Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Decontamination Scandal

A major scandal involving shoddy decontamination practices in Fukushima Prefecture is continuing to unfold. Workers say that no training, impossible deadlines, and a sense that their efforts were useless, as well as direct orders from supervisors, led to the improper disposal practices.

In response to a scathing ten-part expose by the Asahi Shimbun, which revealed illegal dumping of radioactive waste into rivers and forests, failure to collect contaminated water used in the cleanup process, and inappropriate use of high-pressured sprayers, Ministry officials finally interviewed supervisors from four contracting firms that had been awarded a highly lucrative 650 billion yen ($7.4 billion) contract. The firms originally agreed to bag all radioactive material, including leaves and branches; only use high-pressure sprayers on gutters and collect all water used; and wipe down walls and roofs of houses by hand or with brushes. Contaminated materials were to be stored at temporary storage sites, and cleanup was to occur within 20 meters of both sides of all roads. The work was to be performed in 11 municipalities over four prefectures.

During the course of the interviews, two firms admitted that workers had not properly collected contaminated water in the towns of Naraha and Iitate. Although that practice is a violation of the Ministry’s contract with the firms, it is not illegal. The Asahi reporters, however, submitted extensive photographic, video, and audio documentation of far more extensive problems than those to which the firms admitted.

In interviews with Asahi reporters, many workers cited frustration with a seemingly impossible task and feelings of being demoralized as reasons for cutting corners. “If we follow the rules [on how to decontaminate], we can never go home,” one said. Another worried, “We will never be able to finish the work by the March deadline,” sentiments that echoed a third worker’s comment: “We were pressed to finish the work as quickly as possible. If we pressed to resist, we would become isolated from other workers, although it did not reach the extent of losing the job. With sub-zero temperatures in the mountains, being placed in such circumstances would have led to feelings of loneliness among many people.” It can take five workers three days to decontaminate a home or building by hand, and radioactive material blowing in the wind sometimes recontaminates areas on which they just worked. “Radiation levels returned even after we completed the work, so there was a sense that what we were doing was worthless,” recalled one worker.

In addition, analysts say that the fact that no temporary storage facility has been established to store the burgeoning radioactive waste means that there’s no place for workers to put it. As a result, they simply throw it into rivers, wooded areas, or outside of the decontamination zones, or leave plastic bags filled with contaminated waste near roads, in fields, and along the coast. If a tsunami were to hit, that waste would be washed inland, possibly to highly populated areas.

Nevertheless, some workers did try to thoroughly decontaminate areas. “Not all workers were being lax,” noted one man who wrote to Asahi in response to the expose. “They were doing their best trying various methods, because there was no job manual.”

Although contracting firms are performing the cleanup, the Environment Ministry is ultimately responsible for oversight of the massive project. The Ministry first learned of the massive problem on December 26, when a worker sent a fax to both the Ministry’s Tokyo office and the Fukushima Office for Environmental Restoration detailing his concerns about the process. He included both his name and contact information, but as of January 8, he still had received no response. The first installment of the Asahi story ran on January 4, which was supposed to be the first official day in office for new Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara, but he did not even appear in the office until January 6. When asked on January 8 where he had been in lieu of showing up to work, Ishihara responded that he did not remember. A Ministry staff person, speaking anonymously, admitted, “Our ministry will not move unless a newspaper article appears.”

Many analysts have criticized Japan’s insistence on awarding the large-scale decontamination contracts to major construction firms, some of which have ties to the nuclear power industry. Numerous local firms vied for the contracts, often presenting newer and more effective ways to reduce radiation, such as a method to remove cesium from concrete without using water. In addition, many foreign firms, including some American companies with high levels of knowledge about decontamination, offered assistance. None were contacted except for a few involving minor jobs. Meanwhile, the contract winners have been frank about their major concern: the financial bottom-line. “In such a big undertaking, cost-effectiveness becomes very important,” said Takeshi Nishikawa, an executive with Kajima Corporation, one of the companies that admitted improper disposal of radioactive water. Previously, Kajima was responsible for building all six reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “For the big general contractors, it’s all about the bottom line,” agreed Masao Sakai, whose small company offering innovative technologies was not awarded a decontamination contract. Hidehiko Nishiyama, Deputy Director of the Environment Ministry, defended the choice of selecting construction companies for the job, saying, “Even if a [decontamination] method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example. And if we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there.”

