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
TEPCO’s contamination issues worsened this week—again—as the utility announced that high levels of radioactive strontium-90 were discovered in groundwater taken from a well located near reactor #3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Groundwater samples contained 1,400 Bq/liter of radioactive materials, including strontium; just one week earlier, radiation levels were undetectable. TEPCO has been dealing with increasing amounts of contaminated groundwater near the reactors since May, but this most recent instance was 200 meters from previously detected contamination, leading experts to suspect that radioactivity is spreading quickly. Despite the new discovery, TEPCO has once again denied the seemingly obvious. “We cannot decide whether radioactive contamination has been spreading underground until we analyze more data,” said one company official.
In the meantime, tritium levels from samples gathered at a well near reactor #1 have risen to 630,000 Bq/liter, up from 600,000 Bq/liter on July 5 and 430,000 Bq/liter on June 28, just over two weeks ago. Strontium-90 is also on the rise there, measuring 4,400 Bq/liter. That well is located just 4 metres from the sea, raising concerns that radioactive materials are flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
TEPCO said last week that it believes that the current groundwater contamination is a result of a leak that occurred near reactor #2 soon after the Fukushima meltdowns began in March 2011, but which has only recently entered groundwater. Accordingly, plant officials have begun to inject waterproof liquid glass into the ground in order to stem the flow of contaminated materials. However, some experts have misgivings about that plan, saying that building a containment structure without first identifying the cause of the leak could simply divert the highly radioactive substances to other areas, potentially triggering unintended consequences.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has cautioned that at this point, it’s impossible to determine where the leaks are coming from, and has publicly stated that it doubts TEPCO’s assertions about the leak originating two years earlier. Last week, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said that he believes that contaminated water has been leaking for more than two years. Toyoshi Fukata, NRA Commissioner, noted, “We have yet to learn in the first place if the spread represents leaks during the early phase of the disaster that subsequently remained stagnant, or if the spread represents leaks that came out later, and whether such leaks continue to this day.” The NRA plans to set up a task force to further probe the issue. Analysts point out that the basements of reactors #2 and #3 currently hold a combined 11,000 tons of highly radioactive water, increasing the need to address the problem quickly. However, pipes comprising the cooling system at the Fukushima plant cover 4 km; the leak could be coming from anywhere within that system, or from the reactor buildings themselves.
Nuclear Power and Restart of Japanese Reactors
Despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power by a majority of Japanese people, the government and nuclear industry continue to push for restarting nuclear reactors there. This week, Kyushu Electric Power Company applied to restart two more reactors, #3 and #4, at its Genkai Plant in Saga Prefecture. Those additions bring the total number of reactors for which restart applications have been submitted to 12. Analysts say that the Genkai reactors, which are relatively new and do not sit on active fault lines have a good chance of being among the first to go back online in Japan, assuming that Kyushu can secure the consent of local governments and residents.
Meanwhile, Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) said that it will apply to restart reactors #1 and #2 at its Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture, as well as reactor #2 at its Tokai plant in Ibaraki prefecture. The announcement comes despite a ruling in May by the NRA, which said that the Tsuruga reactor #2 sits on an active fault line and would be at risk if a large earthquake struck. JAPC has protested the assessment. Reactor #1 was built in 1970 and is 43 years old. New NRA requirements say that plants older than 40 years cannot be restarted without meeting strict standards; the necessary upgrades would be both time consuming and very expensive.
At the Tokai plant, local residents and officials have voiced strong protests against restarting the reactor there, citing concerns about health and safety. “[JAPC’s] President Hamada has never visited the village personally to explain what the company is considering. I cannot find any intention on his part to try to gain the understanding of the local community,” said Tokai Mayor Tatsuya Murakami. If, however, the three reactors are not restarted, which most experts say is highly likely, the company will almost certainly crumble. Current estimates for decommissioning the reactors are 260 billion yen ($2.6 billion). At the moment, the utility only has 160 billion in reserves. Some analysts believe that Japan Atomic is using the restart application process as a stalling tactic.
Restarting reactors—and reshaping Japan’s energy policy—have been high on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s list of priorities since he took office, as well as that of his political party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP). The LDP, which already holds control of the Lower House of the Japan’s Parliament, is widely expected to win elections for the Upper House on July 21. So far, most candidates have downplayed nuclear power issues in an effort to avoid alienating the majority of Japanese voters who oppose nuclear energy.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s Foreign Minister, will travel to Jordan next month in order to encourage that country to import Japan’s nuclear technology. Despite polls which show that the majority of the Japanese public questions the morality of selling nuclear equipment and know-how to other nations when the root causes of the Fukushima disaster have yet to be uncovered, Prime Minister Abe has recently convinced both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sign nuclear technology transfer agreements.
Evacuation and Reconstruction Issues
Almost two and a half years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis first began to unfold, 160,000 people are still not able to return to their homes; of these, approximately 100,000 remain in temporary housing. When he first took office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to move ahead on reconstruction issues, quickly establishing the Fukushima Headquarters for Reconstruction and Revitalization. However, the agency has had little effect so far. Funds have been diverted to and spent on other projects; building of new homes is slow (so far, only 1.2% of those slated for construction have been completed); and few people have been relocated. Meanwhile, public opposition to hosting radioactive waste storage sites is rampant. Without a place to store contaminated waste and debris, many rebuilding projects have stalled.