Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
Once again, record levels of radiation have been found at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the last few days. The plant’s operator TEPCO announced on December 6th that a record level of radiation in an outdoor location had been found on the site. Potentially lethal levels measuring 25 sieverts per hour were found on piping near reactors #1 and 2#’s exhaust stack. TEPCO say the contamination in the piping comes from melted nuclear fuel and likely entered during venting procedures soon after the March 2011 accident. Eight days later, the company announced that contaminated water reading a record 1.8 million Becquerels per liter was found in a monitoring well on the site. The water contains beta-ray emitters including strontium which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer and was found 40 meters from the plant’s seawall.
This comes with the news that in the days after the nuclear crisis began at Fukushima in March 2011, water pumped from fire engines in an attempt cool the overheating reactors did not reach them. The water found its way into other parts of the reactors buildings instead. Three reactors went on to suffer catastrophic meltdowns. In a detailed report about the accident which was released back in June 2012 by TEPCO, it identified 52 unanswered issues stemming from its attempts to bring the damaged reactors under control \. However, so far TEPCO has been able to address only 10 of them. Fire engines were called in after the reactors’ cooling systems failed after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the site. Officials have admitted that they knew in March 2011 that attempts to cool the reactors had failed and that the water from fire engines had not reached the reactors, but failed to make the information public. "We should have shared the finding with the public in the belief it would help promote universal safety, but failed to do so," said TEPCO Managing Executive Officer Takafumi Anegawa. The company has also suggested that the damage to the number #3 reactor may be worse than thought and melted fuel from it may now lie outside its reactor pressure vessel.
Experts have expressed concerns that TEPCO lacks the expertise to decommission the damaged Fukushima plant and have made another call for an international response to the crisis. However, no country has ever decommissioned multiple reactors suffering from meltdowns. "Even for the U.S. nuclear industry, such a cleanup and decommissioning would be a great challenge," said Akira Tokuhiro, a University of Idaho professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering. Also, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority watchdog has said that his organization has no staff devoted to reactors decommissioning. In addition, Japan’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning body was only established in August this year.
Meanwhile, the two towns that host the Fukushima Daiichi plant have approved TEPCO’s plans to close reactors #5 and #6 at the site. The mayors of Futaba and Okuma have given their permission for the reactors to be converted into research facilities to aid in the decommissioning of the damaged #1, #2 and #3 reactors.
The Japanese government says TEPCO will pay 1.8 trillion yen towards the cost of the Fukushima cleanup, an increase of 300 billion yen on the previous costing. The government will then pay any costs that exceed that limit. Government sources have said that it may increase loans to TEPCO to 10 trillion yen for compensation payments and decontamination work. A plan is also being considered to sell 2.5 trillion yen’s worth of shares held by the Japanese state in order to help finance decontamination work. However, TEPCO’s share price is just a quarter of what it was before the Fukushima crisis began and there are doubts the sale will raise the expected funds.
In another blow to TEPCO’s precarious financial state, commercial banks that have lent money to TEPCO are considering ending lending to the company. The banks have agreed to lend TEPCO a further 300 billion yen but may cap the amount they loan it to 4.5 trillion yen. The company will be able to refinance existing loans however, according to bank sources.
In a desparate effort to improve its standing towards investors and banks, TEPCO is producing a new business plan that will see a cut in electricity rates for consumer and the restarting of the company’s idle nuclear reactors elsewhere in Japan. However, this has more to do with spinning than with reality. The country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is currently conducting safety inspections on two reactors at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture but it is no means certain if the watchdog will give the go ahead for them to be restarted.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
ABL Co Ltd, a company also working on the decommissioning the Fukushima reactors, has been sanctioned by labor regulators for employing illegally-supplied workers at the Tokai Daini nuclear plant, operated by Japan Atomic Power Co, officials said. The workers were supplied by a third party broker, a practice which is illegal under Japanese law. "These were all very basic things they should have been fully aware of as an experienced contractor," said Fukushima Labor Standards Office inspector Takeshi Iwami. ABL has admitted the charge and has asked regulators to inspect its newly revised compliance practices. "We were not aware these workers were employed by multiple layers of subcontractors. Our awareness was low," said ABL general manager Osamu Watanabe.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission has called for the end to what he sees as the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s (NRA) international isolation. Mr Kurokawa suggests international standards for disaster prevention and investigation be implemented. He says that the NRA is not yet subject to the kind of international oversight that he says leads to transparency elsewhere. The NRA also needs more international experience and co-operation, he said. Mr Kurowaka also suggested that the Fukushima crisis is “maybe not top of the agenda for [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe.”
