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
In yet another embarrassment for TEPCO, the utility announced this week that it has discovered two more leaks at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This time, the leaks occurred in a desalination system designed to remove salt from cooling water that is poured over the crippled reactors there as well as in the plant’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which is used to filter out a majority of radioactive materials from cooling water, including strontium-90, but not tritium. At the desalination system, a worker screwed a flow meter cap on too tightly, cracking it and leading to the leak. An alarm was triggered, but not before a significant amount of water had poured out. Officials initially said that 360 liters of exceedingly radioactive water leaked, although they changed that estimate to 250 liters. Radiation levels in the water measured 26 million Bq/liter of radioactive strontium-90, along with other nuclides. That level is astronomically high and nearly that of untreated contaminated water at the plant. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.8 years and can accumulate in human bones, causing cancer. Officials insist that no water left the facility and said that monitoring equipment on the compound showed “no significant change” in atmospheric radiation levels. This is the eleventh time that TEPCO has reported a leak from the desalination system.
At the ALPS system, workers blamed the leak on a fracture in the system’s storage tank. This is the second time in two weeks that radioactive water has leaked from the system, and probably means that a test run scheduled for the end of July will be delayed.
Attorneys from TEPCO are in the process of trying to get charges dropped in a case filed against the utility by US sailors and others who were exposed to high levels of radiation in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The case, which is being tried in Los Angeles, is unusual in that although the plaintiffs are suing for, among other things, a $1 billion fund to cover long-term medical exams and possible treatment, the overall damages are not currently capped. The US sailors involved were part of “Operation Tomodachi,” a relief effort designed to assist victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in the first days after the crisis began. TEPCO is arguing that the approximately 50 plaintiffs have not established that their health issues are a result of radiation exposure, and says that the case should be tried in Japan, not the US.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Nuclear power companies are reportedly preparing optimistic announcements for shareholders’ meetings scheduled for later this week on June 26, saying that reactors will go online soon after July 8, when the government begins to accept applications for restarts. However, many experts say that those reports are unrealistic and misleading. In fact, the NRA has said that reactor assessments will take approximately six months, and analysts believe it is unlikely that any reactors will be restarted before the end of the year, or even early next year. Several of Japan’s reactors sit on fault lines that experts suspect are active and have moved within the last 400,000 years; if they are correct, those reactors would be forced to shut down. Energy analyst Tom O’Sullivan estimates that upgrades to Japan’s nuclear power plants will cost at least $12 billion dollars, even as the industry overall has lost $16 billion over the past fiscal year while working to maintain nuclear reactors that are not producing power. Nuclear power is not the bargain that the industry once said it was.
Moreover, local authorities will need to grant their approval to bring plants back online, a task that promises to be an uphill battle in many cases. Mycle Schneider, an independent energy analyst based in Paris, notes, “Utilities cannot be optimists at all about restarts, because their need for restarts is confronted with the NRA’s need to show that the are tough, in order to gain credibility with the public.”
The new NRA rules have the potential to makes a significant difference in Japan. For the first time, utilities will be required to prepare reactors to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. In the past, it was up to operators to determine whether or not to install protections against threats, rather than the government, because Japan has long held that reactors were immune to such disasters. The Fukushima crisis proved that notion wrong. The legal deadline for announcement of the regulations is July 18, but the NRA released them last week after bowing to pressure from the nuclear industry.
Initially, four companies are expected to apply to bring a total of twelve reactors online; all are pressurized water reactors (PWRs), which have been granted a five-year grace period before being required to install filtered vents. In addition, TEPCO has indicated that it may apply to restart two reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, but those are boiling water reactors (BWRs), which cannot be restarted according to the new rules until filtered vents have been installed, a lengthy and expensive process. Although restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors is an integral part of TEPCO’s plan to once again become financially solvent, experts say that it is unlikely that the reactors there will start anytime soon. Niigata’s governor, Hirohiko Izumida, has flatly stated that he will not grant approval for restarts until the root causes of the Fukushima disaster are exposed. And, he has said that he wants to personally approve the ventilation system installation. “Unless trustful relations with TEPCO are built, I won’t give my approval,” he said.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) is once again in the hot seat after admitting to the NRA this week that it has neglected to perform safety inspections on an additional 2,300 pieces of equipment at its beleaguered Monju fast-breeder reactor, located in Fukui Prefecture. Just last month, the NRA declared Monju ineligible for restart until JAEA significantly improves its safety culture and systems, following a disclosure at the end of last year that it had skipped safety checks on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of it critical to the reactor’s safe operation.
A new survey by The Yomiuri Shimbun reveals that students in Japan are shying away from studying nuclear power, both because they fear the industry has no future and because of the stigma of working with nuclear power. The decline in nuclear scholars could have serious impact on the industry in Japan and worldwide; even if nuclear power declines over the next several decades, existing reactors will still require nuclear specialists to aid in decommissioning and with potential disasters and meltdowns. The study looked at undergraduate and graduate programs at seven universities across Japan. One official from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) said, “The chronic suspension of nuclear power plants and the uncertain future of the nuclear industry has affected both students and companies.”
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
A new survey of popular food items conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare shows that more than two years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the average annual dose of radioactive cesium consumed in meals from central areas of Fukushima Prefecture has dropped to 0.0038 millisieverts per year. That amount is one-fifth of the previous year’s average, which was 0.0193 millisieverts. The government recommends that residents not be exposed to more than 1 millisievert per year. Ministry officials tested rice, fish and other seafood, as well as processed items.
Some officials in Fukushima Prefecture are requesting that the government perform a second round of decontamination for many areas in the prefecture, after recent surveys show that radiation levels there still exceed safe limits. So far, the government has not been responsive.