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 and Japan’s central government said this week that they plan to begin the process of moving melted fuel from reactors #1 and #2 at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant earlier than expected, although they still believe that decommissioning the facility could take 40 years. Officials offered several timetables, with the earliest calling for fuel removal to begin in fiscal 2020, which would be 18 months earlier than previously announced. However, they acknowledged that the process could begin as late as 2022 for reactor #1 and 2024 for reactor #2. Removal of fuel from rector #3 will take place in fiscal 2021, as planned. The company plans to issue a new decommissioning roadmap later this month, after briefing local municipal authorities and nuclear experts.
Nevertheless, experts caution that the decommissioning process will be difficult, and TEPCO could encounter additional challenges. Radiation levels at the reactors remain astronomically high; humans are still unable to enter the buildings for more than a few minutes, if at all, requiring robots to do the bulk of the work. Unfortunately, engineers are still trying to design appropriate technology after earlier robot prototypes largely failed, breaking or becoming stalled in buildings. Workers have still not been able to determine the exact location of the nuclear fuel, although they know that it melted through the reactor cores. In order to remove the fuel once they find it, they will need to fill containment vessels with water to reduce radiation levels. However, the vessels are riddled with cracks and holes that the company has been unable to diagnose or repair, leading to continuous water leaks.
In other reactor news, TEPCO announced this week that it has finally completed the process of moving 24,000 tons of highly contaminated water from leaking belowground storage pits to newly constructed aboveground steel tanks. The utility first began the process in mid-April after three of seven storage pits began to leak. The company has still not determined the cause of the leaks, although experts say that polyurethane sheets lining the pits were far too thin. TEPCO is currently storing over 300,000 tons of radioactive water, which was used to keep reactors cool, at the plant. That number increases by approximately 400 tons each day, as groundwater seeps into the basements of damaged reactor buildings, mixing with reactor cooling water and becoming contaminated.
Some analysts have called TEPCO’s water storage issue “among the most pressing issues affecting the plant’s cleanup process,” and indeed, the company is running out of room to build new tanks. Right now, TEPCO owns enough tanks to store 700,000 tons of water, and the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has ordered officials to build more tanks to raise capacity to 800,000 tons. However, as water levels continue to rise, the company is trying to come up with new solutions. Recently, officials proposed pumping groundwater up through 12 wells and dumping that water into the sea before it can mix with radioactive water in reactor buildings, but local fishermen expressed reservations about the effect that move might have on seafood sales.
Initially, TEPCO insisted that the groundwater was safe and contained no more radiation than that of nearby rivers and streams. However, officials were forced to retract that statement last week, admitting that they had underestimated background radioactivity when measuring the pumped groundwater. In fact, it contained .61 Bq/liter of radioactive cesium. The new revelations promise to make getting buy-in from fishermen much more difficult.
Indeed, for the second time, TEPCO officials met with representatives from the Soma Futaba Fisheries cooperative, as well as officials from Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, a division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), to discuss releasing the groundwater into the ocean. It did not go well. “We need more explanations,” said Fusayuki Nanbu, head of the fisheries association, explaining the farmers’ increasing distrust in TEPCO and the government. The Fukushima Prefectural Association of Fisheries Cooperatives, of which the Soma Futaba group is a member, will meet to make a formal decision on the issue on June 24.
Meanwhile, TEPCO is still trying to determine why one of the brand-new storage tanks began to leak least week. Previous tanks were constructed by welding, but the company constructed the new ones using bolts in order to save time. Although the leak was small—approximately one liter—analysts are now questioning whether or not it could happen again with other similarly constructed tanks. The company has built 63 tanks using bolts; so far, four have leaked.
After more than two years, TEPCO has finally repaired cooling systems at the Fukushima Daini plant, located less than 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi compound. The systems were destroyed during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and since then, the utility has been relying on a makeshift cooling system to keep three of the four reactors there, which are now offline, from overheating.
