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
In a turnaround from statements made by the previous government, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), cautioned this week that the Fukushima disaster has not yet been contained. “The word ‘end’ is inappropriate,” he said, “because many tasks remain unsolved. We don’t use that word.”
Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) officials have finally approved resumption of testing of a water purification system designed to treat radioactive water left over from the cooling process at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Every day, 400 tons of contaminated water is produced, which then needs to be stored. Earlier efforts to test the equipment were halted when a water tank within the system was found to be corroded. Currently, TEPCO is housing 230,000 tons of radioactive water, and has only secured tanks to hold it for the next two years, despite the fact that the decommissioning process is expected to take 40 years.
The situation at the plant remains dire; radiation levels near some parts of reactor #3 reportedly measure 1,000 microsieverts per hour, according to an inspector who recently led a tour of the plant for reporters from the Asahi Shimbun. In other areas of the building, radiation ranges from 20 to 100 millisieverts per hour, preventing humans from safely working there. In the building housing reactor #2, radiation measures 700 microsieverts per hour. Efforts to remove melted fuel from the reactors themselves are not expected to begin until at least 2022. That task will be arduous, since the fuel is believed to scattered throughout the vessel—but TEPCO is currently not even able to pinpoint its location. In order to remove it, the utility will first need to fill the vessels with water in an effort to shield radiation. Before that can happen, workers need to locate and repair numerous holes that are allowing vast amounts of radioactive water to leak out.
This week, a group of researchers introduced new robots designed to assist with the decommissioning process at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, during a presentation at the Chiba Institute of Technology. One of the robots is equipped with arms eight meters long, allowing it to open valves in difficult to reach places where radiation levels are too high for humans to work safely. In addition, they unveiled a protective suit containing cooling equipment to prevent heatstroke in those who wear it. The suit weighs 30 kg, but the weight is evenly distributed to reduce physical strain. The research and development was sponsored by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The government has said that TEPCO will require considerable new technology in its efforts to decontaminate its crippled reactors, but many developers have balked at the task, because such inventions will have little practical application other than being useful at Fukushima.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) admitted to the NRA that the Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) in Japan went down for over an hour on Thursday. The system monitors technical data concerning the nation’s nuclear reactors, including temperature and pressure, and is designed to alert the country if a nuclear disaster is unfolding. A similar incident occurred in December 2011, when the system went down for 26 hours. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which is now-defunct, neglected to inform the country of that malfunction until the system was once again operational, a move that garnered wide-spread criticism.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Greenpeace unveiled a new campaign this week designed to raise awareness of the financial cost of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, pointing out that although TEPCO is shouldering a portion of the cost required to decommission the crippled Daiichi reactors, clean up vast areas devastated by radiation, and compensate victims of the crisis, those companies that designed and built the reactors, including GE, Toshiba and Hitachi, have borne no responsibility. Aslihan Tumer, Nuclear Campaigner with Greenpeace International said, “The Fukushima disaster exposes the shameful defects in a system that only requires nuclear operators to pay a fraction of the costs of a disaster and does not require the suppliers of reactors to pay anything. It is not fair that the nuclear industry benefits, while the public is left to pay the heavy price for its failures.”
Shunichi Yamashita, Chief of the Fukushima Health Management Survey, announced that he will step down from his post at the end of next month. The survey, which is designed to estimate radiation dosage of over two million Fukushima residents, evaluate the emotional and psychological effects of the nuclear crisis, and test children in the prefecture who were 18 or younger when the disaster first began, was reportedly well received, but Yamashita himself rubbed many the wrong way. Azby Brown, who works at a radiation monitoring non-profit organization in Tokyo noted, “He was seen as being flippant and dismissive [of residents’ concerns and emotional states]. He did a great job of running the actual study and a bad job of managing expectations and communicating to the public.” Yamashita has promised to “support Fukushima continuously” after his tenure ends.
