Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
This edition of The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Update is abbreviated as a result of reduced news coverage during Japan’s annual Golden Week holidays. Extended coverage will return next week.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO officials are admitting that radioactive tritium—which can cause health issues if ingested, and which has a half-life of more than 12 years—has been found in wells which were recently drilled near the Fukushima Daiichi plant in order to determine whether ground water is being contaminated. Out of eight wells, tritium was discovered in two. Water samples measured 3.8 Bq/cm3 , which, although lower than government-set limits, nevertheless raise concern that water is leaking. TEPCO said it believes that the contamination is not a result of recent leaks in belowground storage pits used to hold highly radioactive water, but rather, from leaks that occurred last year. Officials have promised to continue to investigate the issue.
Also this week, workers discovered highly radioactive debris, emitting 540 millisieverts of radiation per hour, near reactor #3. The debris was removed using a remote-controlled crane, but TEPCO was not able to confirm whether or not workers had been exposed to radiation.
Jiji Press is reporting that TEPCO workers who were at the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the days immediately following the disaster may have been encouraged not to complain about high levels of radiation to which they were being exposed, because of a perception that such concern would negatively affect efforts to control meltdowns at the plant. By March 14, 2011, radiation levels at the main gate had already reached 3.2 millisieverts per hour.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, in order to sign a nuclear cooperation treaty, exploring the importation of Japanese nuclear technology to the Middle Eastern country. Earlier that week, Abe signed an agreement with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to to transfer nuclear technology to United Arab Emirates. Ultimately, the goal is for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Inc. and French company Areva to build a 5,000-megawatt plant in Turkey by 2023, at a cost of $22 billion. Turkey is a highly seismic country and is prone to major earthquakes, but Abe insisted, “We have raised standards, lifting us to the highest ranks in terms of nuclear safety.” Meanwhile, the Fukushima plant, site of three meltdowns, have suffered numerous accidents over the past month, including several power outages, numerous leaks of highly radioactive water, massive waste storage issues that the utility itself admits has reached “crisis” stage, and other equipment failures.
Etsuko Akiba, a member of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), is once again in the spotlight for ongoing inappropriate relationships with the nuclear power industry, despite promises from the government that it would work to promote transparency and end collusion in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Akiba founded a non-profit organization, the Asca Energy Forum, devoted to promote nuclear power in 2001. Since then, members of the nuclear industry, including TEPCO, have given millions of yen to support its activities, even after the Fukushima disaster. Until she was appointed to the JAEC in 2010, Akiba served as its president, and since then, has continued a warm relationship, occasionally even missing JAEC meetings, for which she is paid through taxpayer funds, to attend the organization’s events. Ironically, Akiba was at an Asca event on March 11, 2011, the day the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold.
Members of the International Nuclear Regulators Association, including representatives from Japan, the US, and South Korea, gathered in Tokyo this week to discuss responses to the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The three-day meeting, led by Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), is being held behind closed doors in order to encourage open communication among the participants, according to Association officials.
Japan’s Reconstruction Minister, Takumi Nemoto, traveled to the Ukraine this week in order to tour the Chernobyl power plant, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Nemoto hopes to learn lessons about nuclear waste storage and cleanup, as well as how to best support victims of the Fukushima disaster, including those who were forced to evacuate and who may never be able to return to their homes. Volodymyr Kholosha, who heads the Ukraine’s State Agency on Exclusion Zone Management, emphasized the importance of both countries working together and learning from one another’s experiences.
Decontamination and Nuclear Waste Disposal
New information is emerging regarding widespread and pernicious influence of so-called yakuza organized crime gangs in Japan’s decontamination industry, a trillion yen business that has flourished in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. A recent court case in Yamagata revealed that a gang member hired several workers to perform decontamination work, taking a large portion of their wages and giving some of that to his yakuza gang. He admitted that lax background checks of workers, which many subcontractors insist they don’t have time to conduct because of worker shortages and short time frames to complete jobs, made it easier to slip below the radar. A police official connected to the case noted, “The Yamagata case is just the tip of the iceberg.” Several decontamination workers, who were employed by other subcontractors, spoke to reporters from the Asahi Shimbun anonymously, out of fear of retribution from the crime gangs. They complained of being threatened by supervisors who barely hid their gang affiliations.