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’s water woes heated up this week, as the company admitted that levels of radioactive tritium in samples of ocean water near intakes at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have tripled since June 10, and are the highest ever recorded there as a result of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Previously, 910 Bq/liter was the highest ocean radiation level reported, taken from samples gathered in October 2011. Although TEPCO is continuing to investigate the cause of the radiation rise, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has gone on record saying that it must assume that highly radioactive water is leaking from the Fukushima plant, and has ordered TEPCO to take immediate action and not wait until the source of the leak is confirmed. Engineers suspect that radioactive materials entered soil near the reactors immediately following the 2011 disaster and later seeped into groundwater that entered a well located between reactors #1 and #2. They now think that contaminated water has also collected inside a wall designed to prevent leaking water from spreading, sparking the latest rise. “It is strongly suspected that contaminated water is leaking into the sea. It is very dangerous to deal with the situation based on a presumption that water is not leaking,” said NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa. Utility officials plan to inject waterproof liquid glass into the ground to help stem the flow of water into the sea, and also plan to dig more wells and install radiation-monitoring equipment to further assess environmental damage.
Tritium levels of seawater samples collected on June 26 from areas north of the water intakes for reactors #1, #2, #3, and #4 measured 1,500 Bq/liter, three times the readings from June 10, which were just 500 Bq/liter and 15 times greater than levels from the previous year, which hovered between 100 and 200 Bq/liter. On June 21, the amount of tritium from the same area measured 1,100 Bq/liter; the June 26 readings signal a 37% increase in just five days. Although current tritium levels remain below government-established limits of 60,000 B/liter, water from the well between reactors #1 and #2 measured 500,000 Bq/liter in May, raising fears that contamination levels could rise rapidly. The utility did note that levels for samples collected between reactors #1 and #2 had dropped to 420 Bq/liter—half of what had been measured a week earlier—but other levels remained the same.
TEPCO officials report that cesium in the water remains low, but they are continuing to test for strontium-90, which could have a far greater impact on the health of sea life and humans if it enters the food chain. Strontium-90, which has a half-life of 28.8 years and can accumulate in human bones and cause cancer, was also present in the well near reactors #1 and #2.
The government is once again funneling taxpayer funds to pay for compensation to victims of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This time, it will inject 660 billion yen ($6.6 billion) into the company. So far, the Fukushima disaster has cost Japanese taxpayers $38 billion, but that amount is expected to increase considerably. The money was requested by TEPCO and the state-run Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund.
Nine Japanese utilities, including TEPCO, conducted annual shareholder meetings this week, meeting with anger from some attendees. At the TEPCO meeting, which lasted almost four hours, activists from Greenpeace dressed as casino dealers to symbolize the safety gambles involved in nuclear power. “Nuclear power is a dangerous gamble,” warned Yuki Sekimoto, spokesperson for Greenpeace Japan. But, the anti-nuclear proposals presented by a group of 450 people were voted down. Nevertheless, many shareholders expressed anger at the company, which has had three consecutive years of losses and plummeting stock prices, and is now effectively under state control and paying no dividends to shareholders. Significantly, company officials said that they plan to apply to restart two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, despite widespread local opposition to the plan and a promise from Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida to veto any restarts until the root causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are uncovered. That process could take years.
Meanwhile, TEPCO’s own data shows that almost all of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors sit on active faults, which would make them illegal to operate under Japanese law. TEPCO has not yet made a decision to decommission the Fukushima Daini reactors, which are located less than 10 km of the failed Fukushima Daiichi plant. Local residents, many of whom still have not been able to return to their homes more than two and a half years after the crisis first began, are vehemently opposed to restarting those reactors. “You all shouldn’t be sitting on a stage, but should be at the unemployment office or wandering around some park,” complained one shareholder. Another said, “TEPCO should just shut down. If we have another Fukushima, Japan will not survive.”
