Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka announced this week that a four-person research team, including Mitsuhisa Watanabe, will inspect Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on November 2, and then meet again on November 4 to evaluate findings. Watanabe has repeatedly raised concerns that the Oi reactors are built atop active fault lines, which could prompt closure and decommissioning of the plant. He also has warned about so-called crush zones beneath the plant, which could move in tandem with fault lines there and nearby. Reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant are the only operating nuclear power reactors in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in March 2011.
Tanaka also said that he plans to tighten seismic safety standards for all of the nation’s nuclear power plants. “The existing safety standards fall short of international levels. We’ve aimed to make new once comparable internationally and also come up with good ones taking into account Japan’s geological characteristics,” he said. The NRA is required to present its new safety standards by July 2013.
Meanwhile, Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), has forbidden new construction at Chugoku Electric’s proposed Kaminoseki Power Plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture, saying, “If any action is taken by Chugoku Electric, I will consider a response that will account for it.” Edano’s statement is in keeping with the nation’s new energy policy, which says that no new nuclear reactors can be built. However, utility officials admit that they are continuing preparations behind the scenes, in the hopes that a pro-nuclear administration will replace that of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda when elections take place sometime in the next year.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Mayor of Hokodate, Toshiki Kudo, has filed a petition with Japan’s central government in an effort to halt construction of Electric Power Development Company’s (known in Japan as J-Power) Ohma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tsuyoshi Saito, who accepted the petition, made no promises, saying only, “We will discuss it among ourselves, including with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). A total of 460,000 people live within 50 km of the proposed plant, and public concern about safety remains high.
Renewable energy experts met in Tokyo this week at the Global Energy Policy At A Crossroads Meeting to encourage Japan to shift from nuclear power to renewable energy sources. Keynote speaker Amory Lovins, Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US, pointed out the challenges of the Japanese nuclear industry, which has untold influence on the national power grid, noting, “The trouble is that Japan is the only major industrial country where electric companies can decide who is allowed to come onto their wires and compete with their power stations.” Currently, only 3% of the nation’s power comes from renewable energy. However, an increase is not an impossible option; Germany only obtained 6% of its power from renewable sources in 2000, and now derives 25% of its energy from renewables. Miranda Schreurs, Director of the Environmental Policy Research Centre at the Free University of Berlin said, “If Germany can do that, Japan can do that.”
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO workers who inserted a camera into reactor #3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have finally located a fuel transfer heist weighing 35 tons, which fell into a spent fuel pool atop nuclear fuel rods after last year’s hydrogen explosion there. The heist is now completely underwater. A TEPCO official said, “We now know approximately where the equipment fell.” In addition, they said they discovered large chunks of concrete and other broken equipment on top of the fuel rods, but insist that the rods themselves have sustained no visible damage. TEPCO will need to extricate the debris in the pool before it can begin to remove the fuel rods themselves. The process is a difficult one; because radiation levels within the reactor remain astronomically high, workers cannot enter and must rely on remote-controlled equipment. Last month, they accidentally knocked a 470 kg steel beam into the water, which holds 566 spent fuel assemblies.
The utility also reported this week that on October 15. 90 liters of highly contaminated radioactive water leaked from a pipe in the turbine building of reactor #3. TEPCO said none of the water leaked out of the reactor building itself. The same pipe leaked four tons of radioactive water in August.
Scientists from the United States Los Alamos National Laboratory plan to use cosmic rays to determine the location of melted nuclear fuel within the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. The researchers placed muon particle detectors in the front and rear of reactor buildings, which they will use to collect data over the course of a couple of months. Muon particles, which are plentiful in the earth’s atmosphere, are extremely light and penetrate all earthly substances. However, they change direction when they encounter very dense substances, including uranium and plutonium, which comprise the molten fuel. By studying their movement, scientists believe they can create detailed images of the reactors’ interiors, reducing human exposure to high levels of radiation. “If we can find where the molten nuclear fuel is located, it will give us a clue to understand what happened inside the reactors and help accelerate the decommissioning work,” explained Haruo Miyadera, a member of the research team.
Engineers from the Chiba Institute of Technology and The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) have unveiled another new remote-controlled robot, which will be used to explore small spaces in the basements of reactors at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Radiation levels there remain too high for humans to even enter. The new robot, nicknamed Sakura, measures only 39 cm wide and 50 cm tall, and can climb and descend stairs. It will be equipped with both a camera and microphone.
TEPCO had admitted that it stopped paying compensation for emotional distress from the Fukushima nuclear disaster to women who were forced to evacuate from their homes but then married. The utility said that the act of marrying restored their livelihoods, in spite of the fact that the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and which oversees compensation payments, clearly stated, “Payments should not be terminated for reasons of marriage or job transfer.” The Ministry’s Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation’s guidelines note that compensation payments must continue until evacuees “return home,” although in many cases, no one knows when that will be. They do not make provisions for stopping payment after marriage. An official from MEXT said, “The mental distress brought on by prolonged life as evacuees does not disappear through marriage; an Agency for Natural Resources and Energy official agreed, noting, “It is wrong to terminate compensation payments for reasons of marriage.” Both entities say that they are investigating. TEPCO has repeatedly been criticized for making it difficult for victims of the disaster to collect compensation payments.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Officials from Miyagi Prefecture announced that excessive levels of radioactive cesium have been found in beef raised in the prefecture. They suspect that the cattle were fed radioactive rice straw. Officials say the beef, which contained more than 150 Bq/kg of cesium, was destroyed before it was sold to consumers, and have asked nearby farmers to voluntarily halt beef shipments while they investigate.
Global Effects of the Fukushima Crisis
Japanese nuclear reactor and equipment manufacturers have admitted that a Lithuanian referendum striking down a plan to build a nuclear power plant there might have a profound effect on their business. Although Japan has promised to eradicate nuclear power by 2039, it has no restrictions on selling nuclear technology to other nations, and those in the nuclear industry are counting on selling expertise and technology in Europe and elsewhere. One representative noted, “The future has become much more uncertain with the referendum. If the new [Lithuanian] government heeds public opinion, it will become difficult to proceed with the project.” Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., Toshiba, and Hitachi are all expected to be affected. Earlier this year, Hitachi signed a provisional agreement with Lithuania to build an advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) plant, but the referendum will cancel that.
Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection released a new report this week saying that the nuclear industry there will need to spend approximately $12.74 billion by 2015 to ensure that its power plants meet international safety standards. China had planned to build almost 100 new reactors in the next 20 years, but those plans were halted when the Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold; safety checks were ordered on existing plants. “The current safety situation isn’t optimistic,” the report said, adding, “China has multiple types of nuclear reactors, multiple technologies, and multiple standards of safety, which makes them hard to manage.”
And, in Singapore, the government has decided against the use of nuclear power, at least in the near future, citing concerns about safety and evacuation from the tiny country in case of a nuclear disaster. S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Trade and Industry, said that the benefits do not outweigh the risks, and that nuclear power is simply too risky.