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
After more than two and a half years of denying that radioactive water was contaminating the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, TEPCO has finally admitted that the damaged plant, site of three nuclear meltdowns, has been steadily leaking toxic water into the sea. The admission comes after Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) ordered the company to further investigate leaks of highly contaminated groundwater. Environmental experts (including Greenpeace) have long suspected that contaminated water was pouring into the ocean, based on contamination levels of groundwater near the reactor buildings and tests performed on samples of seawater. But, utility officials denied it until now. Beginning in May, levels of radioactive cesium, tritium, and strontium in groundwater all began to rise astronomically, fueling concerns that an even more significant leak has sprung somewhere.Workers are continuing to investigate those leaks, but so far have not been able to determine the cause of the problem.
In spite of the admission, TEPCO is insisting that the contaminated water has remained within the plant’s port, apparently ignoring the natural pattern of ocean tides. Marine experts have expressed concern that the steady flow of radioactive materials has contaminated ocean plant life, as well as fish and shellfish. Ultimately, they worry that the food chain will be contaminated, placing humans at risk.
Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, expressed dismay, pointing out the fact that TEPCO has lied for the past 28 months. “It was quite shocking. TEPCO’s explanation is totally different from the one in the past,” he said. The fishing industry in Fukushima Prefecture has been completely decimated by the nuclear crisis, as consumers continue to express concerns about the hazards of consuming contaminated seafood.
Meanwhile, TEPCO said that steam that was rising from the fifth floor of the building housing reactor #3, which disappeared over the weekend, is once again apparent. Officials are not able to explain why. The steam was first discovered at 8:20 am on July 18, but had vanished by the next day. It began to rise again today just after 9 AM JST. Officials said that radiation, temperature, and pressure at the reactor remain the same, and there is no criticality (the point at which self-sustaining nuclear reactions occur). TEPCO is blaming the steam on rain falling through the damaged roof of the reactor building, which then evaporated, causing steam and condensation--but has not clarified why no steam appeared when it rained previously over the past two years and four months.
In spite of ongoing technical issues at the plant, and continued dire financial straits stemming from sky-high decontamination, decommissioning, and compensation costs, for which the company was forced to request a government bailout, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said that the company will offer one-time bonuses of 100,000 yen ($997) to section chiefs and higher today. Hirose acknowledged that the move would be controversial considering the company’s money woes, but said that he is trying to raise morale and keep good workers from quitting. “The cleanup work, the decommissioning processes for the nuclear reactors, the making of damage payments, these all take workers and personnel to accomplish. We have decided on the payment, despite its extremely unusual nature, to boost spirits and motivate the managers to do their jobs.” Since the March 2011 disaster, TEPCO has lost 1,286 staff, 51 of them at the section chief level or higher. The bonuses are expected to cost the company 500 million yen ($4.9 million). They will be paid for via funds raised through the company’s cost-cutting measures, which exceeded goals by 150 billion yen. However, officials are still saying that they will need to raise consumers’ rates in order to stay afloat.
TEPCO has been forced to amend the number of workers contaminated with high levels of radiation immediately following the onset of the Fukushima disaster, after originally stating in December that only 178 workers had been exposed to hazardous levels. In truth, more than ten times that many workers, almost 2,000, received dangerous doses that increase their risk for developing cancer. Of the 1,973 workers affected, 976 worked directly for TEPCO, and 997 were contractors or subcontractors. A total of 19,592 workers were examined. Some suffered radiation doses up to 1,000 millisieverts higher than originally reported.
TEPCO did not even begin a complete investigation into worker contamination until international experts, including the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, questioned the data that the company initially released. Japan’s own Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare also questioned those numbers. TEPCO did not disclose the number of workers affected to the public (in the smaller study) until the World Health Organization said that it would be releasing the numbers in a report late last year. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Health Ministry did not mandate thyroid checks for workers, instead letting TEPCO do so on a voluntary basis.
Even now, workers report that TEPCO provided little information about radiation risks up front, and say that they have been given few details going forward. A company representative said, “We will provide and pay for annual ultrasound thyroid gland tests to all workers with thyroid gland doses in excess of 100 millisieverts over their lifetimes. We have already notified those who are eligible for the checkups.” One hundred millisieverts is the dose at which cancer risks begin to increase according to international standards, although some experts say that number is much lower. Nevertheless, workers say that they were not initially informed that their jobs could expose them to dangerous radiation, and have not been given a schedule of when or how often the upcoming examinations will occur.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Former actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto, who ran on an anti-nuclear platform, won a hotly contested Upper House seat during elections on July 21. Support for Yamamoto transcended party lines, and in fact, he chose not to ally himself with any one political party, deciding instead to run independently. Twitter and other social media platforms played a major role in his campaign, and he enlisted the help of a large cadre of volunteers, as well as seasoned political operatives. “This is where the real fight begins. I want to continue to call for the abolition of nuclear power,” he said, adding, “Thanks to the power of volunteers, I have won the election without depending on any political parties. I think this shows the potential of the internet for election campaigns.” Yamamoto became active in the anti-nuclear movement following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, and soon after left his acting career to pursue activism full time. He ran for a Lower House seat in December, but lost.
Unfortunately, other election news was not so rosy for the anti-nuclear movement. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept to victory in the Upper House contests. Although the majority of Japan has expressed opposition to long-term continuation of nuclear power, the anti-nuclear vote was split among eight political parties that have said they do not support long term nuclear energy plans for Japan. The LDP was the only party that declared itself staunchly pro-nuclear, and it garnered all of those votes. In addition, some voters expressed anger at the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) handling of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, and voted against those candidates. The LDP, which has been vocal about its desire to restart nuclear reactors across Japan, now holds control of both houses of Parliament, as well as the Prime Minister’s administration.