TEPCO is refusing a proposal by the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund to pay 500,000 yen (approximately $5,000)—those who were pregnant or younger than 18 at the time of the meltdowns would receive an additional 500,000 yen— to 190 residents of Iitate who were exposed to radiation in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, after the government waited more than a month to evacuate the Nagadoro District. That area is still considered uninhabitable because of excessive radiation levels. Residents are claiming emotional distress from worrying about the effects the exposure will have on their long-term health, and that of their children. The refusal comes despite a promise made by TEPCO in 2012 via a business plan submitted to the central government, stating that it would abide by recommendations from the Fund. TEPCO’s lawyers admitted that officials are worried that other victims who have suffered emotional distress could come forward and sue the company, and indeed, 110 residents from the nearby Warabidaira district in Iitate have filed suit against TEPCO for similar claims. “Children in the district will have to live with anxiety stemming from radiation exposure for many years to come. Does TEPCO understand that?” asked Nagadoro District Chief Yoshitomo Shigihara.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
A government white paper on science and technology for 2013 released by the Cabinet admits that safety culture and management at Japanese nuclear power plants is both inadequate and flawed. In particular, it points to recent incidents at the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC). Both are operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). At the Monju reactor, JAEA failed to perform safety checks on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of it critical to the reactor’s operation; just this week, officials said that they had neglected to perform checks on an additional 2,300 pieces of equipment. The NRA has ordered the Monju reactor ineligible for restart until the situation is resolved. “[These incidents] reflect a lack of both safety awareness and a sufficient safety management system on the part of operators of facilities that deal with the country’s energy and nuclear policies in mind,” the paper said.
Twenty assemblies of MOX fuel from France arrived at the port near Kansai Electric’s (KEPCO) Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture yesterday. Mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, is made from spent nuclear fuel and contains plutonium. Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan had begun to use it in some light water reactors for plutonium-thermal (or pluthermal) power generation, as part of the country’s nuclear fuel recycling program once the Monju fast-breeder reactor proved unviable. Spent fuel rods are sent to Japan for reprocessing, and since the disaster, France has been pushing for Japan to take the fuel back. KEPCO plans to apply to the NRA for restart of the Takahama reactors in July, and said it will begin using the MOX fuel in Autumn 2014. Approximately 100 anti-nuclear activists protested the arrival of the fuel. Many experts have criticized pluthermal fuel production as being too expensive and inefficient. In addition, international forces are criticizing Japan for stockpiling plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear-grade weapons. Four anti-nuclear organizations submitted a petition to KEPCO, which read in part, “For the utilities, the costs of manufacturing, transporting, burning, and then disposing of spent MOX fuel are many times greater than the costs of using conventional uranium. In the extreme economic conditions of recent years, we question this method at a time when we’re told electricity costs will rise.”
Members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet in Vienna from July 1 through July 5 to discuss cyber-security issues. It’s the first time that IAEA has held a nuclear cyber-security conference. A draft declaration obtained by Kyodo News reads, “[Members] remain concerned about the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism and other malicious acts or sabotage related to facilities and activities involving nuclear and other radioactive material.” Organizers expect participants from more than 100 countries to attend.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Officials from Fukushima Prefecture and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) have revealed that they released inaccurate personal radiation exposure estimates to more than 16,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture. They are blaming the error on a computer glitch. Of those, 12,469 people were given readings that underestimated the amount of radiation they received, by up to .4 millisieverts. In some cases, the updated readings show that residents received more than the annual government limit of one millisievert. Prefectural officials insist that the errors will have little effect on people’s health but are nevertheless mailing out new estimates to those affected. Fukushima Prefecture has approximately two million residents, but so far, more than two years after the nuclear disaster began to unfold, exposure levels for only 420,000 have been calculated.
In other radiation news, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has created a system that estimates fallout patterns for radioactive iodine-131 during the days following the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Because iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days, those patterns were previously difficult to assess. The new system uses atmospheric radiation data collected by US Department of Energy planes that flew over Japan in March 2011. The data shows that iodone-131 exceeded three million Bq/square meter both within a 5 km radius of the plant, as well as 20 km northwest of the facility, affecting Katsurao and Namie Town. Those fallout patterns match those of other radioactive nuclides. Iodine-131 can lodge in the thyroid gland, causing cancer; children are particularly susceptible. So far, 12 cases of thyroid cancer have emerged, and 15 more cases are suspected, but experts caution that thyroid cancer generally takes several years to appear.