A government panel has said that nuclear power in Japan should be an "important and fundamental" future energy source. However, the panel has not recommended how much of the country’s energy should be supplied by nuclear. The panel said that nuclear power “will support the stability of energy demand and supply” in findings expected to be welcomed by the pro-nuclear ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan.
Anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan is widespread however and has found support from two former Prime Ministers, Junichiro Koizumi and Naoto Kan who was Prime Minister at the beginning of the Fukushima crisis. Mr Kan has declined to join forces with Mr. Koizumi, however. "Probably, Mr. Koizumi will have the same feeling as I do, but we'd be more effective by working on our own positions," he said.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Researchers for the government’s Japan Atomic Energy Agency have said that radiation from the Fukushima disaster that settled in forests remained on the surface and was unlikely to have contaminated groundwater. Their studies found that about 70 percent of the 20 kilobecquerels of cesium per square meter found in a survey area was in fallen leaves. Those reading had fallen by three-quarters seven months later.
This however appears to be contradicting the evidence and experience that concentration of radioactive cesium in the soil increases in time, as it penetrates further from the surface. For example the government of Miyagi prefecture has also been conducting surveys in forests 60 kilometers and 120 kilometers north of Fukushima. It found that levels of cesium in cedar tree quills in Marumori increased from 26,684 Becquerels per kilogram in June 2012 to 42,759 Becquerels a year later. Radiation in soil increased from 721 Becquerels to 3,225 Becquerels in the same period. The forest further away from Fukushima had radioactivity in soil measuring 620 Becquerels, two and a half times the reading taken a year earlier.
At the invitation of the NRA, scientists from the University of Tokyo have begun monitoring radioactive contamination of the seabed close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. They will examine the seabed 20 kilometers from the stricken reactors. Last year the researchers found 40 highly radioactive hotspots.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
At Shirakawa in Fukushima Prefecture, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper has found unprotected contaminated waste left in the open by the prefectural government’s cleanup operation. Radiation readings taken from the debris were as high as ten times the national limits. Bags of radioactive soil have been stored in children’s playgrounds at apartment complexes. One witness said she had seen children playing on bags containing contaminated rubble. The newspaper suggests that the prefectural government may have violated special measure laws dealing with the handling of radioactive waste. "We may have been lax in our understanding (of the safety guidelines)," said an employee of the company overseeing the decontamination work.
Japan’s national government has requested that contaminated waste from the cleanup of areas surround the Fukushima Daiichi plant be stored at three towns in Fukushima Prefecture. A lack of storage for debris and rubble has slowed the cleanup operation. The government’s plan is to buy 19 square kilometers of land in Futaba, Okuma and Naraha to host intermediate storage facilities. Shipment of waste to the site would then begin in January 2015. A panel of experts will plan transport routes and safety procedures for the waste shipments. “I will judge whether to accept the construction of the intermediate storage facilities after examining the safety of those facilities and the local revitalization plans shown by the central government,” said Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato. Environment minister Nobuteru Ishihara said: “The facilities are imperative for the reconstruction of Fukushima.” The government has earmarked 100 billion yen for the plan.
In order to persuade Fukushima Prefecture residents to accept the intermediate storage facilities, Japan’s environment ministry is considering a law that will stipulate the waste be moved out of the prefecture after 30 years. It is hoped this will give reassurance that the interim facilities will not become permanent.
However, when purchasing the land for the interim storage facilities, the government has decided to pay landowners its current value, assuming that the price of the land has fallen since the March 2011 disaster.
The Japanese government’s the science and technology ministry panel has proposed a plan to cap the amount of compensation paid to long-term evacuees from the Fukushima disaster. The plan would stop compensation payments one year after the lifting of an evacuation order. According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the “panel on disputes for nuclear damage compensation wants to set the limit on compensation payments to evacuees in amounts ranging from 10 million yen to 14 million yen ($96,820 to $135,548)”. Koichi Miyamoto, Mayor of Tomioka, one of the towns affected, was critical. “It is impossible to decide on the entire amount of compensation while evacuees are still in the middle of their evacuations," he said.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Some residents of Tamura in Fukushima Prefecture are returning to their homes after the former no-go area was redesignated a “zone being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order”. It is expected that the evacuation order will be lifted in spring 2014. Residents have been permitted to return to their homes for over a month in preparation for their permanent return. Only 30 of 117 households have taken the opportunity, however. “Nothing is sweeter than being in my home,” said one resident, Kiyokazu Watanabe. On the other hand, his son and his family are not moving back home, citing fears about radiation.