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
Yoshitatsu Uechi, who worked at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant for six months, has spoken out about the state of the efforts to bring the contaminated water crisis under control. A former mechanic and tour-bus driver, Mr Uechi had no experience of working at a nuclear plant when he started building temporary storage tanks for contaminated water. Anti-rust coatings were not applied properly to bolts during the tanks' construction, foundation concrete for the tanks was sometimes uneven, and some tanks were even used to store water before they were completed. "I must say our tank assembly was slipshod work. I'm sure that's why tanks are leaking already. I feel nervous every time an earthquake shakes the area," said Mr Uechi. "We were in an emergency and just had to build as many tanks as quickly as possible, and their quality is at bare minimum," said Teruaki Kobayashi, an official from the plant's operator TEPCO. The plant is currently home to around 1,000 tanks storing 370,000 tones of contaminated water. The company does not expect to replace the temporary tanks until March 2016. It will also increase the storage capacity at the site to 800,000 tons. The water crisis seems to taken TEPCO somewhat unawares. "I have never thought we needed so many people to take care of these tanks until two months ago," said TEPCO President Naomi Hirose.
TEPCO has announced that it will begin work in December to freeze water in pipes connected to reactor turbine buildings at the site. Huge amounts of contaminated water have accumulated in the turbine buildings of reactors #2 and 3, and it is hoped the freezing measure will stop water escaping. Work will then start in April to remove the 100,000 tons of contaminated water in the pipes that link the turbine buildings to the sea.
Further details are emerging after TEPCO's announcement last week that it plans to improve conditions for workers at the Fukushima plant. As well as offering to double wages paid to contracted workers at the site, the company will provide "two new office buildings, an eight-story “rest station” and a food service center in the facility’s compound". The rest station will house 1,200 workers and the food center will feed 3,000. "This decommissioning work will continue for 30 to 40 years and it is the company's highest priority to improve labor conditions and to enable workers to maintain their sense of responsibility," said Mr Hirose. As well as improving conditions at the site, TEPCO has said it will more than triple the number of workers currently dealing with the contaminated water crisis, from 100 to 320.
Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, the body that overseas compensation for the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is to receive a large injection of funding and additional responsibilities, the Japanese government has announced. As much as 5 trillion yen may be handed over to the fund, boosting its available funding to between 5 and 10 trillion yen. The fund lends this money to TEPCO at zero interest so the company can then pay for compensation and decontamination. The company will then have to repay the money over 30 years. This increase in funding reflects how the costs of compensation and decontamination have been underestimated. The government is also considering using the Fund's money to pay for storage facilities for contaminated soil at a cost of 1 trillion yen, taking pressure off TEPCO. The total final cost of the decontamination effort is as yet unknown.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recommitted his country to a future using nuclear power. "We need to consider energy policy in a responsible manner while taking such a situation into account," he said, pointing out that Japan cannot easily import electricity. This news was followed by the release of a document showing that the last government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, abandoned a plan to phase out nuclear power in the country by the 2030s thanks to a divided parliament and concerns from the Obama Administration.
It has emerged that nuclear experts commissioned by Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to discuss nuclear safety and regulation did not declare the over 40 million yen they received in donations and funding from the nuclear industry. Professor Yutaka Abe from the University of Tsukuba received 13.14 million. “I think I reported only what fell under the categories set by the regulation authority,” he said, adding that he had forgotten to report some of the funding. The experts received money from companies including Fukushimaoperator TEPCO, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, Chubu Electric Power Co and Hitachi.
Elsewhere, anti-nuclear activists across Japan say they have been victims of online harassment and cyber attacks. Yasue Ashihara of Sayonara Shimane Genpatsu Network (Goodbye-Nuke Network in Shimane) said her group had received about 10,000 emails in September. Some contained abusive language such as “without the massacre of anti-nuclear activists, the world will see no peace.” The Hokuriku chapter of Fukushima Genpatsu Kokusodan (Fukushima Nuclear Accusers) says it received 1.5 million blank emails in just 11 days in September. In total, 2.53 million emails were sent to 33 mainly anti-nuclear groups since the middle of September. Activist Hideki Hayashi said: “Since we’ve been involved in anti-nuclear activism for a while, we’re sort of used to this kind of harassment. But what we worry about is this harassment against us may discourage members of the general public from joining our movement."
Away from nuclear issues, and after Japan opened its largest solar power plant last week, the first turbine at a floating wind farm off the coast of Fukushima has started generating electricity. Twenty kilometers out to sea, the farm will eventually have 143 turbines and a generating capacity of 1 gigawatt. “We are moving ahead one step at a time. This wind farm is a symbol of our future,” said Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
This week saw the first meeting of a panel of 17 experts which will review medical support and monitoring for the victims of the Fukushima disaster. The panel discussed long-term evaluations of exposure to radiation. It is expected it will issue a report next summer.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has reversed a decision to interview victims of the Fukushima disaster designed to evaluate measures to reduce their exposure to radiation. Instead, only "friendly" local government leaders have been interviewed. Officials say the decision was taken by NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka who was fearful that many evacuees might not wish to return to their homes. Mr Tanaka was previously an adviser to one of the leaders, Mayor Shoji Nishida of Date. Some of the experts on the NRA panel have criticized the move saying it threatens the organization's transparency and neutrality.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Proposals put forward by the Nuclear Regulation Authority are suggesting that evacuees from Fukushima could be returned home faster if official radiation readings are ignored in favor of those given by dosimeters worn by residents. The government's "air dose rate" (monitored by aircraft) can be three to seven times higher than that measure by a dosimeter. The target level of 1 millisievert of exposure could then be met more easily, speeding residents' return. The long-term plan to reduce contamination to 1 millisievert remains in place although member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party want this to be reviewed.