Officials now say that they will assign Ministry staff to supervisory posts in all 17 decontamination locations, and a task force assigned to the issue is compiling a list of recommendations, which they will unveil on January 18. Previously, only a few dozen Ministry officials monitored the effort of hundreds of decontamination workers. One official admitted, “We must figure out why this happened, and what is really going on at decontamination sites first.” Still, analysts say that at this point, meeting the goal of reducing radiation levels to below 20 millisieverts per year by 2014 is unlikely.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said this week that it will allot 570 million yen in taxpayer money this year to support municipalities that have previously received large subsidies from power companies in exchange for hosting nuclear reactors. Ministry officials said that the funding should be used to underwrite sales and tourism in the region, including promoting tours of local nuclear power plants.

In addition, the government will allocate 80 billion yen in public funding to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) to build a new nuclear research laboratory in Fukushima prefecture. The new center will study radiation emitted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing methods, and ways to decommission the crippled reactors there, including designing and building new robots. The government said that the center will benefit other nuclear power companies, which will also eventually need to decommission reactors across the country.

Despite Prime Minister Abe’s hope to restart idled nuclear reactors in Japan within three years, Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka reiterated this week that he does not believe all 48 of the country’s idled reactors can be tested and declared safe within that period of time. The NRA is writing new reactor safety standards but does not plan to unveil them until July.

The government plans to spend 12 billion yen this year retrofitting hospitals, homes for the elderly, and schools located within five kilometers of nuclear power plants. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, many elderly and sick patients were forced to evacuate long distances in order to escape radiation plumes, and some died in the process. The retrofitting will include adding filters to ventilation systems and making doors and windows airtight in case of another nuclear disaster. Taxpayers will foot the bill for the upgrades. 

Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is running for a second term unopposed and will presumably win another four-year term as Director General. The deadline for filing as a candidate passed on December 31. The IAEA’s Board of Governors is expected to approve Amano’s reappointment in March; he will then be confirmed at an annual meeting in September. Amano’s current term expires in November.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO has begun installation of a cover over crippled reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered major damage after a hydrogen explosion in March 2011. The new cover will contain a special crane that will allow workers to remove 1,533 fuel rods currently being stored in a spent fuel pool there. The utility plans to move the fuel rods to another pool in the compound, where an additional 6,375 rods are being stored. The second pool can only accommodate 6,840 rods, so TEPCO plans to build yet another storage pool nearby.

TEPCO

Naomi Hirose, President of TEPCO, announced this week that the company is currently exploring legal means to extend the acceptance period for compensation claims by victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The original time limit for submission of claims was three years. Hirose said, “We do not intend at all to say ‘that’s it’ after three years…we hope not to create concerns among the people affected.” TEPCO has been roundly criticized for dragging its feet in processing compensation claims and in some cases, denying them. Hirose made the statement while meeting with Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato, who took the opportunity to remind Hirose of widespread public opposition to operating any reactors in the prefecture, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. “I have also told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it is the collective will of the people in the prefecture to decommission all the reactors in the prefecture,” Sato said, referring to the prefectural government’s efforts to shut down reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as the nearby Fukushima Daini plant. But Hirose would only say that TEPCO will decide whether or not to decommission the reactors based on the nation’s energy policy.

TEPCO plans to install a new filtered vent in reactor #7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture, which it says will reduce the amount of radiation released into the environment if a nuclear disaster occurs. During the Fukushima nuclear crisis, highly radioactive steam built up inside a containment vessel as the reactor began to overheat, and failure to vent it led to a hydrogen explosion and a massive release of radioactivity. The utility is hoping to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, despite vocal opposition from local residents.

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Rice contaminated with radioactive cesium has been detected in Miyagi Prefecture. It is the first time that contaminated rice has been discovered outside of Fukushima Prefecture. The rice, which at 240 Bq/kg exceeded government-mandated limits by almost two-and-a-half times, was not sold to the public. Prefectural officials have requested that nearby farmers refrain from shipping rice and other produce until further testing can be conducted.