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
In its ongoing efforts to control massive amounts of radioactive water building up at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, including approximately 400 tons of groundwater that flow into the reactor buildings each day and subsequently become contaminated, TEPCO officials said this week that they plan to divert a portion of the groundwater before it can become radioactive, and release it into the ocean. Workers have already dug 12 wells near the reactor buildings, which collect the groundwater. Toshihiko Fukuda, head of the Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department at TEPCO, said, “We would like to release that water into the ocean if we can gain the understanding of the relevant officials.” Members of local fisheries cooperatives, whose livelihoods have suffered significantly since the Fukushima disaster first began to unfold, said that they want to see that radioactivity in the water is closely monitored.
TEPCO has said that radiation tests conducted on 200 tons of water pumped from the 12 wells show that contamination levels are “the same as rivers in surrounding areas,” which were contaminated by the disaster but are already flowing into the ocean. Currently, the utility is storing 280,000 tons of water in hundreds of tanks at the facility, and more builds up each day. An estimated 100,000 additional tons are contained within the reactor buildings themselves. A recent massive leak of radioactive water from belowground storage pits left officials scrambling to find a place to hold 120,000 tons of water. The leaking pits were lined with two sheets of polyethylene and one layer of bentonite clay. Criticism of TEPCO over that incident has been widespread; although the Environment Ministry requires bentonite layers to be at least 50 millimeters thick, the bentonite lining the TEPCO storage pits is just 6.4 millimeters thick. So far, only 8,000 tons have been transferred, but the company hopes to move the remaining water to aboveground tanks by the beginning of June. The new plan would divert approximately 100 tons of groundwater each day to the ocean. Three hundred tons of water will continue to flow into the buildings and become contaminated, eventually requiring storage space.
TEPCO officials are warning that recent attempts to transfer highly radioactive water from leaking belowground storage pits to sturdier aboveground tanks may result in increased radiation levels around the boundary of the Fukushima Daiichi. The company previously said that it would attempt to keep annual radiation levels there lower than one millisievert, but now says that dosage levels could rise as high as 7.8 millisieverts per year.
Starting in the fall, TEPCO said that it will remove the cover of reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in order to remove fuel rods from the reactor’s spent fuel pool. However, officials are already warning that the work could result in a “slight rise” in radiation levels near the plant.
Radiation Contamination and Other Effects of the Disaster
Highly radioactive hotspots have been discovered by the non-profit Citizen’s Radioactivity Measuring Station in two parking lots in Fukushima City, after local residents expressed concern about both the central government’s and municipal officials’ ability to provide adequate monitoring of the situation. Cesium levels greater than 430,000 Bq/kg were measured in soil there; airborne environmental radiation measured 3.8 microsieverts per hour, which exceeds government standards for evacuation. The lowest levels were 100,000 Bq/kg, meaning that they cannot legally be incinerated, and will need to be removed by the government and stored in a temporary storage facility for radioactive waste. A local official noted, “It’s the first time that soil with cesium levels exceeding 100,000 Becquerels was found on the grounds of an urban area, [as opposed to] sludge accumulated in ditches.” The parking lots are connected to a library/public hall in Matsuki, and a library/museum in Moriai. Residents, including children, frequent both locations.
For the first time in more than two years, fishermen in Ibaraki Prefecture have resumed sardine fishing, after conducting weekly radiation checks over the course of four months, between August and December of last year. Members of the fisheries cooperative there had voluntarily halted fishing shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, because of contamination concerns. Now, the cooperatives have declared, “test fishing found no safety problems.” One fisherman, Heishiro Suzuki, said, “I’ve got misgivings about whether consumers will buy our fish, but we must move forward, one step at a time.” The fish will be sold in Tokyo, after undergoing radiation screening before and after being processed.
Victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster continue to experience discrimination against actual or perceived radiation exposure, according to Sachiko Banba, an activist from Minamisoma who is trying to change public perception on the issue, especially among children, the next generation. So far, she has hosted public radiation learning sessions for more than 1,500 attendees in an effort to counteract misinformation and intolerance. Many people, she says, question whether it is safe to marry those who have been exposed, or have children with them. “It’s due to people’s ignorance,” Banba explained. “There are still people who think that radiation is something contagious. By gaining correct knowledge, I hope children in Fukushima will be able to talk about radiation exposure when they are asked about it.”
Japan plans to redefine evacuation zones in the town of Futaba, starting May 28. Currently, the entire town is uninhabitable, but officials say that a small part of the town, where radiation levels are 20 millisieverts per year or less, will be established as an area eligible for preparations to lift evacuation orders. However, the majority of the town, where annual radiation levels still exceed 50 millisieverts per year, will be declared unlivable for at least the next four years, and possibly longer.
Decontamination and Nuclear Waste Disposal
Japan’s Minister of the Environment, Nobuteru Ishihara, announced this week that Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures will meet the government’s self-imposed deadline of March 2014 for disposal of debris from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. However, he said that the nuclear crisis has impeded waste disposal efforts in Fukushima, where officials are struggling to find temporary storage locations, and the Ministry will miss that deadline. Ishihara admitted, “Completion of the [debris removal in Fukushima] will be difficult.” Overall, almost 26 million tons of waste need to be removed from the area, but so far, the government has dealt with only 40% of earthquake waste, and just 2% of debris generated by the tsunami. Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures were able to send a combined 670,000 tons of their waste to 17 other prefectures to be processed, but residents in those areas were often afraid to accept waste from Fukushima because of fears of radioactivity. Environment Ministry officials have promised to announce a new schedule for Fukushima sometime this summer.