(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.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
A report from the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) reveals that officials from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) secretly acknowledged the possibility of full nuclear meltdown and so-called China syndrome starting on March 25—at the same time that both NISA and TEPCO were publicly saying the Daiichi reactors were ‘slightly damaged.’ JNES admitted this week that it was commissioned by NISA to assess the possibility of a major melt-through and provided the results of its tests to the agency. NISA did not admit that a meltdown had occurred until April 18; TEPCO did not do so until April 20.
An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) special mission team has concluded a weeklong visit to Japan. The team, which was led by Spain’s General Director for Radiation Protection, Juan Carlos Lentijo, presented a 12-point plan to Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, Goshi Hosono. They recommended that Japan concentrate decontamination efforts on highly populated areas, as opposed to forests and other areas where chances of human exposure is lower.
Japan’s Education Ministry released a series of booklets on radiation, each targeting a different age range. The 20 page booklets instruct students on what radiation is, how it is measured, and its effects—but critics complain that except for a brief line in the introduction, they make no mention of the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis and the health risks associated with the current situation in Japan.
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), will attend an International Energy Agency (IEA) Ministerial Meeting in Paris, where he will update attendees on the Fukushima Daiichi crisis. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will visit Fukushima Prefecture today.
NISA revealed that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) failed to test the earthquake resistance of over 600 pieces of equipment at its Fukushima Daiichi plant, in spite of a 2006 requirement to do so. TEPCO has no formula to even evaluate the equipment, and NISA said it believes that the utility has not even begun the task, five years after the requirement was put in place. NISA’s Deputy Director-General for Nuclear Accident Measures apologized for the agency’s failure to provide adequate oversight of the utility. Currently, only two nuclear power plants in Japan have completed anti-earthquake measure reports, in spite of the mandate to do so.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Yukio Edano said Japan will not approve a rate increase for TEPCO for at least a few years.
TEPCO and Tohoku Power companies both reported record lows in power usage between April and September.
State of the Reactors
Goshi Hosono, Japan’s Nuclear Minister, announced that the Fukushima Daiichi plant will achieve cold shutdown status by the end of December, a month earlier than expected. In a joint monthly progress meeting between TEPCO and the government, TEPCO said that temperatures at Reactors 1, 2, and 3 remain below 100ºC. Radiation spewing from the plant has been significantly reduced, although recent robot data showed radiation on the ground floor of Reactor 1 still measured 4,700 millisieverts per hour. In order to maintain cold-shutdown over the next three years, TEPCO told NISA that it will add cooling pumps and replace water hoses.
A report from the JNES says that the fuel storage pool at Reactor 4 was vulnerable to damage from aftershocks after the March earthquake, and could have started leaking radioactive fuel within 2.3 hours. Nuclear meltdown could have occurred less than 8 hours after an aftershock. Previously, TEPCO insisted that the fuel pool was strong enough to withstand additional seismic activity. The utility has since completed additional reinforcement work at the facility. JNES made the discovery in June, but did not release the information until this week.
By the end of October, TEPCO will complete work on a 62-panel polyester cover encasing Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The company plans to construct similar covers for Reactors 3 and 4, which were damaged in hydrogen explosions in March. The company said it hopes that the polyester structure, as well as air scrubbing systems, will reduce the amount of radiation spewing into the air by 90%.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)
Researchers from the University of Tokyo have discovered high levels of cesium in plankton caught in coastal waters south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Samples measured almost 700 Bq/kg. Because many varieties of fish and sea life feed on plankton, scientists are concerned about a significant impact on the food chain.
Radioactive strontium-89 and -90 measuring 129 Bq/kg was discovered in a Yokohama street gutter this week, just days after a citizens’ group reported strontium in soil collected from a nearby rooftop. The area is 250 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, raising questions about just how far radiation from the disaster has spread. The Yokohama samples measured higher than some taken from Fukushima City.
