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
TEPCO, operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, announced this week it had completed transfer of a second batch of 22 nuclear fuel assemblies from the storage pool in the reactor #4 building. The assemblies have now been placed in the “common” pool, 100 meters from reactor 4. The operation took four days in total and TEPCO reported no major problems. The first transfer involved 22 assemblies containing unused nuclear fuel – the second transfer moved spent fuel assemblies. In related news, TEPCO announced that they would begin removing debris from the reactor #3 spent fuel pool in January.
Meanwhile, the contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima plant continues. TEPCO announced that it was postponing the removal of radioactive rainwater from the site due to a lack of storage tanks. The decision will mean that contaminated water will continue to escape into the sea. The company says its storage capacity on the site is currently 27,700 tons.
To add to the continuing water woes, the much troubled Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) system at the site experienced further problems this week. One of the three systems, which remove radioactive contaminants (except tritium) from water, was found to be leaking hydrochloric acid and shut down. Approximately a liter was said to have leaked into a plastic bag used to collect the acid. The system in question was one of two running in test operations after repairs for corrosion damage and is now in “standby” mode. TEPCO has yet to identify the cause of the leak.
Despite the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima plant, TEPCO’s efforts at the plant were praised by former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dale Klein. Speaking to the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, Mr Klein said: "It's nice to see the good progress Tepco has made in the last several months. There's obviously a lot more work to be done, but it's very positive progress....Spent fuel movement at (reactor) No. 4 went very well. You have demonstrated a very positive approach to safety culture. You've also made good progress in water management. But again water will continue to be a challenge at the Fukushima site."
TEPCO has announced, that between August 2008 and April 2011, it failed to file mandatory reports to the government about equipment changes at its nuclear power plants. The failings involve five cases: one each at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plants, and three at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.
Meanwhile, the company has seen a week of significant financial news. Firstly, it announced that it was limiting its repayment of money loaned to it by the government to pay compensation to the victims of the Fukushima disaster to 50 billion yen a year. This will leave TEPCO with more funds to pay for decontamination work. The move will mean that interest payments on the deal will have to be paid by the Japanese public.
Shortly afterwards, the company announced that its projected profits did not meet levels demanded by its creditor banks in order to secure further loans. However, it is thought the banks will relax their conditions, allowing TEPCO to borrow more. Anonymous sources told Reuters that TEPCO expects to make a “recurring profit of 167.7 billion yen ($1.64 billion) for the business year starting next April”. This is below the minimum 200 billion yen demanded by TEPCO’s banks but it seems likely they will give the go ahead for further financing totaling 500 billion yen.
More anonymous sources told Reuters that TEPCO would be taking funds from its 10-year capital investment budget to deal with the crisis at the Fukushima plant and also to invest and “secure overseas resource supplies”. It was reported that the company will spend 740 billion yen ($7.24 billion) at Fukushima and 790 billion yen for investments.
In other news, Norwegian life insurance company KLP said it has sold its shares in TEPCO due to the latter’s handling of the Fukushima disaster. The value of the shares was 8,000 krone ($1.3 million or 135 million yen). "Fukushima is the reason. It is not the accident itself, but it is the evaluation of the whole situation, both with the risk assessment before the accident and due to the current situation. Almost three years have passed and the situation is still not under control. And there is a still a risk for further radioactive pollution at Fukushima," said KLP adviser for responsible investments, Heidi Finskas.
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party Shigeru Ishiba was forced to apologize this week after he reportedly described activists gathered around the Japanese parliament as “engaging in an act of terrorism by causing excessive noise”. The people were protesting against the country’s state secrets protection bill. One of the protesters, Ai Hanada who was displaced from Fukushima after the disaster said: "The politicians who railroad the bill are much more violent. We are protesting against it for the future of our children." It is feared by many that a secrecy law will prevent whistleblowers from the nuclear industry coming forward and punish journalists for reporting such information.
It has also emerged this week that Japan’s industry ministry continued to promote nuclear power in the days after the Fukushima disaster began in March 2011. A confidential ministry document dated March 2011 and seen by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper is titled “Toward the Renaissance of Nuclear Energy”. The document apparently states “the stable supply of energy will be impossible without nuclear power,” that “the government will announce its decision to maintain the nuclear promotion policy,” and that Japan “will resuscitate nuclear energy, and rebuild the basis for promoting exports of infrastructure facilities.” It is thought the document was used as the basis for setting up the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the nuclear watchdog set up in the aftermath of the disaster. The newspaper says that such revelations could fall foul of a secrecy law in the future.
Rice harvested by farmers in Hirono in Fukushima Prefecture has been delivered to Japan’s Imperial Palace at the request of Emperor Akihito. The Emperor made his request after rice from the town was delivered to the Imperial Household agency in November. “Because the rice must have been made with struggles (of farmers), we’d like to have some as well,” he is reported to have said.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
A study by France’s Climate and Environmental Science laboratory (LSCE) and Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture shows that the typhoons that hit Japan are spreading radioactive contamination from the Fukushima disaster. High winds and rain are moving contaminated soil from mountains near Fukushima and into streams and rivers. “There is a definite dispersal towards the ocean. [There is] proof that the source of the radioactivity has not diminished upstream,” said LSCE researcher Olivier Evrard. This presents the possibility that previously uncontaminated may become contaminated as radioactive cesium spreads to agricultural land and other areas.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has said that it may not give the go ahead to restart two reactors at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant if local residents fail to approve new safety measures at the plant. TEPCO wishes to install mandatory filtered venting systems at the plant in Niigata Prefecture which can reduce radioactive emissions in the even of gases or steam needing to be vented from a reactor. However, there are concerns about the system and TEPCO is seeking the approval to use it from the distrustful Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida. In the event of approval not being forthcoming, "we will probably not give a green light. We cannot allow the operation of various facilities that should ensure safety to be changed without permission," said NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
From this week, the Hirata Central Hospital in Hirata, Fukushima Prefecture will offer free radiation testing for babies. The hospital will use a scanner developed in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster to monitor internal exposure to internal radiation in baby. It is hope that using a scanner tailored to babies instead of adults (as has been used until now) will reduce errors.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Shoei senior high school in Minamisoma city in Fukushima Prefecture will close its doors for good in March after failing to attract enough students after the Fukushima disaster. The private school is 22 kilometres from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. "It's hard to attract students. The nuclear accident has not ended and we have health concerns about having students attend the school or staff members work within the 22-km zone," said Kazuhiko Sasaki, general manager of Shoin Gakuen, the school’s owner. Mr Sasaki added that his company would be seeking damages from TEPCO. Students who were to join the school in April 2011 have transferred to another school in Fukushima city or to schools in areas to where they were evacuated.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has brought forward plans to help finance commercial facilities in Fukushima prefecture in the hope of encouraging evacuees to return home. The ministry plans to make two billion yen in subsidies available before the end of this fiscal year. The money was originally to be released next fiscal year. The funds will be available in 11 Fukushima municipalities and cover three quarters of the costs of “supermarkets, restaurants and event spaces”.