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

A new study by the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany reveals that the chance of a catastrophic nuclear accident is 200 times more likely than previously thought, and may occur as frequently as every 10 – 20 years worldwide. Researchers there calculated the number of operating hours since the commissioning of nuclear reactors worldwide, and then divided by the number of major nuclear meltdowns, which is four: Chernobyl in 1986 and three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. That number was then divided by the number of reactors, which is currently 440, although 60 more are planned.

In addition, the Max Planck research team discovered that half of the radiation released in such a disaster would likely fall more than1,000 km away from the site of the disaster, and approximately 25% would fall within a 2,000 km radius. Millions of people could be affected, and many nations could be contaminated. Jos Lelieveld, Director of the Institute and leader of the study, noted, “Not only do we need an in-depth and public analysis of the actual risks of nuclear accidents, but in light of our findings, I believe an internationally coordinated phasing out of nuclear energy should also be considered.”

New reports have surfaced that a Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) panel met with nuclear proponents in a closed-door so-called “study meeting” on April 24 to discuss the government’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, and that attendees, who included power industry representatives and METI officials, influenced the JAEC draft policy evaluation of the program.

Later this month, the Cabinet is expected to approve a draft document outlining support for Fukushima Prefecture and its inhabitants in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Provisions include government responsibility and funding for long-term health examinations, disposal of radioactive waste and debris, and financial aid to account for the loss of nuclear subsidies, among other accommodations.

The assemblies of several towns within 10 km of Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture have voted in favor of  “permanent shutdown” of the nuclear reactors there, citing safety concerns and fears that a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami could damage the plant and cause a nuclear meltdown. A resolution adopted by the Makinohara Assembly stated, “The Hamaoka nuclear power plant, sitting right on the epicenter of a potential Tokai earthquake, should be permanently suspended unless safety and security are ensured well into the future. Chubu Electric is in the process of building a seawall near the reactors, but recent studies show that predicted earthquakes could produce a tsunami that would wash right over it, potentially flooding the plant and rendering cooling systems inoperable.”

State of the Reactors

Scientists from the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) are warning that radioactive cooling water is leaking from the containment vessel at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #1. They estimate that the water in the vessel is only 40 cm deep, possibly exposing molten fuel there. TEPCO reports that the water level should be two meters. Researchers suspect that there is a 2 cm hole in a pipe connecting the containment vessel to the suppression chamber below it. TEPCO said that the water temperature is currently 30ºC, and believe that there is currently no danger of the fuel melting down further. Earlier this spring, TEPCO discovered that water levels in the containment vessel of reactor #2 were only 60 cm deep, raising larger questions about the stability of the reactors and TEPCO’s grasp of their condition. In order to decommission the plant and remove molten fuel, reactors eventually will need to be filled with water in order to block radiation. That process will prove more difficult if the utility is unable to repair the containment vessels.

TEPCO

Japan’s government-operated Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund will inject one trillion yen into TEPCO on July 25, effectively nationalizing the ailing utility as it struggles beneath massive costs related to decommissioning the crippled Fukushima reactors and compensating victims of the nuclear disaster. In exchange, the government will receive 50.1% voting shares, giving it authority to choose board members. Those shares could be increased to 75.84%, allowing it to make personnel and operating decisions.

A new report shows that in the last five years, TEPCO made over 90% of its profits from residential consumers, rather than large lot and industrial clients. TEPCO submitted the report to METI, where an expert panel is reviewing the utility’s recent request to raise household electricity rates. Analysis revealed that proportionally, 69% of TEPCO’s profits came from households, although they used only 38% of electricity sold.

TEPCO is now threatening to increase its recent request to hike household electricity rates from 10.28% to 15.87% if reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant are not restarted. In addition, the utility said that rates for corporate consumers, which recently rose by 17%, could increase to 24.79% over last year’s rates. TEPCO’s request to raise household rates is currently being evaluated by a METI panel, and this revelation is likely to raise additional questions about the way the utility sets its rates. 

