Here's the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It provides a summary of the news from over the holiday period.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has stated that steam emanating from the reactor 3 building at the site meant "no abnormality of the cooling of the reactor, nor dangers to human health". In a statement on its website the company said that the steam, which has been seen emerging from the building intermittently since July 2013, is caused by high-humidity air condensing in low temperatures, usually after rainfall. Although radiation remains high at the reactor 3 building, TEPCO says: "There has been no significant change in the radiation dose and nuclide analysis results (dust sampling data) compared to those from before the steam was observed." This explanation has been confirmed and explained by Arnie Gundersen, former nuclear industry executive and engineer.
Meanwhile, the contaminated water crisis continues at the plant. TEPCO says radioactive water leaked at four places in barriers surrounding storage tanks between December 21 and 22. The leaks were found in concrete joints of the barriers. The concentration of radioactive strontium in the water measured 190 Becquerels per liter, nearly 20 times TEPCO's limit of 10 Becquerels. Two days later TEPCO announced that up to 225 tons of contaminated water may have leaked into soil from two more storage tanks. In one location 440 Becquerels of strontium-90 per liter was found. Strontium accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer.
Yoshitatsu Uechi, a worker at the Fukushima site, has told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper of his time spent helping deal with the water crisis in 2012. "I couldn't believe that such slipshod work was being done, even if it was part of stopgap measures," he said. He described corner-cutting of measures used to save time and money including adhesive tape covering openings on storage tanks and the use of second hand components. He says on one occasion he was told to use just four bolts to assemble a component requiring eight in its assembly. "I wore a raincoat even on sunny days to block the radiation when I had to go near highly radioactive water," he said. Taisei Corp, the prime contractor for the work, refused to comment.
A former TEPCO employee has spoken of the poor working conditions at Fukushima and his attempts to raise awareness and donations to try to help improve the situation. "I wanted to get people thinking about their working environment and do something to improve it," said Akihiro Yoshikawa. He quotes an acquaintance, who had worked at Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck the plant, as saying, "They used us and threw us away." Mr Yoshikawa left TEPCO to "spread information about the work conditions from outside the company and deepen society's understanding of them." He has since raised 1.92 million yen ($18,800), with a target of 10 million yen, to buy 3,000 sets of cold-weather underwear and 300,000 heat packs for workers who often have to work in freezing conditions.
Japan's deputy industry minister and chief of the government's Fukushima disaster task force, Kazuyoshi Akaba, announced plans to set up a special study group on December 30. The group will draw up a strategy for decommissioning the Fukushima reactors and rebuilding local industries. "It's a given fact that we need to create employment opportunities by building the industry there to enable evacuees to be able to return to their homes," he said. The group will visit Hanford in the US to observe the nuclear decommissioning work being undertaken there, as well as establishing a decontamination and decommissioning research center, identifying how robots can be used in the processes, and attracting businesses to the area when evacuation orders are lifted.
TEPCO has announced it is setting up a new internal company to deal specifically with the contaminated water crisis and decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. "Long term decommissioning work and contaminated water measures require a framework that is suited to a project at the national level, and we will discuss the development of a concrete organizational framework and business management structure based on this fact," said a company press release. The company will be established by April 2014 and will conduct reviews into communication systems, decision-making, project management and technical skills at the Fukushima plant.
In his New Year address, TEPCO chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe also announced a new business plan for the company which is hoped will revive the company's flagging fortunes. The contents of the plan will be revealed when it has been approved by Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. "We are at the stage of working out concrete action plans at the level of each workplace, organization and individual to steer TEPCO, as a whole, in the direction (of realizing the plan)," added TEPCO president Naomi Hirose.
The Japanese government is expected to raise the ceiling on loans it has made to TEPCO as part of a package of measures to lift the financial burden on the company. Interest-free loans from the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund will rise from 5 trillion yen ($87 billion) to 9 trillion. The government will also pay for any additional decontamination and cleanup costs above the 2.5 trillion yen cost TEPCO is expected to pay, as well as 1.1 trillion towards building storage facilities for contaminated debris from the cleanup operation. Reportedly, the government will demand as yet unspecified reforms in return for its added support.
TEPCO's ongoing struggle to bring the situation at Fukushima under control is impacting on Japan's nuclear industry as a whole. Companies wishing to export nuclear technology abroad often do not win contracts as they are not involved in power generation. These companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd were expected to form partnerships with TEPCO in order to make winning contracts. However, in the light of the Fukushima disaster and TEPCO's continuing financial difficulties, this is not happening. "We planned to go abroad with a package that included assurances on safety and training of engineers. But with TEPCO out of the picture, all we have is equipment for export," said managing executive officer at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Tadashi Maeda.
Late December saw more applications for safety checks on nuclear reactors Japan's utilities wish to restart. The Tohoku Electric Power Co has requested the country's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) begin safety inspections at its Onagawa nuclear power plant. Chugoku Electric Power Co. has applied for checks at its Shimane nuclear plant. This brings the total number of requests submitted to the NRA to 16. Chubu Electric Power Co is working on tsunami defenses at its Hamaoka nuclear power plant and is also expected to apply for safety checks in January. There are currently no nuclear reactors operating in Japan.
