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 said this week that it has discovered high levels of radioactive strontium-90 and tritium in a well located just 27 meters from the Pacific Ocean, and was forced to admit that it sat on the information for nearly a month before revealing the news to the public. The new evidence confirms that groundwater near the Fukushima Daiichi #1 and #2 nuclear reactors is highly radioactive, but officials said that they do not believe that the contamination has reached the ocean yet. Samples contained 1,000 Bq/liter of strontium-90, which has a half-life of 28.8 years and can lodge in human bones and lead to cancer if it enters the food chain and is ingested. That level is 33 times the legal limit, and is 100 times higher than measurements of the same water collected in December, which showed just 8.6 Bq/liter.
Workers also discovered 500,000 Bq/liter of tritium, which has also been linked to increases in cancer and which has a half-life of 12.3 years. The tritium level exceeds the legal limit by 8.3 times; water collected in December contained only 29,000 Bq/liter of tritium. Four wells were originally dug there at the end of 2012 to measure radiation levels in groundwater; they are separate from 12 other wells currently being built to divert groundwater from flooding basements of the reactor buildings.
TEPCO is still unable to determine the exact cause of the contamination, but experts believe that it is probably linked to a leak of highly radioactive water that flowed from a damaged storage pit connected to an intake system at reactor #2 in April 2011. Radioactive contaminants from that spill remain in the soil, and have apparently now seeped into the well. TEPCO said this week that radiation levels of ocean water collected near the #2 reactor have not increased. Workers will inject waterproof liquid glass, which officials hope will act as a sealing agent, into the ground near the wells and will reinforce ocean embankments, in an effort to prevent contaminated water from seeping into the sea. The process will begin within a few weeks and take approximately three months to complete. Meanwhile, officials plan to dig four more wells and install monitoring posts there to determine if the problem is worsening.
The company is now admitting that workers first discovered the highly radioactive water on May 24, but senior plant officials were reportedly not informed until May 31; they took until June 11 to tell the company’s top-level executives. Then, TEPCO still waited until June 19 to make the information public. As in the many other instances where TEPCO failed to disclose mishaps and other reactor issues in a timely manner, officials are now belatedly apologizing.
The discovery is certain to create more obstacles for TEPCO, which is dealing with a growing radioactive water storage crisis. Each day, approximately 400 tons of groundwater pour into cracks in the reactor building basements, mixing with highly radioactive water used to cool the reactors and subsequently becoming contaminated. That water then needs to be stored. Officials had hoped to pump groundwater from 12 wells on the other side of the plant before it became contaminated, releasing at least 100 tons of it into the ocean each day in order to ease the storage crisis. However, members of local fisheries cooperatives have been skeptical of TEPCO’s assurances that the water is safe, and are worried about the effect such a move would have on their livelihoods. The fishing industry in Fukushima has been largely decimated by the nuclear crisis. Kazunori Endo, a member of the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative, summed up the growing distrust in TEPCO: “The problem is that the scandals crop up one after another.”
In other news, TEPCO officials reported that workers have discovered two small holes in a welded area of a holding tank in the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which they believe led to last week’s leak of highly radioactive water. The system, which is designed to filter most radioactivity from water being used to cool the crippled reactors, remains shut down while the investigation continues. (Source: NHK)
TEPCO is once again under fire for failure to pay adequate compensation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster to Fukushima prefectural and local governments that were forced to shoulder costs of damage, decontamination, evacuation, and other losses. As of April 30, those expenses total 46.64 billion yen, but TEPCO has only paid 5.2 billion yen. Now, some local leaders are threatening to sue, complaining that the utility has been unresponsive to their repeated requests for payment. “No matter what we say, we get no reply,” said Takanori Seto, the mayor of Fukushima City. “We’ll file a lawsuit.” A city official in Nihonmatsu lamented, “TEPCO lacks a sense of wrongdoing.”
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) formally approved a new set of safety rules for nuclear reactors this week. They will formally be unveiled on July 8. The legal deadline for release of the new regulations was July 18, but power companies, which continue to lose money while reactors are offline, have been exerting steady political pressure on the government and NRA to release them sooner. NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka acknowledged that the agency will be under close watch, and that there may be disagreements once the investigations begin. “I think we have created a system that can be regarded as quite proper internationally, but its real value will be questioned during the screening process,” Tanaka said, adding, “There will be clashes between the NRA and power operators over the screening outcomes.”
The new regulations will require power operators to take precautions against earthquakes, tsunamis, fire, and terrorist attacks. Before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, the government allowed the nuclear industry to implement many safety measures on a voluntary basis, assuming that major natural disasters would never affect nuclear reactors. Now, boiling water reactors (BWRs) will be required to install filtered vents to prevent massive releases of radioactivity into the atmosphere, as happened at Fukushima. Pressurized water reactors (PWRs) will have a five-year grace period to complete filtered vent installation. The Fukushima reactors, which suffered three separate nuclear meltdowns in March 2011, are BWRs.
