Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Greenpeace has released a new report, “Lessons from Fukushima” detailing the myth of nuclear safety and the failure of institutions designed to regulate the nuclear industry. Read it here:
Findings of Independent Investigative Report
An independent panel investigating the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has released a scathing 420-page report that is highly critical of TEPCO, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and other government agencies. The 6-person panel, which was led by Koichi Kitazawa, former Chairman of the Japan Science and Technology Agency and head of the Rebuild Japan Initiative, interviewed over 300 Japanese officials, US government officials, and nuclear experts. TEPCO executives refused to cooperate in the investigation. The panel’s report determined that the Fukushima nuclear crisis was a man-made disaster, as opposed to being caused by either the tsunami or earthquake that occurred last March.
The report was highly critical of Prime Minister Kan for micromanaging, grandstanding, and failing to communicate effectively. For example, Kan inserted himself into decisions as specific as determining the size of backup batteries necessary and how they should be transported to the plant. Kitizawa said, “He cannot be given a passing grade from the overall perspective of his handling of the crisis.”
However, the panel praised Kan for standing firm when TEPCO’s President, Masataka Shimizu, reportedly said that conditions were so dangerous that all TEPCO workers would have to evacuate the plant. Kan refused. Instead, a small group of older TEPCO workers, the so-called Fukushima 50, stayed at the plant, believing they were on a suicide mission. Their heroic work prevented additional meltdowns. Had all TEPCO workers fled, experts believe that all six Daiichi reactors would have melted down, resulting in such massive releases of radioactivity that workers at the nearby Fukushima Daini and Tokai plants also would have been forced to evacuate. Without staff to ensure cooling, additional meltdowns would presumably have occurred there as well. Edano said, “We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai. If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would lose Tokyo itself.” The Tokyo metropolitan area has a population of 35 million.
In addition, the report said that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) advised Japan to prepare for power loss in the case of terrorist attacks, but Japanese officials failed to do so. US officials later said that such preparation for loss of power could have lessened the disaster’s impact. Meanwhile, miscommunications among different levels of government, TEPCO, and the Prime Minister’s office were rampant, leading to significant distrust among key players. Kan reportedly lost faith in Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) Chair Haruki Madarame after Madarame promised him that hydrogen explosions at the plant were an impossibility, just hours before they then occurred. The incident prompted Kan to appoint personal friends with questionable expertise on nuclear issues as advisors.
Interviews show that Kan, then-Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and former head of the ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Banri Kaieda, had no idea that SPEEDI, the government’s system to predict the spread of radiation, even existed until several days after the meltdowns occurred. The panel blamed officials at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) for failure to keep them informed.
The report asserts that TEPCO’s “systematic negligence” made “light of the culture of nuclear safety,” and as a result, the utility failed to prepare for a severe accident. As an example, the report describes the company’s off-site emergency center, which was located 5 km from the Daiichi plant and failed to function adequately during the crisis, as simply part of “make believe arrangements to reassure local residents.” In addition, the report criticized the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for failure to adequately regulate TEPCO, calling their safety inspections a mere formality.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
For the first time, Yukio Edano, head of METI, directly admitted that Japan might have no reactors in operation this summer. “A tight supply-demand balance of electricity does not affect our judgment on nuclear safety and we are in the process of making that judgment. It is quite possible that no reactors will resume operations toward the summer,” Edano said.
Documents show that the Earthquake Research Committee, under the auspices of MEXT, revised warnings of the possibility a massive tsunami last year, after representatives from three power companies, including TEPCO, pressured them to do so. The utilities reportedly raised concerns that the committee might create a “misunderstanding” among the public that large quakes and tsunamis like the Jogan earthquake in 869 could occur. MEXT officials responded by changing the draft report to say that “further study” was required to determine whether such earthquakes could take place, and added, “appropriate data are insufficient.” The utilities made their request on March 3, 2011. Just eight days later, on March 11, 2011, the earthquake and tsunami occurred, spurring the largest nuclear disaster in Japanese history.
Currently, the NSC is working to revise guidelines on tsunamis, which have not been updated since 2006. Previously, the document only referenced “tidal waves.” The new regulations will require nuclear plant operators to make specific preparations for tsunamis and large earthquakes.
NISA has requested seismic safety reassessment of the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, and the Tokai plant in Ibaracki Prefecture. Utility companies reportedly studied oceanic fault lines below sea beds near the plant, but NISA said that they should also consider continental faults below land to study how they might move in tandem with those beneath the sea in the case of an earthquake. The decision could have a significant impact on stress tests at the plants’ reactors.
