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
Japan’s government has consulted the country’s fishing industry on plans to dump contaminated groundwater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has attempted to assure the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations that contamination levels of the water will be kept below Japan’s legal limit. Plant operator TEPCO says any groundwater pumped into the ocean will be contaminated with “less than one becquerel of cesium-134 and cesium-137 per liter of water, less than 5 becquerels of strontium-90 and other substances that emit beta particles, and less than 1,500 becquerels of tritium.” Around 400 tons of groundwater run into the Fukushima site every day. The plan hopes to divert this flow before it can enter the basements of the damaged reactors where it becomes highly contaminated. Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations said he understood the need for such measures but added they could not take place without the understanding of fishermen.
As expected, TEPCO has officially retired reactors 5 and 6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The reactors, which were offline at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and were undamaged, will now become research facilities to explore decommissioning technologies which can then be used on the other four, damaged reactors. With the closure of reactors 5 and 6, Japan now has 48 commercial nuclear reactors, all of which are currently idle.
A team of journalist from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper have been given access to the damaged building of reactor 4 which they describe as a “a gutted shell and conditions there remain extremely hazardous” where “rusted machinery parts and shattered measurement equipment lay buried in the debris.” Reactor 4 was not damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the plant but suffered a hydrogen explosion a few days later. The journalists say radiation levels inside the building currently stand at 0.03 millisievert per hour, about half of what they were a year ago. Over the course of their five-hour visit, the Asahi team was exposed to 0.09 millisievert of radiation, around “one-tenth the annual exposure limit for the general population.”
The work continues to remove nuclear fuel from the storage pool in the unstable reactor #4 building and place it in a more secure location. As of February 3, 264 of the 1,533 fuel assembles have been transferred.
TEPCO has announced a pre-tax profit of 189.22 billion yen for the period April-December 2013. The company made a loss of 195.05 billion yen in the same period the year before. If funds intended for disaster compensation payments – which are called extraordinary profits – are included, the company made a net profit of 772.90 billion yen. This is the company’s first nine-month profit since the Fukushima disaster began in 2011. The company’s sales revenue increased to 4.80 trillion yen thanks to it raising its electricity rates. It has also cut its losses by reducing personnel costs by 19 billion yen and maintenance and repair costs by 53 billion.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
More than 1,400 people have lodged a joint lawsuit against Toshiba, GE and Hitachi, the companies that supplied the three reactors that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Under current Japanese law only TEPCO, the plant’s operator, has been held liable for the disaster. The lawsuit seeks to challenge the law that protects reactor manufacturers in the event of nuclear accidents, and will argue that the companies failed to make vital safety improvements at the plant before the crisis. The plaintiffs are not seeking punitive damages, merely a symbolic 100 yen each. They say the case is to help raise awareness of the issue. “It is a lawsuit designed to drag the makers of the reactors out of hiding," said one plaintiff attorney Hiroyuki Kawai.
Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper says it has seen documents showing the nuclear industry lobbying members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to look favorably on the construction of new nuclear reactors in Japan. The document says: "In order to secure a certain degree of nuclear power generation (there is a need to) clarify the necessity of constructing new reactors or replacing existing ones" and calls for "an efficient and prompt resumption of operations for nuclear energy that has been confirmed to be safe." Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government’s pro-nuclear stance, decisions on nuclear power on a national level may flounder against stiff local opposition. The government’s wish to have nuclear power described as an "important basic power source” in its draft basic energy plan has also hit opposition from some of its own members who say the plan is in contravention of the DPJ’s 2012 election campaign pledge that said it would "seek to establish a socioeconomic structure that does not have to depend on nuclear energy."
Nuclear power continues to be a hot topic in the battle to become the next governor of Tokyo. At a major debate held this week, three of the four candidates in the election present expressed their opposition to nuclear power. “We have to break away from the system that depends on nuclear energy in the long run, considering the dismal state (caused by the Fukushima crisis),” said former health minister and LDP-backed candidate, Yoichi Masuzoe. “The principal duty of the Tokyo governor is to protect the lives of its citizens. . . . The nuclear issue would directly affect the people’s lives,” said former Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa. Thirdly, Kenji Utsunomiya, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said: “Nuclear power generation is not suitable in Japan, which has been hit by many earthquakes and tsunami. We should not restart the idled reactors.” This left Toshio Tamogami, a former chief of the Air Self-Defense Force, who said: “We could provide enough energy with the use of nuclear power plants and it could contribute to growth of the nation’s gross domestic product.”
Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the National Regulation Authority (NRA) has said that the idle reactor 3 at the Tomari power plant needs construction work if it is to meet nuclear safety standards and be considered for restarting. Tomari’s operator, Hokkaido Electric Power Co, says the work “will not finish in several months.” The reactor currently has problems with its emergency cooling system which does not have a back-up system.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Nearly three tons of “sludge” from Kanagawa Prefecture has been classified as radioactive waste by the Environment Ministry. This is the first such incident in the prefecture and means the ministry is now responsible for the waste’s disposal. The ministry did not say where the “sludge” was from although government officials from Yokohama city said it was from “rain collection and storage facilities at 17 municipal elementary, junior high and other schools” as well as roadside ditches and elsewhere.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture has proposed the national government downgrade its plans to store highly radioactive waste in the prefecture. The government plans waste storage facilities in three Fukushima municipalities - Okuma, Futaba and Naraha - but Mr Sato wants waste stored at just Okuma and Futaba in the hope of speeding up decontamination efforts.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
A panel appointed by Iitate Village, a municipality close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has released a draft construction plan for the village. The plan includes establishing a 26-hectare area where reconstruction could start. Although radiation levels remain too high to allow evacuated residents to return, the panel suggests they could go home as early as March 2016.
Meanwhile, the village of Kawauchi has struggled to persuade young people to return in the two years since the village’s mayor said: “Let’s return, starting with those who are ready.” Of the village’s 2,700 registered residents, only 535 had returned as of October 2012. Of those, 65 percent are 65 or older. The people of Kawauchi previously relied on the amenities of nearby Tomioka and Okuma. Since the 2011 disaster, however, those towns are part of the contaminated no-go zone. The high school that was attended by Kawauchi’s children is also off-limits and the village has no high school of its own.