(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
Yasutaka Moriguchi, who championed the Monju fast-breeder reactor as head of the nuclear energy division at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), has been named to the top bureaucratic post at MEXT. The move is significant, as Moriguchi could influence decisions regarding decommissioning of the Monju reactor. Once hailed as a pillar of the Japanese nuclear cycle, Monju has been plagued with problems since construction began. The government recently announced that it would cut research and development spending by 25%and overall spending by 70% in 2012, which would effectively freeze its long-term use. The decision was a blow to nuclear power production in Japan.
An interim report released by a government panel studying earthquakes and tsunamis says that a magnitude 9.0 or higher mega-earthquake, affecting an area spanning 110,000 km, is possible along the Pacific Ocean’s Nankai Trough. A tsunami would also be possible in that scenario. The new estimate is three times more powerful than the previously predicted earthquakes in that area (8.7) and is likely to affect anti-quake measures of local governments.
Residents forced to evacuate the area near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are expressing anger in the wake of a government interim report released earlier this week, which revealed that Japan failed to release radiation data in a timely manner. As a result, many people fled their homes, only to end up in areas even more contaminated than those they’d left. Municipal officials who encouraged residents to leave without being advised of the radiation data are also furious and are criticizing the poor response by the central government.
In spite of municipal plans to rebuild towns near the Fukushima Daiichi plant, many residents are now expressing reservations about moving back to areas where radiation levels are high and grocery stores, hospitals, and other essential services may never reopen.
Residents from Saga and Fukuoka Prefectures have filed suit against Kyushu Electric Power Company in an effort to shut down the Genkai nuclear power plant, in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The 290 plaintiffs contend that the risk of a nuclear disaster is too great to residents who live nearby.
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, met with Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) president Toshio Nishizawa this week to encourage him to consider temporary state control of the ailing utility in order to prevent it from failing financially. TEPCO recently requested $8.8 billion from the government to cover compensation payments due to victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. If the company is forced to decommission all of its reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, costs will continue to explode.
Shares of TEPCO plunged this week by 12%, to their lowest level in 37 years, on fears that the company will be nationalized. Since March, stock in the utility has fallen by 90%.
In the meantime, Yasuhiro Sato, the head of Mizuho Financial Group, said that his company will not waive loans made to TEPCO and expects the utility to pay its outstanding debts. Japan has asked banks to extend additional loans to TEPCO; however, Sato said that Mizuho cannot even assess such a request until it determines whether TEPCO will be nationalized.
The Governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, met with TEPCO president Toshio Nishizawa this week to demand that the utility decommission all 10 TEPCO nuclear plants in the prefecture. Nishizawa avoided responding directly to the request, saying, “We’ll sincerely take measures to ensure safety, pay compensation to those affected by the disaster, and decontaminate tainted areas.”
State of the Reactors
Some nuclear engineering experts believe that the design of venting pipes at the Fukushima Daiichi plant led to the hydrogen explosions that occurred in Reactors 1, 3, and 4, a hypothesis that Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has not denied. TEPCO maintains that the explosions that occurred in March were the result of hydrogen travelling between reactors via openings in the lid of the containment vessels, and analysis shows that some hydrogen did escape this way. However, new evidence reveals traces of hydrogen in venting pipes that connect some of the reactors. Some had no backflow prevention apparatus; others did, but valves automatically opened when power was lost in the wake of the tsunami. As a result, hydrogen could have leaked from reactor to reactor. The discovery is significant; all of TEPCO’s nuclear reactors have similar venting pipes, as do boiling water reactors operated by Tohoku Electric Power Company, Chubu Electric Power, Hokuriku Electric Power Company, Chugoku Electric Power Company, and Japan Atomic Power Company.
Former TEPCO employees have revealed that a leaking pipe caused failure in two backup generators in the basement of Reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant pipe 20 years ago. An engineer pointed out that the generators were at risk from damage by a tsunami since they were near the sea. Although TEPCO installed doors to prevent leaks, they failed to move the generators above ground. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) is revising safety guidelines regarding power sources at nuclear plants.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
Environment Minister Goshi Hosono—who is also Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister—met with Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato this week to request sites for nuclear waste disposal in eight districts in Futaba County, near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Because the areas in question have been contaminated and residents will mostly likely not be able to move back for decades, if ever, the government will buy the land or sign long-term leases. In addition, they are close to the site of the disaster, which means that waste would not have to travel far before being disposed of. However, many residents are expressing anger and disbelief, along with concerns that the “temporary” site will end up being permanent.
A study by the Forestry Ministry has detected high levels of radioactive cesium in cedar pollen taken from trees near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The study measured samples from 180 locations in Eastern Japan; 87 of those were located in Fukushima Prefecture. The highest level, measured in a sample from Namie, 11km from the plant, measured 253,000 Bq/kg. Wind can carry pollen several hundred kilometers from its source. However, Ministry officials said that even if people were to inhale the radioactive pollen when it is at its highest concentration, they would be exposed to .000192microsieverts of radiation per hour. This amount, they say, is approximately 10times what one would be exposed to in some parts of Tokyo, but the risk to humans is “small.” Scientists are predicting lower than normal pollen counts this year.
The Agriculture Ministry announced it will purchase all rice in eight Fukushima districts where rice shipments have been banned after being contaminated by fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. They will also purchase any rice that measures more than 100 Bq/kg of cesium. Estimates place the total amount of rice to be purchased at 4,000 tons. Ministry officials said they will ask TEPCO to cover the cost.
Meanwhile, Japan warned of a possible ban on planting rice in contaminated areas for the next harvest year. Farmers have expressed grave concern that their livelihoods may be forever damaged. Many are frustrated that they have no sense when the crisis will end. Some are banding together to take legal action against TEPCO.