October.
As a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan will cease testing on its Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture and will omit 2.2 billion yen originally earmarked for testing in its 2012 budget. In addition, its overall budget will be reduced by 4 billion yen. Japan is expected to determine the fate of the Monju reactor next summer, when it publishes a review of the nation’s energy policies.
Shiga Prefecture’s request for access to the Science Ministry’s System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) has been repeatedly denied, in spite of the fact that it borders Fukui Prefecture, which houses 13 nuclear reactors. Shiga officials has hoped to use the SPEEDI data, which can predict radiation spread within 100 km in less than 20 minutes, to create a contingency plan in case of a nuclear disaster. Science Ministry officials say that SPEEDI use is limited to those prefectures which host nuclear reactors, or whose borders are within 10 km of a reactor. The Shiga border is 13 km from the Tsuruga nuclear power plant. The Science Ministry has not given a specific answer to the request, which was first submitted six months ago.
Fukushima Prefecture has announced that it will not apply for three billion yen in nuclear subsidies for fiscal year 2012, in an effort to move away from dependence on nuclear power within the prefecture. Fukushima follows Kagoshima Prefecture, which will also decline nuclear power subsidies.
Kyushu Electric has submitted initial stress test results for three of its reactors to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The reactors are located at the Sendai and Genkai nuclear plants in Kagoshima and Saga Prefectures, respectively. The utility is hoping to restart the reactors, but municipal leaders oppose the move. In addition, Kyushu is still under fire for trying to manipulate public opinion on nuclear safety.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Lower House member Tomoyuki Taira have jointly written a two-page article, published in the British science journal Nature, asserting that TEPCO must be placed under government control. The article, which is featured on the cover of the journal, says that the ultimate cause of the accident cannot be determined if TEPCO, which has withheld information from the government and the public, is allowed to continue to operate independently.
Yukio Edano, the head of METI, has criticized TEPCO’s plan to release low-level radioactive water into the sea, saying it will cause damage to an already embattled fishing industry, which is trying to recover from consumer fears of radiation in seafood. Edano said that TEPCO must obtain permission from Japan’s fishing cooperatives before moving forward.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
New data released by the Science Ministry shows that cesium levels in Fukushima Prefecture were 168 times higher than those of Ibaraki Prefecture, which previously had the highest levels on record, and 45 times greater than combined cesium levels in 45 other prefectures. The government had previously assessed radiation in all prefectures in Japan save Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures, where damage from the earthquake delayed data gathering.
Japan is expected to designate new zones, based on radiation levels, around the Fukushima nuclear plant. “Preparatory Zones,” where radiation exposure measures less than 20 millisieverts per year, are areas to which residents can prepare to return; “Restricted Residential Zones,” where exposure measures more than 20 and less than 50 millisieverts per year, are areas where people are not expected to be able to return for several years; and “Difficult-to-Return Zones,” are locations where exposure measures more than 50 millisieverts per year and probably will not be habitable for several decades.
Estimated levels of radiation exposure in Fukushima Prefecture, based on questionnaires completed by residents, show that early evacuation resulted in the lowest amount of exposure. Those who stayed in affected areas the longest have exhibited the highest levels of exposure. The results have infuriated residents, many of whom say they would have evacuated earlier had they been provided with timely and accurate information; however, the government failed to disclose SPEEDI forecasts predicting the spread of radiation.
This week, officials from the Suginami Ward in Tokyo discovered radioactive cesium measuring 90,600 Bq/kg on polyethylene sheets used to cover schoolyards last spring after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The sheets were removed in early April and stored near a gymnasium. Officials believe that radiation levels, which are calculated per kilogram, are extremely high because the overall weight of the sheets is low. Municipal officials plan to incinerate the sheets.
The IAEA is coordinating radiation-monitoring efforts of 24 countries, which have expressed concern about radiation levels in the Pacific Ocean as a result of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Although experts have said that the ocean will dilute radiation levels and reduce threats to humans, many countries continue to express concern about the effects of the Fukushima nuclear crisis on coastal environments and fishing industries.
The Environment Ministry has released guidelines for decontamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, specifying that the government will absorb decontamination costs for areas with radiation measuring higher than 0.23 microsieverts per hour, as well as for waste containing more than 8,000 Bq/kg of cesium.
The government will build radioactive waste storage facilities in Futaba County, Fukushima Prefecture, and expects to choose specific locations within the county by the end of 2012, according to reports from the Environment Ministry.
A group of lawyers helping victims of the Fukushima nuclear crisis say that the amount of compensation from TEPCO is unacceptable. They plan to bargain collectively next spring; if that effort is unsuccessful, they say they will file a class action lawsuit.
Other Nuclear News
William Daley, the White House Chief of Staff, has written a letter to the members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), expressing confidence in the Commission’s beleaguered head, Gregory Jaczko, but urging the agency to employ a mediator to improve its working relationships. The NRC’s four commissioners contacted Daley in October, complaining that Jaczko is a “bully” who created hostile conditions. In addition, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing with all five NRC members this week. Jaczko has pushed for quick reforms and a review of safety regulations for US reactors in light of the Fukushima disaster, while the other commissioners support extensive studies and protracted discussions. The NRC has been criticized for maintaining a cozy relationship with the nuclear industry, which strongly contested Jaczko’s appointment as Chair. Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former Department of Energy official, said, “I believe, with the exception of Jaczko, that the NRC has an unhealthy co-dependent relations with its licensees.”