(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
In spite of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement that the nuclear crisis is under control and TEPCO has achieved so-called “cold shutdown conditions” at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some experts are skeptical that Noda’s statement was simply a symbolic political milestone designed to allay fears about the nation’s safety, but not grounded in reality. Even some members of the Prime Minister’s own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have called the declaration a “fiction,” and Japanese distrust of the government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) is growing. Critics expressed concern this week about the unknown status of melted fuel, continuing leaks of radioactive water, and worker safety. Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato said, “The accident has not been brought under control.”
A government panel studying Japan’s energy policy has endorsed new estimates of nuclear power costs, which reveal that they may be 50% greater than previously determined in 2004. The new figures reflect the possibility of a Fukushima-like accident, which has been assessed at a minimum of six trillion yen ($77 billion), and raise the cost of each kilowatt-hour. Experts expect that the new estimates will affect the revised energy policy, due out this summer.
A government working group studying the effects of low-level radiation is proposing a maximum exposure limit of 10 millisieverts of radiation per year, and that the government meet that goal within two years or less. Eventually, they hope to lower the limit to one millisievert per year, which is the annual standard advised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. Some experts have raised concerns about the effects on children and pregnant women.
Reactor 2 at Kansai Electric’s Ohi nuclear plant has gone offline for regular inspections. Currently, seven reactors in Japan remain in operation. However, later this month, the utility expects to stop Reactor 4 at its Genkai plant, at which point 90% of the nation’s reactors will be out of service.
Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) is advising nuclear power providers to establish revised plans for preparing for tsunamis, in spite of the fact that the government has no standards by which to evaluate such plans. The Commission plans to consult with evaluation experts in order to establish some. Currently, each nuclear power plant makes its own risk assessment of tsunami risk.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) said that some textbooks dealing with nuclear power will be revised, after numerous complaints were received about how the subject was handled, including a lack of information about the dangers of radiation and nuclear accidents, as well as the inherent safety of nuclear power. One revision added the phrase, “The ‘safety myth’ about nuclear power has been turned upside down.”
The Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional newspaper in Fukuoka Prefecture, has cancelled its plans to publish a book critical of pluthermal nuclear power at Kyushu’s Genkai plant, according to Yu Tanaka, the book’s author. Kyushu Electric is the second largest shareholder of the newspaper. Initially, the newspaper asked Tanaka to remove 12 pages, including a section questioning the usefulness of the plan. Eventually, publishing plans were cancelled entirely. Another publisher has since printed the book in its entirety.
Kyushu Electric announced that last week’s leak of 1.8 tons of radioactive water at its Genkai plant was caused by a broken pump shaft in its cooling system. The utility has been criticized for initially failing to disclose the leak to local authorities.
Tomohiko Suzuki, a reporter working undercover at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has charged that conditions at the plant are far worse than TEPCO is admitting, and “absolutely no progress is being made.” Suzuki worked undercover for over a month between July and August, during which time he witnessed shoddy workmanship, repeated failure to protect workers’ health, and a culture of secrecy and lack of communication between Toshiba and Hitachi, the companies who designed the reactors and have now been brought in to decommission them. As an example of TEPCO’s lack of regard for its workers, Suzuki described a radiation detector designed to protect workers from exposure but which no longer works, because the line to the radiation alarm has been cut.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO has discovered yet another leak of 230 tons of radioactive water, in a 54-meter tunnel beneath a building storing highly radioactive water. The company believes that the water, which was three meters (10 ft.) deep in some places, leaked from the storage facility and mixed with ground water that seeped into the tunnel. The announcement came only two days after Prime Minister Noda declared that the plant was stable, leading critics to question TEPCO’s ability to safely maintain the plant, and specifically, how such a large leak went undetected.
A government panel investigating the causes of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant said that workers disabled a cooling system at Reactor 3 without the knowledge of Masao Yoshida, then-chief of the plant, breaking the chain of command. A hydrogen explosion occurred the next day.
The same panel found that senior officials were unaware that a core cooling system at Reactor 1 was disabled after the tsunami caused power loss, and as a result, failed to respond. The reactor later melted down. TEPCO has insisted that its workers made no errors.
Nuclear crisis minister Goshi Hosono said Japan will use more robot technology in the next stage of decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant. So far, 162 workers have been exceeded the maximum limit of 100 millisieverts cumulative exposure for nuclear workers. Robots have proved useful since they can enter areas of the compound where radiation levels are too high for humans.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
A report compiled by Asahi, using data released by TEPCO, shows that at least 462 trillion becquerels of radioactive strontium have leaked into the Pacific Ocean since March. Strontium, which is expensive and difficult to detect, accumulates in bones and causes leukemia and bone cancer. Experts have expressed concern about what will happen if strontium enters the food chain. Satoshi Katayama, a professor at Tohoku University, noted, “Strontium easily accumulates in [sea] creatures, even if its concentration level is low.”
Japan will reclassify no-entry zones, reflecting annual radiation exposure levels, around the Fukushima Daiichi plant as early as April 1, according to government officials. “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.
Scientists at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) have conducted a study showing that radioactive cesium did not contaminate forest soil in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, but rather, only contaminated leaves and tree trunks. Researchers believe that cold temperatures turned radioactive rain into snow and ice, which prevented it from seeping into the soil. Experts hope that this will reduce the amount of contaminated soil that needs to be stored and disposed of.
Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), met with Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono this week, to offer help with decontamination efforts near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In addition, Amano said that IAEA experts will assist with removing melted fuel.
Japan plans to build an interim storage site in Futaba County, Fukushima Prefecture, for radioactive soil and ash. The facility will be built in an area where radiation levels are so high that they prevent residents from returning for five years or more, and the government will buy or lease the land from residents.
Norio Kanno, the Mayor of Fukushima Prefecture’s Iitate Village, said that the village has put together a reconstruction plan and hopes that some residents will begin to repopulate the area within two years, with all residents returning within five. Iitate is located approximately 40 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Officials aim to initially reduce radiation levels to five millisieverts per year, and eventually bring them to one millisievert per year. The plan includes decontaminating residential land and farms, creating an inspection entity to ensure food safety, and introducing renewable energy. Kanno has been critical of the government announcement that the nuclear crisis is now under control, saying, “It’s out of the question to call it under control. They know nothing about the reality here.”