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 spending just 15 minutes on the fourth floor of reactor #1, Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) inspectors said they determined yesterday that a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March 2011 did not damage isolation condensers there (critical for emergency cooling), despite a Diet-sponsored investigative report that raised concerns about earthquake damage. Workers had reported that they saw water leaking from the condensers before a subsequent tsunami struck the plant, but inspectors now insist that the water simply splashed out of the reactor’s spent fuel pool following the earthquake.
The #1 reactor experienced one of three nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima facility in March 2011, and more than two years later, the utility still has not been able to locate the melted fuel. As a result, astronomically high radiation levels there prevent humans from spending more than 10 or 15 minutes within the reactor building.
In what seems like an unending series of mishaps in its efforts to manage a fast-growing water storage crisis, TEPCO admitted this week that its so-called Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), designed to remove a wide variety of radioactive contaminants from water used to cool reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has sprung a leak. Workers discovered that radioactivity near a welded portion of the system’s water tank, which holds 25 tons of water, measured approximately .2 millisieverts per hour, greater than that of surrounding areas. They are still investigating the cause of the leak, but suspect that areas near the welds may be malfunctioning. In the meantime, they have shut down the system. Officials say that the leaked water mixed with condensation but was captured in a tray sitting below the tank.
TEPCO has placed great hope in the ALPS system, amidst numerous leaks and other breakdowns at the plant. Currently, the utility is storing more than 300,000 tons of highly radioactive water in tanks located on the plant’s compound. Each day, approximately 400 tons of groundwater seep into cracks located in the basements of reactor buildings and mix with highly radioactive water used to cool melted fuel in the reactor cores. The groundwater subsequently becomes radioactive and requires storage.
The ALPS system does not remove radioactive tritium, leading some municipal leaders and local fisheries cooperatives to protest the possibility of releasing water treated with ALPS into the sea, out of concern for further contamination of fish and other marine life. Tritium has a half-life of more than 12 years and can cause cancer.
In a surprise move, TEPCO announced this week that it is considering a delay in applying for the restart of reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture, as a result of widespread local opposition to the plan. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is the world’s largest nuclear power plant, with seven reactors, although all are currently idle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Japan’s NRA will start accepting applications for nuclear reactor restarts beginning on July 18, and has estimated that each evaluation will take up to six months. Despite the possible delay, TEPCO is currently working to install filtered vents at reactors #1 and #7.
But that work may be for naught unless Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overrides the wishes of local governments. Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida has flatly refused to grant approval to bring any of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors online again unless the root causes of the Fukushima meltdowns are confirmed. “Verifications of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster should come first,” he said. In addition, Izumida expressed doubts about the safety of filtered vents. “Even though filtered vents are intended to reduce radioactive material emissions, there are inherently designed to emit such materials outside. There’s no way that the utility can win our trust without explaining how it is going to operate them,” he said.
Meanwhile, TEPCO’s own assessments of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant show that fault lines running beneath several of the reactors are likely active, raising the chances that the NRA will deny restarts there even if the utility submits applications. The effect could be devastating for TEPCO, which has long banked on restarting those reactors in an effort once again reach financial solvency.
In other news, TEPCO officials are admitting that they lost personal information belonging to at least 60 victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster who applied for compensation, including 22 whose confidential data was accidentally left on a bus last week by an employee of the company. TEPCO said that so far it does not believe that any of the information was used illegally, including in identity theft, but said that they have not yet been able to contact all of the victims.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
An NRA team spent just one day last week inspecting Kansai Electric’s (KEPCO) Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, but nevertheless has declared reactors #3 and #4 without any “major defect” and will allow them to continue operating until they are due to be shutdown for regular maintenance in September. The two reactors are the only ones currently operating in Japan. The country’s remaining reactors, which remain offline, will need to wait until new NRA safety regulations are formally unveiled on July 18, but the regulator decided to grant an early exception for the Oi reactors in order to keep them online. Still, members of the inspection team pointed out that the reactors’ emergency response headquarters may be too small to accommodate officials if a nuclear disaster occurs, and said that the screen for videoconferencing—possibly the only way that government and utility officials will be able to communicate with workers during a crisis—is too small. In spite of the decision to continue operations there, seismic experts have yet to determine whether or not fault lines running beneath the reactors are active. KEPCO has long been seen as being uncooperative with the NRA, but finally submitted information on recent safety upgrades.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
A new study by The Mainichi Daily News reveals that Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) has passed along to electricity consumers the cost of maintaining 70 residences meant to house workers, in spite of the fact that those units have been unoccupied since 2012. Moreover, the company admitted that it has no plans to fill them at least through 2015. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) approved a request by the company to include the cost of maintaining 250 dormitories and housing units (totaling 5,000 individual residences), including the vacant ones, in a recent rate hike that took effect in May.
Shizuoka Prefecture Governor Heita Kawakatsu was re-elected this weekend, defeating Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate Ichiro Hirose. Kawakatsu has long been cautious about nuclear power, and during the course of the campaign, advocated for a public referendum to determine whether the Prefecture’s Hamaoka power plant should be allowed to restart. Hirose said that the central government, not local residents, should determine whether or not the reactor should be put online. Shizuoka’s win was credited in part to his decision to stand up against power operators during a time when the public largely opposes nuclear power.
The Japanese Red Cross Society has established new guidelines declaring an annual radiation exposure of 1 millisievert per year for its aid workers. That recommendation reflects the annual limit for the public during non-emergency situations. In addition, workers will be required to carry dosimeters to measure radiation levels, and iodine pills to protect their thyroid glands from significant radiation exposure. However, some critics have complained that the 1-millisievert threshold is too low for relief workers and could lead to logistical problems if elderly and disabled people need to be evacuated when the next nuclear disaster occurs. Japanese Red Cross officials responded that each relief squad—which includes one medical practitioner, three nurses, a driver, and one clerical staff member—is generally only onsite for one week or less, and they do not expect that they will be unable to respond to emergencies. “We have created the guideline out of a positive desire to help victims during a nuclear disaster. We will use it as a platform for further improvements if the need arises,” a Red Cross official said.
Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal
Despite recent public promises by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to complete decontamination work in Fukushima Prefecture by March 2014, which would reduce radiation exposure levels there to one millisievert per year or less, Japan’s central government has recently informed municipal officials that they will likely not meet their stated deadline as a result of local opposition to hosting nuclear waste storage sites. Officially, the government is still denying any change to the timeline. Japan’s decontamination schedule is already widely seen as being far behind schedule; more than two years after the nuclear disaster first began to unfold, cleanup efforts have not even begun in 5 of 11 municipalities that have been declared evacuation zones. In Iitate, where work has actually begun, only 1% of homes have been decontaminated. Moreover, the Environment Ministry has told local officials that areas that have already been decontaminated but where radiation levels remain high will not be decontaminated again, raising questions about if or when residents will ever be able to safely return.