(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Representatives from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) met with governors of Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures this week, in an effort to convince them to approve of restarting reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in nearby Fukui Prefecture. Both governors refused to grant permission for the restarts. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto used Twitter to spread his strongly worded anti-nuclear message, noting, “Stress tests and safety standards are two different things. The only thing that has happened is that a single investigation has approved a set of theoretical numbers based on a theoretical scenario. The commission said nothing about the safety of the plant.”
In addition, the Union of Kansai Governments and the Fukui Prefectural Assembly have released statements opposing the restart of the Oi reactors, reflecting widespread public suspicion of the government’s assurances that the reactors are safe to operate. The former released a statement that read in part, “Because explanations about the wide-ranging, long-term effects of the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are insufficient, it’s difficult to say there’s an understanding about restarting the Oi reactors.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is scheduled to meet with Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) head Yukio Edano, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono, and Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura as early as next week to discuss restarting the reactors. Currently, 53 of 54 Japanese reactors are offline; the last one, reactor #3 at Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari plant, is scheduled to shut down on May 5. In spite of repeated doomsday cries by the nuclear power industry of widespread blackouts, Japan has experienced neither blackouts nor power loss.
Newly revealed documents show that right before last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) vehemently opposed taking any preventative safety measures at Japanese nuclear plants, out of concern that doing so would negatively impact the reputation of nuclear power in the eyes of the Japanese people, and possibly result in increased costs for upgrades. Recently, documents revealed that NISA also objected to the Nuclear Safety Commission’s (NSC) efforts to increase safety standards at nuclear plants in 2006 because “it would amplify fears about nuclear power.”
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan is banding together with other Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leaders to form a new group that will promote ending reliance on nuclear power in Japan. Kan expects to officially launch the group as early as next week. “Thinking about the future of Japan, why don’t we seek a society that does not rely on nuclear power? This group is intended to properly discuss the time frame for realizing that goal,” Kan said.
NISA has asked the operators of Mihama (KEPCO), Tokai (Japan Atomic Power Co.), Tsuruga (Japan Atomic Power Co.), Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (TEPCO), Shika (Hokuriku Electric), Shimane (Chugoku Electric) and Tomari (Hokkaido Electric) nuclear plants, as well as that of the Monju fast-breeder reactor, to review seismic studies of fault lines near their plants, after new research shows that they may be at greater risk for earthquakes than previously thought. The move is significant, because it could influence the results of stress tests and affect timing of possible restarts.
Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission is studying ways to dispose of spent nuclear fuel as it reviews the nation’s nuclear energy policy. The Commission has proposed three possible outcomes: reprocessing it into so-called mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which would then be used in fast-breeder reactors; burying the waste underground; or storing the spent fuel in above-ground storage facilities, and making the decision in 20 years. Notably, the fast-breeder reactor program, once a cornerstone of the Japanese nuclear cycle, has continually been fraught with costly problems, and many experts believe it will never be successful.
The Mayor of Okuma Town, Toshitsuna Watanabe, has requested that his entire town be declared uninhabitable for the next five years. The majority of the town already lies within the evacuation zone, but Watanabe wants to prevent the town from being split. That request would allow all residents, even those outside of the official no-go zone, to receive compensation.
TEPCO’s corporate customers are fighting back against a proposed 17% rate hike. Almost 90% say that they will not pay the higher rates, which are scheduled to become effective on April 1. Yukio Edano, head of METI, has criticized the utility for not clearly explaining that those firms with existing contracts were not required to pay the new rates until their contracts expired. Many now say that they will not pay the new rates at all, spurring TEPCO to threaten that they may cut off power by the end of May to companies that refuse to pay. Edano has urged TEPCO to avoid making abrupt power cuts, which could take a significant toll on Japanese business. However, METI has no legally binding power over corporate power rates, so TEPCO is under no real obligation to comply.
In spite of its resistance to Edano’s requests, TEPCO has requested an additional one trillion yen ($12 billion) injection of public funds to help keep the company afloat, as well as an extra 846 billion yen ($10 billion) to cover additional compensation due to victims of the Fukushima disaster. Edano is responsible for granting approval for the request. If he does so, the Japanese public will have given TEPCO more than $40 billion. TEPCO President Toshio Nishizawa admitted, “If this situation continues, there is a real possibility that we will become insolvent. I am painfully aware that our situation is extremely dire.”
Edano is encouraging TEPCO and the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund submit a new business plan by this Saturday, March 31. However, TEPCO is reportedly threatening to delay that process, because they are struggling to find a replacement for Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata in the wake of increasing anti-nuclear sentiment after the Fukushima disaster. A source quoted by Reuters noted, “Heading TEPCO was difficult even before this problem because of nuclear issues and anti-nuclear movements. With issues such as nuclear power plants and electricity rate hikes, there aren’t people who really want to take the job.”
