Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
December 4th marked 1000 days since the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan on March 11 2011, triggering the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO, operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, announced this week it had found radioactive contamination 36,000 times permissible levels in water taken from an observation well. The readings were taken from the well east of reactor #2 and 40 meters from the sea. The contamination, which included beta-ray emitting strontium (which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer), measured 1.1 million becquerels per liter. TEPCO says no major changes in the levels radioactive contamination in the sea have been detected.
In a press release TEPCO stated that these high levels of contamination are a sign that the company is bringing the contaminated water crisis under control. The press release quotes former U.S. Department of Energy official and TEPCO adviser Lake H. Barrett, who said: “While the rise in radiation readings is an obvious concern that needs to be carefully monitored, in some respects it is an indication of the success of TEPCO’s concerted efforts to isolate contaminated water and prevent its flow into the sea. The situation warrants continuous monitoring and careful analysis, but there appears no increased level of risk to workers, the public, or the environment.”
However, there is still focus on TEPCO’s mishandling of the water crisis. It has emerged that the litany of leaks came from storage tanks on the Fukushima Daiichi site (over 363,000 liters this year) which were built by workers who were hired illegally. Workers were told to lie about them being hired by third party brokers. "Even if we didn't agree with how things were being done, we had to keep quiet and work fast. People didn't have contracts, so when they weren't needed any more, they were cut immediately," said Yoshitatsu Uechi, a former Fukushima worker who lodged a complaint with labor authorities. His account was confirmed by other workers. TEPCO has yet to comment on the matter.
The Japanese industry ministry’s contaminated water panel warned this week that plans to deal with the water crisis are still inadequate and that space to store contaminated water run out in within two years if matters are not addressed. The panel made a number of suggestions they hope will help the crisis including the construction of giant tanks and laying asphalt on the site to help prevent rainwater from entering the ground and flowing into the damaged reactor buildings where it is then contaminated. It also warned that some storage tanks that contain highly radioactive water have been built on weak ground that could sink and their stability should be addressed. The panel’s proposals include those from 780 that were sent by experts from around the world at the industry ministry’s request.
Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo this week, Juan Carlos Lentijo, chief of the IAEA mission in Japan to inspect decommissioning work at Fukushima Daiichi, said TEPCO should consider releasing partially contaminated water into the sea. "Controlled discharge is practiced in nuclear facilities across the world. And what we are trying to say here...is to consider this as one of the options to contribute to a good balance of risks and to stabilize the facility for the long term," he said. This was echoed by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka who said: “You cannot keep storing the water forever. We have to make choice comparing all risks involved.” Every day, 400 tons of contaminated water leak from the destroyed reactors at the site and TEPCO says it is currently storing 390,000 tons. A panel of experts appointed by the government said it will take seven years to partially decontaminate the water. However, the process will leave 700,000 tons of water which will still be contaminated with tritium. "I don't believe the technology is available for easy removal of tritium. The amount is not particularly mind-boggling from a global perspective. We can't help discharging water once it has cleared safety levels," said Mr Tanaka.
The Japanese government announced this week it is setting aside a further 48 billion yen for the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Of that money, 26 billion will be used to address the contaminated water crisis, including building an ice wall around the reactors to prevent contaminated water escaping.
Tadamori Oshima, head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's task force on disaster reconstruction suggested this week that the government could take control of the decommissioning process from TEPCO. "It is likely that the government will eventually have to take responsibility," said Mr Oshima. The suggestion includes the creation of a public oversight body like the UK’s National Decommissioning Authority.
Meanwhile, TEPCO has announced that a team of six international advisers will convene in January to address the safety culture at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Former chairwoman of the UK's Atomic Energy Authority, Lady Barbara Judge, is recruiting the team. "This taskforce will be a way to give the Japanese and TEPCO the benefit of international expertise on the specific issue of safety which is what they need in order to reopen the plants. No one country can ever have enough experience...it needs cooperation and collaboration. It's important for TEPCO and other producers to start communicating with the public about what goes on in the plants and talk about the benefits and detriments in an even-handed fashion," she said. The team will meet four times a year.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Despite the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the rest of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors currently being out of action, the Japanese government sources let it be known this week that it sees nuclear power as part of the country’s long term energy mix. Nuclear power will feature as “an important source of electricity” in the new energy plan to be released by the government next year. However, due to the uncertainty over the future of Japan’s fleet of idle nuclear reactors, will not contain any targets for energy generated by nuclear power.
A revised business plan prepared by TEPCO and the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund hopes to see all seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant restarted by 2016. It is hoped that reopening the reactors, two of which are currently undergoing safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), will help turn around TEPCO’s dire financial situation.
Meanwhile, the NRA has asked Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) for more information about an active seismic fault close it the company’s Mihama power plant in Fukui Prefecture. It is though that the fault could affect nine others under the Mihama plant, one of which is under the reactor. KEPCO currently say the faults are not active. Officials, who are expected to begin an inspection of the plant this week, have requested more detailed data.
More than 1,900 people have now joined a law suit against KEPCO demanding the company permanently shut down its Oi nuclear power plant. The plaintiffs are also demanding monthly compensation of 10,000 yen each until the plant is closed.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Tadamori Oshima, head of the government’s task force on disaster reconstruction indicated this week that a target to reduce contamination of land around the Fukushima Daiichi plant to 1 millisievert of radiation or less may be “informally” relaxed. "After we bring ambient radiation (down) to between 5 to 10 millisieverts and complete the decontamination, we will take thorough measures to manage individuals' dosage and safeguard their health. But a new radiation target would be difficult to publish because it would create a big problem,” he said.
Japan’s parliament passed a bill this week extending the length of time victims of the Fukushima disaster have to claim compensation from three to ten years. Under Japanese law, they would have lost their right to claim compensation in March 2014. The new legislation also says that a person can now claim compensation for any health problems resulting from the accident for 20 years after their symptoms appear rather than for 20 years after the accident occurred as was the case previously.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
A survey by the Japan's Reconstruction Agency of people who were evacuated from two towns close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has found that a whopping 70% do not plan to return to their homes. Sixty-seven percent of 2,760 households from Okuma and 65 percent of 1,730 households from Futaba have said they will not return. Those surveyed cited fears about radiation exposure and the length of time the repopulation process was taking.
Meanwhile, 1000 days after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, many of those evacuated from towns close to Fukushima are still living in temporary accommodation. Occupancy rates of the temporary housing built in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in the aftermath of the disaster are at 85%. “We haven’t been making progress in building public housing for disaster victims and acquiring land for projects to relocate entire communities,” an Iwate housing official. “Family members live apart and it’s no good. Since we can’t go back to our hometown, this is like a living hell. Nothing will change even if we complain,” said Yoichi Matsumoto, a resident in temporary accommodation in Iwaki. It is not expected that the situation will improve very soon. “There is a strong likelihood that it may take five years or more after the quake to see all occupants move out,” said an Iwate official.