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 had admitted that it was aware in January that highly contaminated groundwater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has long been leaking into the nearby Pacific Ocean, but failed to admit it until this week.
Officials are blaming poor interdepartmental communication for the cover-up. “Our civil engineering department has confirmed water level variations in monitoring wells as early as January, but that information was not shared [with] the department responsible for monitoring radiation levels,” said an official from the TEPCO’s Fukushima Revitalization Headquarters. The engineering department was taking the measurements in order to design a wall to prevent spread of radioactivity at TEPCO’s port.
Experts, including Greenpeace, have long suspected that the plant was leaking contaminated water into the sea, based on radiation levels in ocean water samples, but TEPCO has continuously denied it. Even when groundwater samples were found to have large concentrations of radioactive materials in May, the company (which did not release that information until June 19) insisted that it could did not have enough information to confirm ocean contamination. “We cannot decide whether radioactive contamination has been spreading underground until we analyze more data,” said one company official less than two weeks ago. However, executives now admit that in January, engineers realized that the levels in nearby wells were fluctuating in accordance with oceanic tidal patterns as well as rainfall, leading them to believe that the area is leaking directly into the ocean. TEPCO is insisting that the majority of the contaminated water has stayed within the confines of the bay at the plant’s port, and has not washed further out to the ocean.
Many analysts, as well as Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), are now criticizing TEPCO for covering up the issue. Even the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which works to promote nuclear power in Japan, had sharp words for the company’s lack of attention to the growing problem: “Many things have fallen a step behind. You should be ahead of the curve to foresee risks and take measures,” chided Kazuyoshi Akaba, Deputy Minister of METI.
Local fishermen’s groups, whose livelihood has been decimated by the nuclear crisis, are up in arms. “Never have I been so shocked since we first learned during the early days of the nuclear disaster that radioactive water was leaking into the ocean… Before anything else, I want them to make every effort to stop the leaks as soon as possible,” said Tetsu Nozaki, who leads the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. Fishermen had recently begun test-fishing in the area, to determine whether or not seafood there was safe to eat, but this new discovery is likely to further damage the reputation of the prefecture’s catch. “This will pose a significant hurdle to the trial operation. Even if we can catch fish, will we be able to tell consumers with confidence that they can eat them?” asked Masakazu Yabuki, who heads up the fisheries cooperative in Iwaki.
TEPCO recently asked fishermen to consider allowing the release of large amounts of low-level radioactive water into the ocean, in order to alleviate the company’s growing water storage crisis. Each day, an estimated 400 tons of groundwater seep into damaged reactor buildings, becoming contaminated and requiring storage. Approximately 400,000 tons of radioactive water is now being stored in tanks on the compound; TEPCO wants to treat the water and then dump it into the ocean. These latest findings are likely to make fishermen even less likely to agree to the plan. Japan’s National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations has also now filed a formal protest against TEPCO, urging its president, Naomi Hirose, to step up efforts to deal with the problem.
However, their objections could be overruled. “The plant is filling up with water. Inevitably, the contaminated water will have to be discharged into the sea after TEPCO processes it properly and lowers its radioactivity levels below [government] standards. We have no way out if we can’t release water even after its radiation levels are reduced before the safety limit,” said Shunichi Tanaka, NRA Chair, on July 22. He did add that it will be important to obtain approval from the fishing community before doing so. However, TEPCO’s purification system cannot remove radioactive tritium from the water, and it remains to be seen whether there will once again be an international outcry. In April 2011, TEPCO dumped over 11,000 tons of low-level radioactive water into the sea, eliciting shrill response from the international community, which roundly criticized the decision and Japan’s failure to inform other countries before releasing the water.
Municipal officials are also furious. “The people of Fukushima become more anxious every time they hear of more safety failures. Please put that thought at the very center of your mind as you try to fix this situation,” implored Tetsuya Hasegawa, a prefectural official.
In the long term, TEPCO plans to build a 9-meter deep wall around the plant to prevent groundwater from seeping into the sea, but construction is estimated to take at least a year, and probably longer. In the meantime, workers are injecting chemicals into surrounding soil to reduce permeability, and plan to cover the area with concrete so that rainfall accumulation will not worsen the situation.
In other reactor news, TEPCO said that radiation levels near the fifth floor of reactor #3, where steam was seen on July 18 and then again on July 23, were rising, measuring 562 millisieverts per hour. The company collected radiation measurements from a total of 24 locations on the fifth floor; levels ranged as high as 2,170 millisieverts per hour. The lowest measurement was 137 millisieverts per hour. Officials have surmised that the steam may be caused by rain that leaked onto the hot containment vessel, immediately evaporating and producing steam—but they have not clarified why the this situation did not arise during other rainy periods over the past 28 months. Workers have been unable to examine the reactor close up, because radiation levels there remain too high for humans to safely enter the building.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The NRA has ordered Hokkaido Electric Power Company, operator of the Tomari power plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, to either revise or rescind an application to restart reactors #1 and #2 at the plant, saying that the reactors are “clearly ill-prepared” for restart. In its application, Hokkaido reportedly provided data from a different kind of cooling system than that installed in the reactors, in an explanation of how they would respond if a nuclear disaster occurs. Moreover, the agency said that Hokkaido failed to prove that the reactors meet new safety standards enacted earlier this month. The NRA has agreed to continue to assess Tomari reactor #3, despite the fact that NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa admitted, “It is [also] partially ill-prepared.”
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Acting Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan, Hiroyuki Hosoda, is being criticized for showing insensitivity to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 150,000 of whom are still unable to return to their homes almost two and a half years after the crisis first began to unfold. “The world trend is to advance nuclear power generation. The argument that we should abandon everything because of the misfortune—the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant operated by TEPCO—will cause future Japanese nationals intolerable pain,” he said. Hosoda’s words were seen by many as underplaying the suffering of those personally affected by the disaster.
An independent study by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), led by Tetsuo Yasutaka, estimates that the cost of decontaminating just Fukushima Prefecture from the aftermath of TEPCO’s nuclear disaster could exceed 5 trillion yen ($58 billion). That estimate does not include the cost of permanently storing radioactive waste; it also does not take into the account of decontamination costs in nearby prefectures. The total cost will almost certainly be far higher. The Japanese government had only earmarked 1.15 trillion yen for decontamination in Fukushima Prefecture between fiscal years 2011 and 2013. The AIST study was based on funds spent so far and conversations with government officials, as well as radiation distribution data provided by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).
A survey of decontamination companies working in Fukushima Prefecture, conducted by the Fukushima Labor Bureau, shows that a whopping 68 percent had committed violations of either the nation’s Labor Standards Law or the Industrial Safety and Health Law. Of 388 companies polled, 264 firms committed 684 offenses. Violations included failure to explain the dangers of working with radioactive materials to workers; inadequate payment of wages, including hazard pay; and failure to provide adequate safety education. There were no consequences for the infractions; the Bureau has simply ordered the affected companies to adhere to the rules.