(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.
Today marks eight months since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in Japan.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), announced new government efforts designed to improve transparency. Results from stress tests on nuclear reactors and correspondence between the government and power companies will be published on the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency website. The tests are designed to determine the earthquake and tsunami readiness of nuclear plants. In addition, the public will now be able to submit questions, to which the government will respond.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries admitted that information on nuclear power plants, including plant and equipment designs, were compromised in a recent cyber-attack on its computer systems. Critics have long said that the country’s nuclear reactors are at risk for terrorist attack. The company is trying to determine the origin of the computer hack.
In a survey of the 87 candidates running for the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly, 90% said they support the decommissioning of all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Elections will be held on November 20. Candidates are also focusing on decontamination issues.
A privately funded, independent panel has begun to investigate the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, with the goal of determining what happened and analyzing the response of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the government. In addition, they will study legal and cultural issues and the impact on the rest of the world. Koichi Kitazawa, Committee Chair, said that popular distrust of the government and TEPCO and concerns about a lack of transparency led to the formation of the committee. The panel plans to release its report in March, on the anniversary of the nuclear disaster.
Kansai Electric was the first company to submit a self-administered computer simulation test for its Ohi reactor.
A Fukushima University survey of 13,500 respondents revealed that 27% of those evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture will not return. Over 50% of those who are younger than early 30s do not plan to move back.
Goshi Hosono, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, and Yukio Edano, head of METI, ordered TEPCO this week to begin drawing up a timeline to decommission the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. They said that spent fuel rods should be removed within two years (one year less than that estimated by the Atomic Energy Commission, and warned that TEPCO’s financial difficulties should not impede the cleanup process.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO says that the March explosion in Reactor 4 was probably caused by a backflow of hydrogen from Reactor 3, rather than from effects of the earthquake on the spent fuel pool at 4, as it stated previously. Workers opened ducts in 3, where a hydrogen explosion had taken place the day before, to release pressurized air. Doing so increased hydrogen density in dust, causing the explosion.
TEPCO has sealed doors, hatches, and hallways in Reactors 1 through 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in an effort to reduce the spread of radioactive dust.
A report from the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan estimates that decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors will take more than 30 years. Panelists who compiled the report said that it will take approximately 3 years to move spent fuel rods to an on-site fuel pond, and approximately ten years to remove melted fuel from the reactors. The report recommends forming a joint task force between the government and TEPCO in order to facilitate the process.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)
Eight months after the nuclear crisis in Japan, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) delivered 700 dosimeters to Fukushima Prefecture this week, the first installment of 6,000 they plan to distribute to areas affected by the Fukushima disaster. Up until now, dosimeters have been in exceedingly short supply, leaving many residents unsure if they and their children are being exposed to radiation. An official from Namie said, “I wish we’d got these dosimeters sooner.”
In an effort to provide consumers with better information, Japanese supermarket Aeon released the results of radiation tests on foods sold in its stores, and said it will increase the number of items tested to 5,000 in the next three months. Items measuring 50 Bq/kg or more of cesium have been removed from sale; so far, about 30 items have been removed, including cod, rice, bonito, and tuna. The government limit for cesium contamination is far higher, at 500 Bq/kg.
Japan plans to establish “long-term no-return” zones in areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant where radiation remains dangerously high; the areas will be announced at the same time that cold-shutdown status is achieved at the plant, expected to happen by the end of this year. No estimates have been given for the length of time the area will remain uninhabitable. The government said that it might buy destroyed land, which is now considered worthless, from former residents.
Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal
The municipal incinerator in Kashiwa City, located in Chiba Prefecture, has resumed burning radioactive vegetation, after the facility was shut down three months ago after waste exceeding 8,000 Bq/kg was discovered. However, the prefecture is now running out of storage for the waste. The contaminated material is mixed with non-contaminated waste to reduce high concentrations of radioactivity. The process is expected to continue for approximately one month.
Cyberdene, Inc., has created a so-called robot suit to assist workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant who wear heavy tungsten panels to protect themselves from radiation. The suit has motorized limbs that assist in movement, and carries a battery charge for approximately 90 minutes. Still in production, Cyberdene estimates that rental costs for one year will be approximately three million yen ($38,380).
Other Nuclear News
The International Energy Agency released its annual “World Energy Outlook” report this week, which included a “Low Nuclear Case” scenario. The report asserts that nuclear power could fall by 15% by 2035, as a result of security issues, waste disposal problems, and issues with new plants. That decrease could impact fuel costs around the world. The organization admits that the “Low Nuclear Case” is an assumption, not a prediction. Sven Teske, of Greenpeace International, said, “The IEA is once again putting politics ahead of science by suggesting that a reduction in nuclear power will lead to higher costs and emissions. The opposite is the case; a combination of energy efficiency and renewables could lead to a complete phase out of nuclear power by 2035, while lowering energy costs and carbon emissions.”