The Fukushima Prefectural Police Department has launched an investigation into wages allocated for restoration workers at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, charging that some may have been used to fund members of the yazuka gang. A subcontracting firm hired the workers in question.

Fumio Sudo, the Chairman of the Board of Governors at NHK, Japan’s public television station, says that he will resign in the wake of wide-ranging criticism and concern that NHK’s impartiality would be compromised where TEPCO is concerned after he accepted an appointment to TEPCO’s board.

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

A new poll conducted by Kyodo News shows that of 11 municipalities located within 30 km of Kansai Electric’s Oi Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, only two support restarting reactors #3 and #4 there.

Meanwhile, a proposal made by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, which would have allowed restart of the reactors for just three months in order to deal with a potential summer power shortage, has been rejected by the central government. Hashimoto objects to restarting the reactors permanently before a new nuclear regulatory agency has been established and the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis have been fully studied. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said that he is concerned the move would lead to increased electricity rates. His response prompted Kyoto Governor Keiji Yamada to question his motives for restarting the reactors. He asked, “Wasn’t the government supposed to make a decision about reactivation based on safety, not economic efficiency?”

Contamination

TEPCO released new estimates of the amount of radiation spewed into the atmosphere and ocean during last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and the numbers are greater than earlier estimates initially released by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and an estimate released by the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC). The total amount of radioactivity released is now estimated to be in the order of 1 million TBq (cf Chernobyl releases are estimated at 5.2 million TBq). One terabecquerel (TBq) equals one trillion becquerels. Note that there is some disagreement in the numbers of releases mentioned in different media sources. They are not consistent with the number in TEPCO's press release, maybe due to conversion errors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a preliminary study, based on data available through September 2011, of radiation doses for the Japanese population. Studies of whole-body doses, including internal (from eating contaminated foods and breathing contaminated air) and external exposure, show that Fukushima residents were exposed to 1-10 mSv of radiation, with the exception of Namie and Iitate, where exposure was in the range of 10-50 mSv. Infants in Namie experienced thyroid exposure between 100 and 200 millisieverts over the same period. Children are considered highly susceptible to thyroid cancer. Long-term health impacts of radiation exposure from the Fukushima nuclear disaster remain unknown.

New data released by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) showed that a water sample taken from a stretch of Tokyo Bay between Kanagawa and Chiba Prefectures on April 18 was six times more contaminated with radioactive cesium than it was before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The water measured .0065 Bq/liter of cesium-134 and .0098 Bq/liter of cesium-137. MEXT conducted sampling in an additional 15 locations, but has not yet released that data. Officials say that the water is still safe enough for swimming.

Recent tests show that pork from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture has been contaminated with 107.2 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, prompting prefectural officials to order a recall and disposal of the meat. Officials say that none of it reached consumers. The government limit of cesium contamination for general foods is 100 Bq/kg.

Decontamination

A new study led by Professor Hideo Yamazaki of Kinki University shows that a common practice of dealing with radioactive sludge—incinerating it and mixing it with cement before burying it—could increase the risk of environmental contamination. Instead, Yamazaki’s team found that mixing it with clay and refraining from incineration produced less environmental transfer. The scientists noted that radioactive cesium binds more effectively with clay.

Japan has invited a group of 30 US-based companies to present proposals for products related to radiation decontamination. The two countries recently signed an agreement to fully cooperate with one another in nuclear research and development.

Other Nuclear News

President Obama has nominated Allison McFarlane, an Associate Professor of Environmental Policy and Social Sciences, as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). McFarlane is a nuclear waste expert and has been a vocal critic of the Yucca Mountain waste disposal project. She replaces outgoing Gregory Jaczko, who resigned under pressure amid accusations that his style was too abrasive. Jaczko cast the solo dissenting vote against issuing new licenses for nuclear plants this year, and had proposed sweeping reforms in the wake of Fukushima.