In addition, plants will be required to have a separate, earthquake-proof emergency control room from which central operations can take place when a nuclear disaster occurs. Power cables must be non-flammable. The NRA has asked utilities to calculate the largest possible tsunami that can hit the plant and construct a higher break wall, although that will be useless if the tsunami exceeds their calculations. Reactors built on seismic faults that have moved within the past 400,000 years will not be allowed to operate.
Four power companies will submit applications as soon as possible in order to restart 12 reactors at six of their plants: reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture; reactors #3 and #4 at the Takahama power plant, also operated by Kansai Electric in Fukui Prefecture; reactors #1, #2, and #3 at Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture; reactor #3 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture; reactors #3 and #4 at Kyushu Electric’s Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture; and reactors #1 and #2 at Kyushu’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. All 12 reactors are PWRs. The Oi reactors are the only nuclear reactors currently operating in Japan, but they will they go offline in September when they will be due for standard safety checks. The NRA has said that because of staff shortages, the safety surveys could take up to six months to complete, although they will work in three teams and may be able to investigate as many as three reactors at a time.
So far, only one of those plants contains an adequate, earthquake and tsunami-proof emergency support center; the remaining plants will use makeshift facilities until they can construct permanent emergency control centers. Installing filtered vents can cost billions of yen, and the overall cost of upgrading just these 12 reactors is estimated to top a trillion yen. The massive upgrades required are once again prompting some to question regarding whether or not nuclear power is worth it, compared to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, both of which are safer and less damaging to the environment.
Some municipal and anti-nuclear critics are voicing concern over the new regulatory system. “I can hardly believe that lessons were learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said Niigata Prefecture’s Governor Hirohiko Isumida, who has said that he will not approve a restart of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant there until the root causes of the Fukushima crisis are uncovered, a process that could take years because of continuing high radiation levels at the Fukushima plant. Harutoshi Funabashi, head of The Citizen’s Commission on Nuclear Energy, cautioned, “The new regulations have been pushed through under political pressure, and are questionable on so many points.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said this week that if the NRA determines that reactors are safe to restart, the central government will “honor” that assessment and move forward with bringing them back online. Although Abe added that the government will make every effort to “gain understanding and cooperation” of local municipal leaders, his language has subtly changed over past months, leading many analysts to question whether or not he plans to override local residents who do not feel safe having nuclear reactors in their backyards, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Abe has been under considerable pressure to improve the economic situation in Japan, as well as to appease the powerful nuclear industry, and is clearly focusing on the bottom line. “The tragedy that hit Fukushima has yet to end,” he said. “I can’t sit still when I think of the difficulties the victims have been facing. But we should change the greatest crisis [of post-war Japan] into an opportunity to reform the energy market…Japan, which has led the way in [nuclear technology] will not choose a way to retreat in the face of the March 2011 meltdowns.” Abe made the remarks in London, after attending a G-8 summit in Ireland. (Source: NHK)
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Sanae Takaichi, Chairwoman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Research Council, has apologized after saying earlier this week that the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused no deaths—although her apology seemed to lay blame on the residents of Fukushima for the way they interpreted her statement. “It was regrettable if people in Fukushima Prefecture felt bitter and were angry,” she said. In fact, her remarks elicited considerable anger because of the number of people who died during massive evacuations. “Some people died due to stress during their prolonged stays at evacuation centers. It was undoubtedly caused by the nuclear accident,” said Goshi Hosono, who was Nuclear Disaster Minister under former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Hosono is now Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Mizuho Fukushima, head of Japan’s Social Democratic Party, said, “The LDP, which has promoted nuclear power, is most responsible for the Fukushima accident. [Takaichi’s] remark is outrageous. She should resign her post as policy chief.” As a result of the Fukushima disaster, 160,000 people are still unable to return to their homes because of ongoing dangerously high radiation levels.
Even members of Takaichi’s party are stepping back, going so far as to say that she should limit public appearances until the Upper House elections next month. “With many prefectural citizens having died during the evacuation, their relatives are heartbroken. Takaichi’s remark was truly regrettable,” said Takao Hiraide, Secretary General of the Fukushima Prefectural Chapter of the LDP, which filed a formal protest.
Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) are adopting a new policy for dealing with nuclear disasters. Rather than waiting until radiation or a meltdown is detected at a nuclear reactor, as was done in the past, troops will be put on alert immediately following an earthquake measuring 5 or greater on the Japanese seismic scale, or if a tsunami alert is issued. In addition, SDF forces will now oversee evacuation of residents living within 30 km of a nuclear plant.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff plans to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next week in Tokyo to discuss exporting Japanese nuclear technology and equipment to Brazil. Abe has made a number of agreements with foreign leaders lately, in an effort to push the export of nuclear technology, despite the fact that nearly 60% of Japan’s population opposes doing so. Recently, Abe signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey, and has since reached out to India. Brazil already has two nuclear reactors but is looking to build more.