Recent reports of radioactive hotspots in Tokyo are raising concerns among Japan’s citizens that dangers may exist in many places in which no testing has occurred. Experts say that radiation may have spread much farther than TEPCO or the government has admitted, and some caution that current testing methods are not sensitive enough to detect so-called ‘micro hotspots.’ Of 132 Tokyo soil samples submitted to Yokohama’s Isotope Research Institute, 22 exceeded 37,000 Bq/m2 of cesium-137, the standard that defined contamination at Chernobyl. Mountainous areas and the neighborhood housing Tokyo’s baseball stadium had particularly high readings. Government officials said they will start to monitor food originating from the mountains, but admitted that shipments from that region have not been monitored for the past seven months.
Japan’s Science Ministry has released a radiation map of Niigata and Akita Prefectures, showing high concentrations of cesium-134 and -137. In Niigata, the measurements ran as high as 30,000 to 60,000 Bq/m2. The ministry believes the cesium was distributed by wind and fell to the ground via rainwater. The half-life of cesium-134 is two years; the half-life of cesium-137 is 30 years.
Samples of one of the most famous types of tea in Japan, Sayama, exceeded the legal limit of cesium, in spite of the fact that they had previously passed radiation inspections. The tea is grown in Saitama Prefecture. Local government officials blamed the inaccuracy on the fact that Sayama tea is produced from young buds, and tests were only conducted on older leaves. An Agriculture Ministry official admitted, ‘We need to expand the scope of tests to reduce the number of contaminated products that go untested.’
A local group of citizens said they discovered a radioactive hot spot measuring 5.82 microsieverts per hour in a park in Funabashi City. City officials called it a false alarm, saying that their samples only measured 1.55 microsieverts, but said they will conduct additional tests.
Shitake mushrooms measuring 830 Bq/kg of cesium were discovered in Ibaraki Prefecture, after two other cases of radioactive mushrooms were discovered a few days earlier in Chiba Prefecture. In a related development, schools in Yokohama City will no longer serve mushrooms in school lunches. School officials made the decision in spite of the fact that mushrooms there measured 350 Bq/kg of cesium, lower than the government limit of 500 Bq/kg.
Tokyo city officials announced they will bury 3,000 tons of radioactive sludge and ash measuring up to 8,000 Bq/kg in a landfill in Tokyo Bay.
Goshi Hosono, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, announced that Japan will present a timetable for waste storage by the end of the month. Officials from Fukushima Prefecture said they are reluctant to accept temporary shipments of radioactive waste without knowing the duration it will remain in waste facilities.
Yuhei Sato, Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, is urging Japan to reevaluate procedures and criteria for compensation of victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The nation’s Reconstruction Minister, Tatsuo Hirano, admitted, ‘The current compensation system is such that TEPCO produced the application forms and also assesses the claims made by victims…everything is judged according to TEPCO’s terms.’ Hirano said that within the next two weeks, Japan will establish teams of lawyers who will assist claimants with the complicated application process. So far, only 10% of those who received the forms have returned them.
Power Company Corruption
Kyushu Power Company President Toshio Manabe, who had promised to step down after scandals shook the utility earlier this year, now says that he will go without salary for three months but will retain his position as company president. Manabe apologized after the company admitted it had tried to falsely influence the outcome of community meetings regarding restarting reactors at the Genkai power plant in Saga Prefecture. Yukio Edano, head of METI, criticized Manabe and said that the company’s report on the scandal failed to clarify the involvement of Saga’s Governor, Yasushi Furukawa. Furukawa was accused of asking Kyushu executives to order staff to send emails in favor of restarting the reactors. He admitted to an investigator that he would have to resign if his actions became public.
Yoshitaka Sato, the President of Hokkaido Electric Company, said Hokkaido would postpone plans for a MOX-fuel project at its Tomari Plant, after the company admitted to influencing the outcome of meetings designed to determine public opinion on the project. As punishment, Sato and three other top executives will receive a 30% pay cut for three months.
Other Nuclear News
Seismology experts at the University of Tokyo warn that the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, operated by Chubu Electric, could be hit by a tsunami twice as high as that which it was designed to withstand. Chubu is currently building a seawall 18 meters high, based on the assumption that the maximum tsunami height would be 10 meters. However, the seismologists’ data says that as a result of the geographic location of the Hamaoka plant, the actual tsunami height could be 15-20 meters.