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
Highlighting renewed security concerns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, officials from TEPCO admitted that a worker wilfully drove a highly contaminated cement truck out of the compound and to the town of Naraha, despite being aware that the vehicle was radioactive. He returned an hour and ten minutes later, after picking up concrete at a factory there. The limit for vehicles to leave the plant is 13,000 counts per minute (CPM), but the truck measured 22,000 CPM. Officials did not clarify why the man intentionally violated established guidelines or why he was not stopped at the gates.
TEPCO has found more highly radioactive water at its Fukushima Daiichi plant this weekend, this time in a well located just 6 meters from the ocean. The discovery galvanizes experts’ suspicions that contamination water is seeping into the sea. Officials reported that the water contained 3,000 Bq/liter of radioactive substances, including strontium-90. The legal limit is just 30 Bq/liter. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.8 years and can accumulate in human bones, causing cancer. TEPCO is continuing to investigate the cause of the contamination, but believes that strontium and tritium, another radioactive substance, entered the soil immediately following the March 2011 meltdowns, and later contaminated nearby groundwater. They have not been able to clarify why the levels have begun to rise precipitously within the last month.
In other water news, TEPCO has finally transferred all contaminated water from seven belowground storage pits, four of which were found to be leaking in April and May. Workers completed transfer of the most highly radioactive water to stainless steel aboveground tanks on June 11, and finished moving the last 3,000 tons of water this week.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) have begun work on creating new technology to measure the amount of uranium and plutonium contained in melted fuel sitting in the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, after signing an agreement to do so late last year. The project team was formed after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ordered Japan to determine the amount of nuclear substances in the melted fuel, in an effort to ensure that none of it is diverted for use in making nuclear weapons. The team hopes to develop the technology within the next two and a half years, and begin testing it by 2019.
TEPCO’s efforts to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture encountered yet another challenge this week, after Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida once again forcefully objected to the plan. Izumida has criticized the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for failing to include local representatives in its decision process: “Nobody familiar with local government administration is on the panel. Such an absurd stance is unheard of,” he said. In addition, Izumida has questioned the agency’s ability to effectively monitor the safety of Japan’s reactors without having determined the root causes of the Fukushima meltdowns. TEPCO needs to restart at least some of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa to return to solvency, but unless the central government overrides local authority, that appears unlikely. “Even if the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant run by TEPCO meets new safety requirements set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, it won’t mean its safety is guaranteed…Before [restarting the reactors], the government must get to the bottom of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The NRA standards alone won’t ensure the safety of prefectural residents,” he noted.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) has submitted a report to the NRA claiming that a fault line running beneath reactors #3 and #4 at its Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture is not active. The Oi reactors are the only ones currently producing nuclear power in Japan. KEPCO officials said that the fault has not moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years. However, a panel of NRA experts has met twice over the last year, with members sharply divided on the issue; half believe that the fault is, in fact, active. In addition, new NRA safety regulations that go into effect on July 8 will tighten seismic requirements, redefining an “active fault” as any that has moved within the last 400,000 years. Despite the fact that the NRA has been unable to determine whether or not the reactors are at risk of a major earthquake, the agency is allowing them to continue to operate until September, when they will automatically go offline for routine maintenance. NRA officials said that they will continue to investigate whether or not the fault is active. (Source: NHK)
A new exposè by The Asahi Shimbun reveals that government funds that were supposed to be devoted to earthquake recovery have instead been paid to Chubu Electric, to underwrite the cost of maintaining idle nuclear reactors at its Hamaoka power plant and specifically, “to facilitate thermal power generation.” A total of 10 billion yen, raised through recovery surtaxes, was paid to Chubu in fiscal 2011. In essence, nuclear power is even more expensive than it seems; Chubu consumers have been forced to absorb both rate increases and taxpayer subsidies. Asahi reports that all of Japan’s nuclear power providers are eligible for such subsidies, but so far, only Chubu has requested funding. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) is defending the payments to the utility, saying that the Hamaoka plant was forced to go offline at the request of the central government.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Despite establishing a policy that says that evacuees cannot return to areas contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster until radiation levels fall below 1 millisievert per year, or .23 microsieverts per hour, Japan’s central government is apparently now backtracking and leaving residents to fend for themselves. Environment Ministry officials reportedly told them to return home by the Bon holiday (in mid-August) and take responsibility for measuring their own radiation exposure levels, even though contamination levels in the area still exceed the annual limit.
The announcement came during a meeting between government officials and residents from the city of Tamura. The government attempted to decontaminate the city, but like many areas affected by the Fukushima disaster, their efforts were ineffective. Radiation levels there remain high, between .32 and .54 microsieverts per hour. Residents at the meeting requested that the Environment Ministry continue decontamination efforts until levels drop, but officials refused. Instead, one official said, “We will offer you a new type of dosimeter, because we want you to check your exposure to radiation yourselves.” Later, the Environment Ministry tried to deny the fact that its officials denied the residents’ request, apparently unaware that the proceedings had been audiotaped and given to media outlets.