Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Despite vocal local opposition to nuclear power, TEPCO announced this week that it would submit an application to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) as early as Monday to restart reactors #6 and #7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture. Efforts to restart reactor #1 may soon follow. The move is apparently a reversal of a previous promise to gain local understanding before formally petitioning the NRA. Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida has declared in no uncertain terms that he will not approve restarting any of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, citing concerns about the NRA’s ability to assess safe conditions and TEPCO’s trustworthiness. In particular, he criticized the utility’s desire to restart the Niigata reactors when many questions remain about the root causes of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
On top of myriad safety worries, Izumida was furious at TEPCO’s blatant failure to obtain local permission before forging ahead with the application process. “There is no greater disregard for local people than this. It is an act to completely destroy a relationship…who could trust such a company?” he asked. “TEPCO’s plan to file an application without fulfilling its responsibilities will never gain the understanding of the public. The utility has failed to provide any explanation to the local community,” he added. Izumida is not alone in his frustration. Keiko Hashimoto, who heads an anti-nuclear group, said, “TEPCO is desperate to reactivate the plant in order to meet its managerial requirements. We’d like Governor Izumida to make a judgment while giving first priority to the safety of prefectural residents.” A majority of Niigata residents have expressed opposition to nuclear power, according to an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted late last year.
TEPCO’s President, Naomi Hirose, has promised to meet with Izumida “as early as possible,” but convincing the governor to grant approval will be nearly impossible without determining the causes of the Fukushima disaster. That task could take years because radiation levels there remain astronomically high, and humans cannot enter the crippled reactors to figure out why the meltdowns occurred. However, the utility is in a very bad position right now: as a result of mounting costs for decontamination, compensation to victims of the nuclear crisis, and costs of decommissioning the damaged reactors, TEPCO has posted significant losses over the past two fiscal years. In fiscal 2012 alone, the company posted a loss of 377.6 billion yen. If it does so a third time (for the fiscal year ending in March 2014), banks have said that they may stop backing TEPCO’s loans. Hirose has been blunt about the fact that the company’s financial concerns, rather than residents’ safety or the right of local government to determine which businesses will operate in its backyard, are TEPCO’s primary focus. “It will be impossible for our business to turn a profit if we cannot restart the reactors,” he said at a press conference this week.
TEPCO submitted a business plan to the government last year which was dependent on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors this April, but those hopes were dashed when the NRA said it would not even begin accepting applications for restart until July (that process will begin on Monday.) NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said that the process of assessing each reactor could take up to six months, meaning that the TEPCO could not resume operations at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa until January 2014 at the earliest.
But experts continue to question whether or not the NRA will approve the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa restarts at all. Reactors #6 and #7 are advanced boiling water reactors (ABWRs). Under the NRA’s new regulations, all BWRs are required to have filtered vents installed in order to prevent massive amounts of radiation from being released into the atmosphere after a nuclear accident, as happened at Fukushima. Installing those vents normally takes years, but TEPCO did the work itself, rather than hiring a subcontractor that specializes in doing so, in order to save time. It has promised that the process will be completed by the end of this month. In addition, TEPCO’s own research shows that almost all of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors—including #6 and #7—lie on faults that are considered active under the NRA’s newly tightened definition. Operating a nuclear reactor atop of an active fault line is illegal in Japan.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
The International Atomic Energy Agency is calling the Fukushima Daiichi power plant a “blueprint” for terrorists. The assessment came during an international meeting on prevention of nuclear terrorism that was attended by 1,300 diplomats and experts on security and nuclear issues. “Fukushima sent a message to terrorists that if you manage to cause a nuclear power plant to melt down, that really causes major panic and disruption in society. All you need to do that is to cut off power for an extended period of time,” noted Matthew Bunn, a former White House advisor. Shinichi Suzuki, an official at TEPCO, agreed, saying, “[Fukushima] has provided a number of findings and lessons that are also useful for preparations for an incident caused by human hand, such as a terrorist attack at a nuclear power station.” The world is currently storing 2 million kilograms of nuclear materials left over from nuclear power plants and decommissioned bombs. It’s enough to make 100,000 new nuclear weapons. IAEA members have pledged to secure nuclear materials at both power plants and weapons facilities by 2014.
Engineers at TEPCO have determined that corrosive effects of an additive designed to remove impurities from treated water caused recent leaks in the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS). The leak of radioactive water was discovered last month in a stainless steel tank capable of holding 25 tons of water. TEPCO now plans to cover the interior of the tank with resin to prevent further corrosion.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
As expected, the NRA officially approved Kansai Electric’s (KEPCO) request to continue operating reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture until September, when they are scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance. This comes despite the fact that the NRA’s own seismic experts remain split on whether or not a fault line running beneath the reactors is active, and the NRA commissioners themselves were not able to reach a unanimous decision. Even the agency’s report on the decision seemed ambivalent: “We think facilities and the way things are managed will not create serious safety problems immediately,” it said. One of the NRA commissioners, Kayoko Nakamura, was direct in her criticism, saying, “[The Oi plant] has not passed the test of safety awareness.” NRA Chairman Shinichi Tanaka cautioned, “Additional measures and closer examinations may be necessary after the routine checks,” and said that the plant will be subject to stricter assessments once it applies to go online again after going offline in September for maintenance work.
Also in regulatory news, the NRA said this week that it plans to tighten rules for nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, including the Rokkasho facility in Aomori Prefecture. The Rokkasho plant was supposed to be a cornerstone of the Japanese fuel cycle, allowing the nuclear industry to reprocess spent fuel. The plant first began operating in 2006, but seven years, 19 delays, and numerous technical problems later, it’s still not operating. Starting in December, the NRA will require Japan’s nine fuel reprocessing plants to be prepared to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, and fires. Specifically, plants will need to be equipped with backup power, fire safety vehicles, and water spraying systems. Similar to rules governing nuclear reactors, facilities that lie on active fault lines will be shut down.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Researchers from Gakushuin University and the University of Tokyo have released a new map showing how radioactive iodine-131 spread in the days following the onset of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Because iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days, previous radiation dispersion maps did not include it. Lead researchers Yasuyuki Muramatsu and Hiroyuki Matsuzaki studied dispersal patterns by looking at concentrations of iodine-129, which was released from the Fukushima plant at the same time and has a much longer half-life of 15.7 million years. They also reviewed weather-mapping data. The end result is a map that shows that the highest concentrations of iodine-131 were northwest and south of the plant and “can be used as basic data to assess radioactive doses [of residents],” Muramatsu said.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
Japan’s Environment Ministry plans to conduct a new series of 10 surveys in Naraha this month, in order to find interim storage space for radioactive waste from the Fukushima disaster. Government efforts to decontaminate areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant have largely stalled because local residents oppose having a waste facility in their own backyard. Officials have no place to put the vast volume of contaminated soil and other debris. Many residents fear negative health effects from radiation; others are concerned that if they allow a “temporary” storage site to be built in their town, it will become a permanent repository for highly radioactive waste. Naraha is located just 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.