The NSC is urging the government to establish two off-site emergency response centers near each nuclear power plant in Japan, after high radiation levels and issues connected to the earthquake and tsunami prevented the off-site response center near the Fukushima Daiichi plant from operating effectively last March. In the new proposal, one center would provide residents with evacuation instruction and information in case of nuclear disasters; the second would gather data on radiation levels and actually mange the evacuation process. Japan’s government is working to establish new guidelines for nuclear emergencies.
Vitrification tests at the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture have been postponed again as a result of problems with the plant’s kiln, according to the plant’s operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. Vitrification involves encasing radioactive materials into glass, which is more easily disposed of. The Rokkasho plant, whose recycling process is crucial to Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, is supposed to be completed and go online by October, but experts say that deadline is doubtful in light of recurring problems and ongoing issues.
TEPCO’s revised business plan is expected to create three financially-independent entities in an effort to bolster the utility’s efficiency. One division will manage fuel procurement and thermal power generation; a second will manage power transmission and distribution; and a third will oversee power retailing.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant chief, Takeshi Takahashi, admitted this week that the plant is fragile, and its reactors remain highly vulnerable to ongoing earthquakes and the risk of a tsunami. “I have to admit that it’s still rather fragile. Even though the plant has achieved what we call cold-shutdown conditions, it still causes problems that must be improved,” Takahashi said.
TEPCO is continuing to struggle with how to handle large amounts of radioactive water, the byproduct of keeping nuclear fuel in the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors cool. The utility is pumping several hundred thousand gallons of water into the reactors each day; the water then becomes contaminated. Experts estimate that 10,000 tons of radioactive water leak from the reactors each month; in January and February alone, 28 new leaks were discovered. TEPCO says it will take at least six years to repair the leaks, and approximately 25 years to remove the fuel. Storage of the radioactive water is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. TEPCO currently has space to store 165,000 tons; 125,000 tons are already being stored. The utility has destroyed nearby forests to create room for more storage containers.
TEPCO announced that Quince II, a Japanese-made robot, has discovered radiation levels measuring 220 millisieverts per hour in reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The robot, which was designed by researchers at the Chiba Institute of Technology, was created to explore the interior of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, where radiation levels remain too high for humans to enter.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
A study by the Meteorological Research Institute estimates that 40,000 trillion (or 40 quadrillion) Becquerels of radioactive cesium were released as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster last March. That amount is two times what scientists originally estimated.
Consumers are expressing concern about cesium contamination in rice, in light of a government decision to relax new rules about contamination levels of planting soil after local farmers exerted pressure on the government to do so. In December, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries ruled that rice could not be planted in land where cesium exceeding 100 Bq/kg was discovered last year. However, it now says that rice may be planted in land where cesium measures between 100 Bq/kg and 500 Bq/kg, provided that the land is decontaminated and every bag of rice is tested. Many residents remain unconvinced that the rice will be safe for consumption. The chair of a national consumer advocacy association noted, “There have already been cases of rice with contamination over the government limit being shipped, even though it was promised that it wouldn’t happen. Won’t some sneak through this time as well?”
The Japan Dairy Industry Association reports that all tests performed at 124 dairy factories showed radiation levels in milk below 10 Bq/kg, the lowest detectable level. New government standards require milk products to contain less than 50 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium.
TEPCO has agreed to increase the amount of compensation for evacuees from 23 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture who were either pregnant or younger than 18 years to 600,000 yen ($7,400). Many evacuees had urged TEPCO to cover actual costs of being displaced from their homes, but the utility said the compensation process would be too complicated. Originally, TEPCO had said it would pay pregnant women and children only 400,000 yen. All other residents from those municipalities will receive 80,000 yen (less than $1000), whether or not they were forced to evacuate. Currently, more than 160,000 residents have yet to return to their homes.
A group of 47 evacuees from Futaba, located near the Fukushima Daiichi plant, have filed for $5.5 million in compensation from TEPCO. The amount is designed to cover costs of contaminated land as well as mental suffering. TEPCO said it will deal with the issue “sincerely.”
Other Nuclear News
A new study by French safety organization Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (IRSN) reveals that Europe is poorly-equipped to handle a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster. The IRSN provides advice to the ASN, France’s nuclear regulator. The group’s report said that many European countries lack adequate crisis centers, and coordinated means of communication across country lines have not been established.
In addition, the IRSN criticized Japan for failing to adequately monitor radiation exposure in children, and expressed grave concern about the amount of environmental radiation that spewed from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Didier Champion, an IRSN crisis manager, said, "The initial contamination linked to the accident has greatly declined. That doesn't mean that there won't be any more, far from it. Today, and for many years to come, we will have a situation of chronic and lasting contamination of the environment."
Records from the United States NRC show that a Japanese-made steam generator, manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Ltd, contained cracks before it was delivered to Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Plant. Mitsubishi later repaired them. Recently, the plant experienced a radiation leak, although a connection between the incident and the cracks has not been established.