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
This week, TEPCO announced yet another leak of radioactive water from a holding tank at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the March 2011 nuclear disaster. This time, the leak affected an aboveground tank that had just been installed. In an ironic twist, TEPCO built the new tank (one of 38 installed in May) specifically to store contaminated water that was previously kept in leaking belowground storage pits. A worker discovered radioactive water dripping from a seam approximately 4 meters from the ground. The tanks are 10 meters high and can hold 500 tons of water. Officials estimate that approximately one liter of water leaked over the course of four hours, and they note that groundwater levels remain below dangerous limits. But the event, one of numerous leaks that have occurred over past months, coupled with several power failures and other equipment breakdowns, once again has experts questioning whether TEPCO has the capacity to handle the ongoing crisis in the upcoming decades.
TEPCO officials are scrambling to find the cause of the leak, which is still unknown. But the company admits that in order to save time, the new tanks were constructed by bolting them together, rather than the previous practice of welding. Some experts are now asking whether that change could have led to the leak, and more significantly, whether it could happen again. TEPCO now has a total of 63 tanks constructed with bolts, and four have leaked so far. Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka noted his concern, saying, “The handling of the contaminated water is an extremely pressing issue. But the ongoing measures are still inadequate and uncertain. We must make sure that the contaminated water storage plans will not fall apart.”
Water storage at the crippled plant has been an increasingly vexing problem for the utility as it struggles to keep damaged fuel at the reactors cool and eventually, decommission the plant, a process expected to take more than 40 years. Recently, TEPCO announced that it planned to pump groundwater from twelve wells located near the reactors, and dump it into the sea. Each day, approximately 400 tons of groundwater seep into the basements of the damaged reactor buildings, mixing with radioactive water there and becoming contaminated. TEPCO officials had hoped to stem that flow, reducing the amount of radioactive water that would need to be stored by 25%. However, local fishermen, worried about how radioactivity might affect their fish, expressed concern and deep distrust about TEPCO, although company officials insisted that contamination levels of water pumped from the wells was no greater than that of nearby rivers and streams flowing into the ocean. Leaders of the local fisheries cooperatives announced that their members would not vote on the issue until June.
Now, that approval seems unlikely. This week, TEPCO was forced to admit that it had underestimated background radioactivity when measuring the pumped groundwater, and in fact, it contained .61 Bq/liter of radioactive cesium. Masakazu Yabuki, head of the fisheries cooperative in Iwaki, said, “Our approval to discharge the groundwater into the sea has certainly taken a step backward.”
For the first time since the March 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima reactors, a team of experts from the NRA inspected the fourth floor of reactor #1 in order to determine whether damage sustained to isolation condensers there was caused by the massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake, or the tsunami that followed it. Isolation condensers help cool steam and turn it into water, which is then used to keep reactors cool. TEPCO has long insisted that damage to the reactors was caused by the tsunami, not the quake, but some experts contest that claim. Workers say that they saw water leaking from the condensers even before the tsunami struck. If earthquake damage was sustained, it could have grave consequences for the nuclear industry nationwide, in a country with more than 2,000 fault lines. Previously, members of a Diet investigative team tried to enter the fourth floor of reactor #1, but were told by TEPCO officials that they could not because the building was “pitch-dark.” In fact, the utility lied; the building was well lit with backup lighting sources.
The NRA investigators were only able to stay for 15 minutes on the current tour, because of exceedingly high radiation levels in the building. After more than two years since the nuclear disaster first began to unfold, radiation there still measures between 20 and 30 millisieverts per hour. The group took photographs and will meet to discuss and analyze their findings this month.
In other news, in the days immediately following the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, TEPCO engineers vastly miscalculated the pressure inside the containment vessel of reactor #2. Although company officials said that they are unable to determine the effects of the error, some analysts say that it may have led to greater amounts of radiation escaping into the atmosphere. The utility did not discover the error for at least a month, and when it did, officials made no announcement about it, instead simply correcting the figures and including them in a large release of data. Most people did not notice the change, although reporters from the Asahi Shimbun asked for an explanation in April 2012 and repeatedly thereafter. A TEPCO official was largely unapologetic when asked about the error, saying, “Workers applied a wrong conversation formula while they were preoccupied with dealing with the accident. We compiled and provided as much information as possible while giving priority to recovery operations at the plant.”
Analysis by the Asahi Shimbun shows that 11,214 evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster have still not applied for all compensation to which they’re entitled. Japanese Civil Code places a three-year statute of limitations on compensation requests; that deadline will run out beginning in September 2014, depending on when the company began accepting paperwork for various claims. Although recent legislation passed by the Diet will allow those who have been unable to settle with TEPCO and have filed mediation claims with the Nuclear Damage Dispute Resolution Center one additional month to submit paperwork, the new law will not affect those who have not even applied.
Many evacuees and municipal officials have complained that the compensation forms required are long, and complicated. Others did not understand that they were required to apply numerous times for different time periods, not just once, as well as separately for emotional distress versus the initial temporary payments that the utility distributed early on. Although TEPCO has said it will honor applications submitted after the deadline, it is not legally required to do so, and many doubt its sincerity in those claims. “TEPCO has taken no positive actions for encouraging people to file claims. It probably wants to minimize the amount of compensation. Administrative bodies should turn to those who have yet to file claims and ask them if they wish to do so,” said Diet member Hiroyuki Arrai, who represents Fukushima Prefecture in the Upper House of Parliament.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan’s annual white paper on the state of the environment for 2013 has notably removed a statement about the damaging effects of nuclear power and radiation contamination. The 2012 paper stated, “An issue for nuclear safety measures is how to define potential risks, since nuclear accidents can cause serious environmental contamination.” The 2012 report also called radiation the nation’s “biggest environmental issue.” But, that phrase has been removed from the most recent report. Ministry officials said that they are “ceding” that discussion to the NRA.
In the meantime, a coalition of more than 90 lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is continuing to push for the restart of reactors across Japan, ignoring widespread public opposition. As part of this plan, some group members have gone so far as to question the legitimacy of the NRA, despite the fact that it was created as an independent entity. They plan to bring the issue up for discussion during the current Diet session, which ends this month. “The Nuclear Regulation Authority has been making demands one after another, but this legislators’ group needs to discuss whether such [safety] demands are necessary from a scientific viewpoint,” said Hiroyuki Hosoda, Executive Acting Secretary General of the LDP. In its platform for the upcoming Upper House elections in July, the LDP stated, “The government will take responsibility for reactivating nuclear reactors.” It did not say whether or not opinions of local residents and municipal leaders would be taken into account, as has been the custom in Japan for decades.
In an effort to reestablish public trust, four members of a panel overseeing a Fukushima prefectural health survey have resigned. Earlier this year, secret meetings conducted by the group, which were designed to synchronize members’ responses and in effect, downplay the effects of radiation on victims of the Fukushima disaster, were uncovered.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
A new report from the NRA shows that more than two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, radiation levels in evacuation zones falling within four categories (including “difficult to return,” “no-residence,” “zone preparing for evacuation orders to be lifted,” and planned evacuation zone”) have only fallen by 40%. Experts attribute the drop to natural decay of radioactive materials and rainfall, which has washed radioactivity from the land and atmosphere and sent it flowing into the ocean.