State of the Reactors
New tests performed on reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant show that conditions are far more dire than previously thought. In addition to discovering that water levels in the containment vessel are only 60 cm, as opposed to three meters, TEPCO detected fatally high radiation levels measuring 72,900 millisieverts per hour: enough to kill a person after being exposed for just seven minutes. The new revelations mean that decommissioning the reactors, which TEPCO previously estimated would take 30 to 40 years, may now take even longer. Company officials say that they will need to develop new equipment, since the soaring radiation levels will quickly destroy robots and endoscopes currently being used. Conditions in reactor #1 (where radiation levels may be even higher, as experts believe that more fuel melted and breached the reactor’s core) and reactor #3 remain unknown, because TEPCO has no way to safely examine them.
The situation is leading many experts to question TEPCO’s and the government’s assertion in December that the Fukushima Daiichi plant is “under control” and in cold shutdown status. Some fear that with water levels so low, melted fuel could soon become exposed and is in danger of reheating and once again melting down. Should that happen, increasing pressure could cause another explosion, allowing lethal levels of radiation to escape into the atmosphere. TEPCO continues to pump nine tons of water an hour into the reactor, but a large number of leaks is making it difficult to maintain adequate water levels. Kazuhiko Kudo, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyushu University, noted, “The plant is still in a precarious state. Unfortunately, all we can do is to keep pumping water inside the reactors and hope we don’t have another big earthquake.”
TEPCO reported yet another leak of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, announcing that 120 tons of waste water containing radioactive strontium had leaked from pipes, and approximately 80 liters of that had run into the ocean. Beta particles in ocean water measured .25 Bq/cm3. If it enters the food chain, radioactive strontium, which has a half-life of 29 years, can accumulate in bones and cause leukemia and bone cancer.
Japan’s Fisheries Agency and researchers from the Marine Ecology Research Institute (MERI) are reporting that high levels of radioactive cesium has been discovered in flounder, dark banded rockfish, fat greenling, and other bottom-feeding fish. The results reveal that that radioactive substances are sinking to the ocean floor and may continue to move up through the food chain, as sea life consumes contaminated plankton. In January, cesium in samples taken from the ocean floor 30 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant measured as high as 4,100 Bq/kg. Radioactivity continues to leak from the Fukushima plant into the sea, and decontamination efforts around Japan mean that radioactivity is pouring into rovers and streams, which feed into the ocean. MERI scientist Jun Misonoo cautioned, “We should investigate the contamination’s dispersion in greater detail and observe it for the next 10 years.”
New tests performed in 15 areas of 11 municipalities near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reveal continuing high levels of radioactivity, in spite of ongoing efforts to decontaminate. Some areas measured up to 5 micro sieverts per hour, which exceeds the government threshold for evacuation (which is set at 3.8 microsievert/hour, an equivalent of 20 millisievert annually).
Bamboo shoots harvested in Chiba Prefecture, approximately 200 km from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, are contaminated with as much as two and a half times the legally permissible amount of radioactive cesium. Prefectural officials are currently asking farmers in the area to refrain from shipping the shoots.
Miyagi Prefectural officials and the fisheries cooperative there are asking fishermen to refrain from catching fish, after samples of three types of fish, including sea bass, were found to contain up to 360 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium over the past two months.
New standards for radioactivity in foods established by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare are slated to go into effect on April 1, lowering the limits for cesium contamination in foods to 100 Bq/kg for standard foods like beef, rice, and vegetables (down from 500 Bq/kg); 50 Bq/kg for milk products and baby food (down from 200 Bq/kg) and 10 Bg/kg for drinking water (down from 200 Bq/kg). Some municipalities are expressing concern that their equipment will not be able to adequately handle the new testing requirements.
A new survey shows that a majority of major municipalities in Japan—44 of 74—have begun to test school lunches for cesium contamination, out of fears of radiation.
TEPCO will begin studying fish and seashells within a 20 km radius of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in an effort to measure radiation contamination.
Other Nuclear News
In a huge victory for the anti-nuclear movement, Bulgaria announced this week that it will abandon plans to build the Belene nuclear power plant. Anti-nuclear demonstrators and organizations, including Greenpeace, have been protesting the plant since the 1980s.
In addition, German companies RWE and E.on announced they will no longer underwrite the $23.8 billion price tag for the Horizon Nuclear Power project in the United Kingdom, which would have built two new nuclear reactors.