TEPCO’s legal troubles continue to mount as yet another group filed suit against it. This time, family members of hospital patients and elderly nursing home residents who died in the process of evacuation, or because staff were unavailable to care for them, are suing the utility for approximately $300,000 each. The families say that they care less about collecting damages and more about learning the root causes of the Fukushima disaster. However, the case could have far-reaching legal implications for TEPCO if it is decided in favor of the plaintiffs. More than 200 people were stuck in hospitals and nursing facilities following the nuclear accident, and 50 of those died.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French Prime Minister Francois Hollande have agreed to cooperate in an effort to jointly develop more nuclear technology, despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power in Japan. Earlier this spring, Abe also signed deals with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The Japan Times, the country’s oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper, released a sharply worded editorial this week criticizing the move. “Mr. Abe’s decision to push forward with nuclear power technology is deplorable, given the damage caused by the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant…[his] decision…represents his cynical disregard for the victims of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Some 150,000 Fukushima residents still cannot return home due to radioactive contamination and many others live in fear of exposure to radiation released by the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant,” the editorial said, adding, “If Japan and France wish to cooperate on nuclear energy, they should focus their efforts on cleaning up the areas contaminated by the Fukushima disaster and decommissioning the damaged reactors.”
Issei Nishikawa, Governor of Fukui Prefecture, met with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera yesterday, in order to formally request a permanent presence in the prefecture by members of the Ground and Maritime Special Defense Forces (SDF). Nishikawa issued the request out of concern that there will be a massive nuclear disaster or terrorist attack targeting nuclear reactors. Fukui Prefecture is home to 14 nuclear reactors, more than any other prefecture in Japan.
Meanwhile, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has admitted that yet another human-caused error occurred during a checkup at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. A worker reportedly accidentally shut off a heater that is used to keep sodium coolant in a liquid state, so that it can be used as a secondary way to keep the reactor cool. The company handbook reportedly contained insufficient information about how to handle the checkup. Temperature of the coolant dropped 40 degrees Celsius, from 200 to 160, but officials said that the coolant would not solidify (and become unusable) until it reached 98 degrees Celsius. The event occurred more than a week ago, but officials failed to notify the public about the event, saying that their “internal rules” deemed it too minor to report, although they did inform the NRA and local officials. Just two weeks ago, the NRA announced that it was effectively shutting the Monju reactor down indefinitely, after the company admitted to failure to perform safety checks on nearly 10,000 pieces of equipment there.
A team of 25 NRA experts, headed by Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa, will perform safety checks on reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture on June 15, in order to determine whether or not they are safe to continue operating over the summer. The Oi reactors are currently the only active ones in Japan; they are scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance in September, in accordance with Japanese law. Although the nation’s other reactors will not be eligible for safety checks until the NRA releases new regulations on July 18, the agency made an exception for the Oi reactors, which have been operating since last July. The investigative team will reportedly examine a back-up power generator and new water pumps, as well as determine whether or not a fault running beneath the reactors is active. In addition, they will determine whether a 108 square meter room designated as the plant’s emergency headquarters is large enough to accommodate adequate staff and equipment in case of a nuclear emergency.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
A non-profit group in Tokyo has begun to offer thyroid checks for children from Fukushima Prefecture, arguing that the examinations offered by the Prefecture are inadequate and do not provide enough feedback to the children and their families. The organization, which was founded by journalist Ryuchi Hirokawa, gave each child a thyroid sonogram, in order to assess his or her health and provide a baseline image that can be referred to in the future. So far, 44 children have been examined; 86 more will be checked next weekend. Recently, 12 children from Fukushima Prefecture were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, although experts caution that it usually take at least four to five years for that cancer to develop. One woman whose daughter has a nodule on her thyroid gland said , “The good news is that we’ve now got such detailed documentation. My husband and I are planning to discuss what to do with it in the future.” “These kinds of tests should be organized by the state or local municipalities, who should not only provide worried parents with detailed feedback, but also do as much as possible to alleviate the financial burden on them,” Hirokawa said.
Farmers who once resided in Iitate, Fukushima but were forced to evacuate because of high radiation levels there returned to their former homes this week, in order to plant seedlings in decontaminated rice paddies. Although the area has been deemed uninhabitable for at least the next five years, the farmers and municipal officials hope that decontaminated efforts will make the land there safe for rice growing. Once the rice is harvested, it will be tested for radiation contamination and then discarded.