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
Media attention is now turning away from the continuing contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to the work to remove nuclear fuel from a storage pool in the reactor #4 building. Work is expected to start later this month and is expected to take around a year to complete. The storage pool, to which reporters were given access this week, is 100 feet above the ground and contains 1,533 fuel assemblies in total. Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) officials admit there is a risk of radiation escaping if the fuel or its containers are dropped but also that countermeasures and safety systems are in place. The rods will be transferred to another storage pond where they will stay for 10 to 20 years. This new pond has been secured against earthquakes and tsunamis, according to METI. At this stage it is not clear if any of the fuel is damaged, which would make removing it more difficult. This is "the start of decommissioning in a real sense," said plant chief Akira Ono. “We have removed spent fuels many times. Therefore, we don’t think we are going to be doing anything that is very dangerous. Since the fuel has been in water for more than two years, we are checking if there is any corrosion, but as far as we have seen, there are no particular problems.” However, Nuclear Regulation Authority chief Shunichi Tanaka has said that "[t]he process involves a very large risk potential. In a sense, it is more risky than the radioactive water crisis.” The removal of spent nuclear fuel from a storage pond in the reactor #3 building is expected to begin in 2015. However, extremely high levels radiation from the melted reactor currently prevent workers from entering the building. Removing the melted fuel from the destroyed reactors #1, #2, and #3 is not expected to begin until at least 2020.
Meanwhile, TEPCO is still battling the contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It has 2,700 tons of radioactive rainwater in underground storage tanks and no solution for how to deal with it. “It remains unknown why radioactive water (previously) leaked from some of the underground tanks, and no measures have been taken so far. We have been demanding that (TEPCO) transfer (the contaminated rainwater) as soon as possible,” said a FukushimaPrefecture official. The water accumulated during two typhoons that hit the plant last month. TEPCO says its plan is to transfer the water from the tanks and into the basements of reactor #2 and #3's turbine buildings. However, rainwater and ground water have been flowing into the basements from elsewhere, filling them.
Following news last month of low pay, high risks and falling morale for workers at the Fukushima Daiiichi plant, TEPCO has announced this week that it will double salaries of contract workers. Those on short-term contracts will see a rise from 10,000 yen ($100) to 20,000 yen ($200) a day. "It is extremely important to secure a workforce. Whether an increase from 10,000 yen to 20,000 yen is adequate is another matter," said TEPCO president Naomi Hirose. Other measures designed to boost morale at the site also include extra office space for 1,000 employees and the provision of warm meals at a facility close to the plant.
This week, two radiation experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency joined TEPCO's monitoring team aboard the company's research ship to witness the examination of radiation levels in seawater close to the Fukushima plant . According to reports, after observing the procedures, David Osborn, director of the IAEA's Monaco Environment Laboratories, declared them to be "very comprehensive, trustworthy and transparent".
Following reports earlier this week that TEPCO is considering forming an "in-house" division with sole responsibility of decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, come the news that the company is discussing a large restructuring of its operation. As early as 2016, the company is looking to establish itself as a holding company that will oversee three subsidiaries responsible for fuel procurement and thermal power generation, power transmission and distribution, and electricity retail. The move is aimed at improving management efficiency and cutting costs. News reports of the plans make no mention of how the restructuring of the company will affect decommissioning work at Fukushima or where the mooted "in-house" decommissioning division might fit.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Taro Yamamoto, the independent lawmaker who handed a letter expressing concerns about the handling of the Fukushima disaster to Emperor Akihito last week, in breach of Japan's Imperial protocol, has had a punishment imposed by the country's House of Councillors' Rules and Administration Committee. As well as receiving a verbal reprimand, Mr Yamamato has been banned for attending any events or ceremonies involving the imperial family. The ban will last until the end of his term of office in 2019.
Security procedures at Japan's nuclear power facilities should be covered by the proposed confidentially bill, making them state secrets, said Masako Mori, the minister overseeing the legislation. "If we make public police's security plans, such information could reach terrorists," Mr Mori told a House of Representatives committee.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
The government's Reconstruction Agency this week pledged 7,634 million yen in subsidies to build housing for those people evacuated from the Fukushima disaster. The two towns of Kori and Kawauchi, as well as FukushimaPrefecture itself will use the money to rehouse those expected to be displaced in the long term. The prefecture hopes to build 3,700 residences by the end of the 2015 fiscal year. This is the second allocation made by the agency. Applications for a further allocation will open this December.