However, the proposed restarts of Japan's nuclear reactors, along with the government's inclusion of nuclear power in its draft basic energy plan, continue to attract protests by the public in Tokyo.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
The prevalence of childhood thyroid cancer in Fukushima is dividing opinion among Japan's experts. "The rate at which children in Fukushima Prefecture have developed thyroid cancer can be called frequent because it is several times to several tens of times higher," said epidemiology professor at Okayama University , Toshihide Tsuda. However, Tetsuya Ohira, professor of epidemiology at Fukushima Medical University has questioned those findings. Cancer screening of children in Fukushima led to 59 out of the 290,000 tested being diagnosed with or suspected of having thyroid cancer.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that air dose rates of radiation within 80 kilometers of the Fukushima plant have dropped by 47 percent since November 2011. While the NRA said the fall was due to the natural decay of radiation, it also said rainwater has washed contamination into the ocean and soil.
Concerns about radioactive contamination continue to plague Fukushima Prefecture's fishing industry. Fishermen on the Prefecture's rivers have been unable to maintain salmon stocks as egg hatcheries are within the Fukushima evacuation zone. This means there will be fewer adult salmon to return to spawn in the coming years. "I want fishing to make a full comeback soon. If we don't resume fishing, the river won't have many salmon coming up it," said Hideo Matsumoto, head of the Kidogawa river fishermen's cooperative. The river supplies much of Japan's salmon. The situation "could have an incalculable effect on future salmon fishing in Fukushima Prefecture ," according to a source at a prefectural fisheries experiment station. The cooperative hopes to resume fishing in 2015 if decontamination is completed and evacuation orders are lifted.
Japan's farming ministry is planning to relax restriction on rice production in Fukushima Prefecture after recent monitoring of shipments found no radioactive contamination above current standards. Under the plan, rice production would be allowed to resume outside evacuation areas.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
A special report by the Reuters news agency has found that Japan's homeless people are being recruited by labor recruiters to work on cleanup operations in Fukushima Prefecture. While recruiters can earn up to $100 per each new worker they find, the workers themselves are paid less than minimum wage levels. Some workers claim they haven't been paid at all. "I don't ask questions; that's not my job. I just find people and send them to work. I send them and get money in exchange. That's it. I don't get involved in what happens after that," said one recruiter. Workers only receive third of the money set aside to pay wages. "We're an easy target for recruiters. We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we're easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven't eaten, they offer to find us a job," said one homeless man, Shizuya Nishiyama. There is a high number of companies involved with the decontamination efforts which has made oversight difficult. Reuters found that 56 subcontractors had not been vetted by the construction ministry which bars them from working on ordinary public works. Five firms could not be identified. "If you started looking at every single person, the project wouldn't move forward. You wouldn't get a tenth of the people you need," said Yukio Suganuma, president of Aisogo Service, one company working in Tamura. Reuters found that criminal gangs were also heavily involved in the supply of workers. "If you don't get involved (with gangs), you're not going to get enough workers. The construction industry is 90 percent run by gangs," said Kenichi Sayama, general manager of subcontractor, Fujisai Couken.
Meanwhile, Japan's Environment Ministry has announced that decontamination work will take three years longer than planned. The delay is being blamed on the range of radiation levels in different areas and the lack to storage facilities for contaminated debris. The work is not planned to be complete until 2017. Decontamination work is being conducted in 11 municipalities but only work in Tamura has been declared complete. One town, Futaba, has been declared "difficult to return to for a long time."
Japan's government has announced that compensation will be increased for those people not expecting to return to their homes in their lifetimes. Each person will receive an extra 7 million yen ($66,700) from TEPCO and 25,000 evacuees will be eligible. This is in addition to 100,000 yens they had already received each month for subsistence.
According to estimates by the office of the ministry’s committee, a family of four from the difficult-to-return zones will be eligible to receive 106.75 million yen overall, including the compensation announced on Dec. 26. It is also estimated that a family of four from zones where residences are restricted--where radiation levels are between 20 and 50 millisieverts per year--will receive 71.97 million yen. A family of the same number from areas where preparations will be made to lift the current evacuation order, which cover regions with an annual radiation level of 20 millisieverts or lower, will be able to receive 56.81 million yen, according to the estimates.
A 35-year-old unemployed man, who was forced to evacuate with his wife and three children from their home in a difficult-to-return zone in Okuma, recently purchased a new house in Koriyama in the prefecture far from the stricken plant, using his monthly compensation from TEPCO. The man said he felt relieved to hear that they will be able to receive additional compensation that will total several tens of millions of yen. “Because vast amounts of money have been spent for decontamination work in areas where residents will likely be unable to return home, I have been concerned that the amount of compensation we will receive may be reduced,” he said.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Naraha, a town within 20 kilometers of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant, and has been designated a "zone being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order". Before the disaster the town had 7,500 residents. Of these, however, only 428 applied for the special return program that allowed residents to spend the New Year holiday in their homes between December 28 and January 4.
Another problem stemming from the evacuation in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is the number of pets that had to be left behind. Many have turned feral with others receiving only occasional visits from their owners. The Fukushima Spay Clinic set up in 2012 in Shirakawa, 100 kilometers from the nuclear plant has neutered nearly 1,500 animals in an attempt to address the problem. "Sterilization is the most practical and humane way to curb the growing population of feral animals, and research backs this up. Unfortunately, our clinic is the only one providing this kind of service. The local vets and bureaucrats have not responded adequately to the situation. Something had to be done," said Hiro Yamasaki from the Animal Rescue System Fund, who with his team established the clinic.