Nuclear power operator Kansai Electric (known as KEPCO) has requested an almost 12% rate hike for residential consumers, in part to cover 30 billion yen per year required to maintain idled nuclear reactors at the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture, as a result of a deal the company made with Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), which operates the Tsuruga plant—despite the fact that no energy is being produced. Recent seismic studies confirming that a fault line beneath the plant is almost certainly active mean that the two reactors onsite will probably never be restarted, and two others in the planning stage will likely never be built. Officials from METI are currently reviewing the request, but analysts predict that the public will balk at shouldering the cost of such a steep rate hike. METI officials are reportedly expected to ask the utility to review overall costs, including personnel expenses, in order to reduce the rate increase. KEPCO follows Shikoku Electric, Kyushu Power, and TEPCO in requesting rate hikes.
A three-person external committee appointed by TEPCO to investigate recent allegations that the utility intentionally misled a Parliamentary investigatory panel met for the first time yesterday. The panel is comprised of the former Chief Justice of the Sendai Court, Yasuhisa Tanaka, as well as two attorneys, Zenzo Sasaki and Takashi Kondo. The group has been tasked with determining whether or not TEPCO lied when it told a member of the parliamentary panel that reactor #1 was unnavigable because of poor visibility when panelists were trying to determine if isolation condensers, necessary for cooling the reactor, had sustained earthquake damage. As a result of TEPCO’s warning, which it blamed on a cover erected over the building, the group cancelled their plans to visit the reactor. Last week, it emerged that the utility had lied, and in fact, sunlight filtered through the cover. In addition, the cover is equipped with five mercury bulbs that produce light equivalent to that of 40 vehicles. Backup lights were also installed and operational. If earthquake damage is discovered, it could have significant impact on the nuclear industry nationwide.
The wife and children of a dairy farmer who committed suicide in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are suing TEPCO for wrongful death. Shigekiyo Kanno killed himself in June 2011, blaming the disaster for loss of his home, his job, and separation from his family after they were evacuated from the area. They are now seeking $1.2 million in damages. At least 21 people committed suicide between June 2011 and December 2012, attributing their actions to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Fisherman from Choshi City, on the coast of Chiba Prefecture, have reported catching seabass containing 130 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, in excess of the government’s legal limit of 100 Bq/kg. Chosi is located approximately 200 km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a triple meltdown occurred almost two years ago. This is the first time that a radioactive fish has been discovered there. (Source: NHK)
Safety Issues at Other Nuclear Plants in Japan
The city of Hakodate, which is located just 23 km from the proposed site of Electric Power Development Company’s (commonly known as J-Power in Japan) Oma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture, is protesting the building of reactors at the site in conjunction with five other nearby cities, and is considering filing legal suit against the move. Municipal leaders presented a formal request to halt construction to Kazuyoshi Akaba, State Minister at METI, out of concern for residents’ safety. Hakodate Mayor Toshiki Kudo highlighted the fact that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which currently holds control of the Lower House of Parliament, made an agreement with the New Komeito Party to reduce Japan’s use of nuclear power “as much as possible,” despite the fact that the LDP has long been strongly pro-nuclear. (Source: NHK)
Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), operator of the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture, said that it will provide 700 million yen ($7.5 million) to cover the cost of a road between the city of Tsuruga and the site of the idled reactors. JAPC originally promised to cover all costs of the road in 2002, which will be necessary should a nuclear disaster occur, but now the future of the two existing reactors at the plant, as well as two more that were planned, is in doubt. Reactor #1 and #2 were both taken offline after the Fukushima disaster, and reactor #1 has already surpassed its 40-year lifespan. Recent tests show that a fault beneath reactor #2 is most likely active, in violation of Japanese law, although JAPC has so far refused to acknowledge that finding. Analysts say that because of seismic risk, reactors #3 and #4 will probably never be built. Meanwhile, JAPC is struggling financially and has sold uranium—which is expensive and required to produce nuclear power—in order to cover 40 billion dollars in loans.