(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
Approximately 150,000 residents live within the newly proposed 5 km Precautionary Action Zone (PAZ) around nuclear plants — the area from which residents would be required to flee in the case of a nuclear disaster—and researchers say that traffic jams and transportation shortages could lead to major issues if they were forced to evacuate en masse. Census numbers from 2005 show that five nuclear plants in Japan have at least 10,000 residents living in the PAZ. The zone surrounding the Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture is home to over 48,000 people who would be required to evacuate simultaneously. The government has ordered local municipalities to upgrade disaster prevention plans by the end of September in order to deal with these and other issues, but many officials say that the timeframe is too short, and they do not have resources to adequately address the myriad logistical concerns.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) submitted a report this week to Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), approving stress test results for reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi Power Plant. The NSC will appoint experts to examine Kansai’s testing methods. If it approves the process, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) head Yukio Edano, and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono will make the final decision about whether to restart the reactors. However, it’s not clear when that will take place; although not required by law, local authorities have traditionally granted approval in restarting nuclear reactors in their municipalities. Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa has said he will not grant approval until the government creates new safety guidelines for reactors.
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission is recommending that nuclear power plants conduct background checks on their workers, including reviewing any criminal activity, in order to prevent terrorist attacks. A similar proposal was made in 2005, but no action was ever taken. Japan is the only major nuclear power that does not run background checks on nuclear power plant employees. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) is still unable to account for 10 workers who disappeared not long after the Fukushima disaster, because it neglected to record their names and addresses.
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, said this week that he will approve 689.4 billion yen in compensation aid for TEPCO, but only if the utility agrees to grant a controlling number of voting shares to the government. If TEPCO agrees, the government would effectively have control over the company. The government has now pledged almost 1.5 trillion yen in funds to compensate victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster; the recent increase will cover an additional 1.5 million residents who voluntarily evacuated the areas surrounding the plant. That amount does not include an injection of capital designed to will help keep TEPCO afloat. In addition, Edano said that the utility must “turn over a new leaf.” TEPCO expects to post a net loss of 695 billion yen for 2011.
Naohiro Masuda, the head of plant operations at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daini Plant, admitted for the first time this week that the plant was near meltdown after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The Daini plant is located 12 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of three nuclear meltdowns last March. Cooling pumps at Fukushima Daini were disabled when the tsunami struck, and over 2,000 employees worked to stabilize the reactors, some laying over 9 km of heavy cable. Masuda said that if the earthquake and tsunami had struck on a weekend, only 40 employees would have been at the plant. “In that case, it would have been very difficult for us to deal with the disaster,” he added.
TEPCO has now paid 229.2 billion yen in compensation claims to 45,900 victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. So far, over 86,000 applicants have submitted claims (including approximately 30,000 individuals and 15,900 corporations and organizations), but TEPCO has yet to process over 40,000 forms.
Officials at TEPCO are now claiming that high temperatures at reactor #2 are the result of a broken thermometer, and that cold shutdown status at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains intact. While supporting that theory, NISA is advising TEPCO to continue pumping extra water into the reactors to ensure fuel remains cool, in case they are wrong. Temperature readings have been steadily rising over the past two weeks, finally reaching 94.9ºC on February 13. Two other thermometers in other areas of the reactor show readings of 35ºC. Some experts have said that a broken thermometer highlights the fact that TEPCO does not know the location or condition of the melted fuel, and the methods for measuring temperatures there may be flawed. In addition, they point out that should the other two thermometers fail, there would be no way to monitor temperatures within the reactor, since radiation levels remain too high to install new ones.
TEPCO announced that video footage shows no damage to fuel rods in the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #4, although the pool is filled with considerable debris left over from the hydrogen explosion that occurred on March 15, 2011. TEPCO is preparing to remove over 1,500 fuel rods from the pool next year.
TEPCO has admitted that weeds poking through pipes caused 22 instances of leaking radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant between July and December 2011. The piping, which is outdoors and covers a span of 4 km, has since been replaced with more durable materials.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
Testing in Okinawa Prefecture has revealed high levels of radioactive cesium in noodles made with water filtered with ash from Fukushima Prefecture. Ashes are often mixed with water and kneaded into noodles in order to remove bitter taste. The cesium-contaminated noodles measured 258 Bq/kg. Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries did not establish radiation standards for wood until November 18, and even then did not consider that ash might be used in food production. The wood used to produce the ash that contaminated the Okinawan noodles was shipped on November 7.
A new poll by the Mainichi Daily News shows that farmers in Fukushima Prefecture are upset with a new request by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to restrict planting rice in areas where radioactive cesium levels in last year’s crop measured more than 100 Bq/kg. Current government limits for rice are set at 500 Bq/kg, but that standard will change to 100 Bq/kg in April. Municipal officials are asking that planting be allowed even in areas where cesium levels exceed 100 Bq/kg, provided that decontamination has taken place, along with radiation testing of all bags of rice.
Japan continues to struggle with massive amounts of debris from last year’s earthquake and tsunami, as many local governments are refusing to accept and process it out of fear of radiation contamination. As of January 31, Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi Prefectures still had 22.52 metric tons of debris.
Other Nuclear News
Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was the only dissenting vote in last week’s approval by the NRC to build two new reactors at Southern Electric’s Vogtle Power Plant in Georgia. Jaczko has repeatedly urged the nuclear industry to consider lessons learned from Fukushima, but the NRC panel has overridden his concerns. Jaczko said, “Right now, we know that there are things that need to be fixed, things that need to be changed, things that need to be analyzed. For us to issue this license, and say, ‘We’ll deal with it later,’ to me is kind of putting the cart before the horse…The agency should have required the Vogtle plant to adhere to all post-Fukushima regulations, such as a potential requirement to ensure that spent fuel cooling pools have better monitoring equipment.” But it did not. Meanwhile, environmental groups are working to mount a legal challenge to the decision, in an effort to request an environmental impact statement, which focuses on lessons from Fukushima.
The NRC has cited Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuclear power plant for failing to notify the public for over an hour after an ammonia leak occurred there in November. Ammonia exposure can cause serious burns, lung irritation and damage, and death. The NRC said that the leak occurred as a result of the utility’s failure to “adequately identify, evaluate, and correct a problem” with degraded equipment, as well as to follow its own procedures. The San Onofre plant has recently experienced numerous safety and equipment violations, including significant amounts of unusual wear on tubes that carry radioactive water. The reactor was shut down last week when one of the tubes was discovered to be leaking radiation, and plant officials admitted that a small amount might have escaped into the atmosphere. Later that week, a worker fell into a pool of radioactive water while trying to make repairs.
Pakistan is in final negotiations to buy nuclear technology and equipment from China, in order to build six or more new nuclear reactors. Currently, Pakistan has three nuclear reactors.