(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
Haruki Madarame, the Chair of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), is raising concerns about the validity of stress tests used to determine whether idled reactors should be restarted. Madarame said that the initial stress tests, which examine a reactor’s ability to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters, are inadequate, and that a considerably more detailed secondary assessment is needed. None of the tests examine a reactor’s ability to withstand fires, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, or human error. Madarame noted, “The primary assessments alone are not sufficient to evaluate the safety [of reactors.] I want to see secondary assessments conducted in full.” The NSC does not have legal authority to decide if or when reactors are brought back online; that is a political decision that will be made by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and others, and results from the secondary assessment are not required to do so. However, Madarame’s statements have raised concern among the public, which is becoming increasingly distrustful of the government on this issue.
Members of a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) expert panel, charged with determining the validity of stage one stress tests conducted by Kansai Electric on reactors #3 and #4 at its Oi plant, are protesting that NISA stopped debate among panel members and announced that approval had been granted before the experts had concluded talks. One member, Hiromitsu Ino, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said he feels deceived. Another, Masashi Goto, said the agency is rushing to approve the reactors.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said this week that the government should have more control over nuclear power production and needs to make safety a higher priority. Hosono is expected to lead the nation’s new Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA), which will begin operations in March assuming that the Parliament approves its creation. Hosono said, “I think that Japan will not, and should not, sacrifice the safety of nuclear power to ensure a stable source of electricity,” but did not say that nuclear power should be eradicated.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has released a 3,000 page transcript of phone conversations in the days following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The transcripts show that US officials suspected within five days that multiple meltdowns had occurred, in spite of the fact that Japan did not admit that fact for months. Records also show that the US government decision to declare an 80 km radius evacuation zone was based on false information that the spent fuel pool at reactor #4 was dry and in danger of melting down. US officials continually felt they were not receiving adequate information from Japan. Chuck Casto, the lead NRC regulator dispatched to Tokyo, said, “This has really overwhelmed TEPCO…this is too big for TEPCO.”
A survey by the Asahi Shimbun of 17 nuclear power operators shows that in spite of a year-old government order to protect nuclear plants against tsunamis and hydrogen explosions, few operators have done so, and many have not even begun work on those required safeguards.
A Japan Atomic Energy Commission panel said this week that disposing of spent nuclear fuel will be far less expensive than recycling it. Meanwhile, a government panel studying the nation’s nuclear fuel policy said that use of a fast-breeder reactor, which could be used to recycle spent fuel, is not a viable option within the next 30 to 40 years. At one time, the hope of recycling spent fuel was a cornerstone of Japan’s nuclear cycle.
An earthquake study commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) reveals that a major earthquake far larger than previously thought could strike beneath Tokyo Bay, affecting central Tokyo and nearby areas. New data shows shallower plate boundaries, which could increase a quake’s intensity to 7.0 on the Japanese scale. For comparison, the earthquake last March measured 7.0 on the Japanese scale, and 9.0 on the US Geological Survey (USGS) scale. Using the previous data, experts estimated that 850,000 buildings would fall and 11,000 people would die. The new data means that those numbers could be far greater.
Almost a full year after the nuclear disaster, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced that the government will finally release minutes from meetings conducted last March. In spite of laws that require minute-taking at government meetings, at least 10 different government organizations, including an emergency panel convened by then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, failed to do so in the days following the disaster.
In another example of the nuclear industry paying for the promotion of its interests, records show that a Takahama businessman, Tomio Yamamoto, received excessively high fees for space rented to Kansai Electric, in return for promoting the restart of reactors at the Takahama nuclear power plant. Yamamoto is a town assemblyman, and wrote a paper pushing for the restart of the reactors.
Temperature measurements from the top and bottom of reactor #2 show that temperatures may be rising. Last week, TEPCO determined that a thermometer had malfunctioned, and disregarded readings from that temperature gauge. TEPCO plans to inject additional cold water in order to determine if another thermometer has failed, or if temperatures are, in fact, rising within the reactor.
TEPCO announced it plans to pave a 72,000 square meter stretch of seabed near the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s water intakes with cement and clay in an effort to prevent highly radioactive sludge from being spread by storms and movement of ships. The utility said that the cement layer will be 60 cm thick; they expect to complete the project by the end of June. Cesium-134 and -137 levels in sand and sludge from the underwater seabed have measured as high as 1.6 million Bq/kg, as a result of contaminated water that continues to leak from the plant.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) revealed this week that the government concealed radiation exposure in children’s thyroid glands last March. A total of 1,080 children aged 15 and under were tested; some received annual doses as high as 35 millisieverts. Government officials said that they refrained from releasing the data in order to prevent panic.
Ocean samples gathered last June by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from up to 640 km (400 miles) off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reveal levels of cesium-137 that are 1,000 times higher than those recorded before the nuclear disaster, according to the study’s Chief Scientist, Ken Buesseler. Although cesium levels are one-tenth of those considered harmful to human health, Buesseler noted, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” warning that radioactive contaminants continue to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
MEXT has launched a new real-time radiation monitoring system, featuring data from 2,700 sites around Fukushima Prefecture. Data will update every ten minutes and be posted on a public website.
A survey by the Environment Ministry shows that only 5% of debris from last year’s earthquake and tsunami has been disposed of, and Environment Minister Goshi Hosono now says that the previously established goal of disposing of the debris by March 2014 is unrealistic. Many municipalities are refusing to accept and incinerate the debris and rubble out of concern about high radiation levels. In Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi Prefectures alone, debris from the disaster exceeds 22 million tons.
Officials in Soma, Fukushima said that they will study radiation doses received by children to determine which areas should be decontaminated. Soma is located between 30 and 50 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. After the crisis last March, 4,010 children in junior high school and younger were tested for radiation exposure over a period of three months. Thirteen percent were exposed to doses that exceed the government recommended standard of 1 millisievert per year.
Other Nuclear News
In response to lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, staff at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have announced three proposed recommendations to improve safety at the nation’s 104 reactors. Suggestions include plans to deal with earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters; new venting mechanisms to prevent hydrogen explosions like those that occurred at Fukushima; and updates to equipment at spent fuel pools. The staff has proposed that all upgrades be enacted by December 2016, although both the rules and timeline are subject to significant review and approval by NRC members.
As a direct result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Kuwait announced that it no longer plans to build four nuclear reactors, which were scheduled to be in operation by 2022. Many Kuwaitis are now questioning the safety and wisdom of nuclear power, and because of limited landmass, disposal of radioactive waste was a concern.
Dominion Power has reported that radioactive tritium more than twice the legal limit has been discovered in groundwater near its North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia. The utility is still trying to find the source of the leak, but says that the public is not in danger.