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
Three days after work began to remove nuclear fuel assemblies from the storage pool in Fukushima Daiich's reactor #4 building, the first batch has been transferred its new location. Twenty-two assemblies were placed inside a watertight cask in the pool by a remote controlled crane. The 91-ton cask was then lifted from the pool, placed on a trailer, and then driven to the new, more secure storage facility 100 meters away. Video of the process can be viewed here. There are over 1,500 fuel assemblies in the reactor #4 building, containing plutonium and uranium fuels rods. “Before the accident, it was a big deal if we dropped a pen in a storage pool. Today, I do not feel the same way, although small debris fragments remain in the pool. I think my senses have become numb due to the extraordinary situation that has continued since the accident,” said one worker at the plant. “More than a few employees have expressed concern that the work may not proceed smoothly,” said an official from Tokyo Power Technology Ltd., the TEPCO subsidiary responsible for nuclear fuel removal. The plant's operator TEPCO is now reviewing the process before beginning transfer of the next batch of assemblies. Analysts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will also be visiting the plant later this month to study the removal process.
Also, in a statement issued this week, TEPCO asked media organizations not to film the transfer of the cask containing the fuel assemblies from the air. "Some of those videos contain information (such as the transportation schedule, a route of the transportation, and activities of security guards) the disclosure of which conflicts with "Measures To Be Taken for Physical Protection of Specific Nuclear Fuel Material" stipulated in the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law," said the company. "Physical Protection" is described as being designed to "protect nuclear materials and facilities against the theft or unauthorized diversion of nuclear materials and against the sabotage of nuclear facilities by individuals and groups."
TEPCO also announced that it had restarted one of the Multi-Nuclide Removal Equipment (ALPS) systems at the plant that had been stopped for repairs. Fukushima has three ALPSsystems, which remove radioactive contamination from water, two of which have been out of action since June when it was found that their storage tanks were being corroded. "Corrosion preventions and preparation" have been completed on the unit restarted this week. It will be stopped at the end of December to confirm the measures have worked. The TEPCO hopes to restart the thirds ALPS system at the plant as soon as its repairs are complete.
In other news, TEPCO announced this week that it will permanently close the undamaged reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after a request to do so from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September. The reactors were closed for maintenance when the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the plant. TEPCO will not decommission and dismantle the reactors. Instead they will become "test platforms" and used as research facilities to help plan for the removal of fuel from reactors #1, #2, #3 which suffered core meltdowns.
TEPCO is asking three of Japan's so-called "megabanks" to lend it yet more cash. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, Mizuho Financial Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (as well as the Development Bank of Japan) lent TEPCO 700 billion yen in 2012. In December this year the company will receive a further 500 yen in new loans and refinancing. TEPCO is now requesting further funds on top. It is expected it would spent the money of overseas investment and the cost of increased thermal power production.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Speaking to the UK's Guardian newspaper this week, TEPCO's president Naomi Hirose called the Fukushima disaster "a warning to the world". In words for companies planning new nuclear reactors in the UK, he said: "We tried to persuade people that nuclear power is 100% safe. That was easy for both sides. Our side explains how safe nuclear power is. The other side is the people who listen and for them it is easy to hear OK, it's safe, sure, why not? But we have to explain, no matter how small a possibility, what if this [safety] barrier is broken? We have to prepare a plan if something happens … It is easy to say this is almost perfect so we don't have to worry about it. But we have to keep thinking: what if …" He also warned British nuclear operators "should be prepared for the worst". Mr Hirose also admitted that TEPCO could have done more to prevent the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. "After I became president [in 2012], we formed a nuclear safety review committee. We focused mainly on what we could do, what we could learn. We had a lot of data by then. Three other reports, one from the Diet [Japan's parliament], one from government. We had a lot of information. Tepco's own report, too. We concluded that we should have avoided that catastrophic accident, and we could have. We could see what we should have done," he said. Addressing other nuclear operators, he added: "Try to examine all the possibilities, no matter how small they are, and don't think any single counter-measure is foolproof. Think about all different kinds of small counter-measures, not just one big solution. There's not one single answer. We made a lot of excuses to ourselves … Looking back, seals on the doors, one little thing, could have saved everything."
Meanwhile, Japanese House of Councillors lawmaker Taro Yamamoto, who attracted controversy earlier last month when he handed a letter expressing concern about the handling to the Fukushima disaster to Emperor Akihito during a garden party, is back in the news. Mr Yamamoto has received an envelope containing a death threat and a bullet. Last week an envelope addressed to Mr Yamamoto was found containing a knife. The Metropolitan Police Department of Tokyo are investigating. Mr Yamamoto, who was widely seen as having broken a taboo in Japan by attempting to involve the Emperor in political matters, was reprimanded and banned from attending any future events where the Imperial will be present.
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) began safety assessments of two nuclear reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant this week. The plant is owned by TEPCO who made the assessment request for the plant's reactors #6 and #7 in September. "We are deeply aware that we are facing doubts over our safety awareness, organization, technical abilities and management. We are expecting strict screening," said TEPCO Managing Executive Officer Takafumi Anegawa. There are many issues involved and the process is not expected to run smoothly. There are geological faults below the plant although TEPCO says they are not active. The company also plans to install a venting system that will filter and reduce the release of radioactive contamination in the event of an emergency. NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka has also warned TECPO that the assessment process could be halted if events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant take another turn for the worse. Last week TEPCO said it expected a pre-tax profit of 100 billion yen in the financial year ending in March 2015 if the two Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors are restarted. It also said it expected an 80 billion yen loss if permission is refused.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
Japan's government proposed a change to its policy towards disposing of nuclear waste this week. The policy of waiting for towns and cities to volunteer to host final disposal facilities for nuclear waste has failed, with no candidates stepping forward. The policy has been in place for over ten years. Instead, the government is proposing to draw up a list of candidate sites for storage facilities and then measuring public support in those places. “The government must take a leading role in setting up a framework to form a consensus among residents and in formulating measures to support areas (that host the facility),” said Hiroya Masuda, chairman of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy’s radioactive waste working group. Under the plans, only areas not threatened by volcanic activity or active earthquake faults will be considered.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
The NRA has said this week it will propose to the government that people returning to their homes after the Fukushima disaster be issued with personal radiation dosimeters. The NRA sees personal radiation exposure monitoring as "essential": “Individual doses differ, and that could affect health,” said NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka. Currently, radiation exposure in areas affected by the disaster are measured by aircraft and monitoring posts. "It is essential for residents who return home to know about their own doses, understand how their whereabouts are correlated to the doses they receive, and take dose reduction, health management and other measures on the basis of their dose readings," says the NRA recommendation. However the proposal may not be straightforward to implement. Many of the personal dosimeters already given to some residents only measure radiation over several months and do not record the location of radiation. The only government is still only considering distributing more accurate dosimeters. The NRA has also called for "facilitators" or advisers to be recruited and trained in order to assist those returning home.