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 announced yet another leak on Friday, this time from a tank holding treated water near reactors number 5 and 6 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The 27 cubic meters of spilled water had already been absorbed into the ground, but officials said that radiation was below detectable levels. After a valve was closed, the leak stopped.
But, the next day, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck approximately 50 km from the plant. TEPCO initially reported that there was no damage, but then said that an additional leak of four liters had occurred in the wake of the quake. Officials believe that because the tank was filled to capacity, water sloshed out. They plan to move some of the water from that tank to another storage area.
TEPCO reportedly plans to submit applications to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to restart reactors #1 and #7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture a few weeks after the agency begins to accept them on July 19, although company officials are currently denying those claims. If so, the move will come despite widespread local opposition and the fact that both of those reactors are built on fault lines that are most likely active. A year ago, TEPCO submitted a business plan to the government that included plans to restart all seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant by this April. That goal was never realized. Now, although the NRA has said that it will only perform safety inspections at three reactors at a time, TEPCO is hoping that its reactors will be among the first. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors are boiling water reactors (BWRs), the same as those that experienced meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Company officials say that they are working on installing filtered vents, newly-required for BWRs, in time for the NRA inspections. “We’re willing to spend any amount of money on safety measures [to ensure the restarts], even though our finances are tight,” one official said. Meanwhile, the company admitted last November that costs for compensation to victims, decommissioning of the reactors, and decontamination could top 10 trillion yen. The government has already allocated 5 trillion yen to prevent TEPCO from going under.
However, most analysts believe that restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors will be an uphill battle. More than two years after the triple meltdown that destroyed several reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, tens of thousands of residents are still unable to return to their homes because of high radiation levels. The governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, flatly declared that he won’t consider granting approval to bring the reactors online again until the root causes of the Fukushima disaster have been determined. “We won’t discuss resuming operations of the reactors until results of the review into the crisis at the Fukushima #1 plan are presented,” he said. While Kariwa Mayor Hiroo Shinada has said he will approve the restarts if the NRA declares the reactors safe for operation, Kashiwazaki Mayor Hiroshi Aida has been vocal and direct about his concerns: “The situation’s not up for discussion now, as new safety standards have yet to be introduced.”
Moreover, despite its current optimism, TEPCO may never get the chance to try to win local municipal approval. The utility’s own seismic studies show movement within the last 200,000 to 330,000 years in fault lines running beneath both reactor #1 and #7, as well as #2, #3, #5, and #6. Although current law prevents building reactors over faults that have moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years, the NRA plans to unroll new seismic guidelines in July, which will change the definition of an active fault to any which has shown movement within the last 400,000 years.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan is continuing to promote nuclear sales to other countries, despite the fact that all 50 of that nation’s reactors are idled in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed nuclear technology agreements leaders from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey, and he will reportedly meet with Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, at the end of the month. That move is certain to engender criticism; India has not yet signed the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Toshimutsu Motegi, recently said that the country aims to increase nuclear exports from the current 300 billion yen to 20 trillion yen by 2020.
Juan Carlos Lentijo, who recently headed a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that was investigating the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has said that TEPCO’s recent plan to pump groundwater from the area near the Fukushima plant and release it into the sea may hold merit. Currently, approximately 400 tons of groundwater leak into the basements of reactor buildings housing crippled reactors each day; as it does, it too becomes highly radioactive and subsequently needs to be stored. TEPCO is running out of space, and has proposed the current plan to pump the water, which officials say is less contaminated than that of nearby rivers, into the ocean. Local fishermen remain concerned about the effect on the reputation of their catch, and have not yet agreed to the plan.
However, Lentijo, who believes that TEPCO’s ongoing water crisis is one of its biggest hurdles, said that if the inflow of groundwater is reduced, then the utility may be able to repair leaks in the buildings and eventually enter them in order to determine the state of the reactors. He still believes, as do other experts, that decommissioning the reactors could easily take as long as 40 years.
Atsuyuki Suzuki, President of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates the beleaguered Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, has resigned in the wake of a scandal in which the agency admitted that it had neglected to perform safety inspections on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of it critical for safe operation of the reactor. An NRA statement last week said, “The Japan Atomic Energy Agency cannot sufficiently secure the safety of Monju. We see deterioration in its safety culture.” NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka added that Suzuki has provided poor leadership and did not prioritize safety. The reactor was first brought online in 1994, but a serious sodium coolant leak and subsequent cover-up by JAEA led to a fifteen-year shutdown. In 2010, the reactor was restarted for testing, but an equipment accident ceased operations before the reactor could reach full capacity. So far, the failed project has cost the Japanese taxpayers approximately one trillion yen.
For the first time since the Fukushima disaster first began to unfold, farmers in the Miyakomachi District within the city of Tamura, located just 15 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, began to plant rice this week, in an effort to resurrect an industry that has been decimated by the nuclear disaster. Miyakomachi is the only district in Tamura in which decontamination has been completed, although officials still do not deem it safe enough for residents to spend the night there. That restriction is providing additional hardship for paddy workers, some of whom have to travel more than an hour each way to tend to their fields. Farmers are currently using potassium-enriched fertilizer in order to prevent radiation in the soil from bring absorbed into the rice. Officials said that all rice will be checked for contamination before being sold.