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 discovered two more leaks of radioactive water this week at its beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi plant, yet again contradicting recent statements by high-level government officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that the situation there is “under control.” On Tuesday, workers discovered that four tons of low-level contaminated water had leaked from a tank located near reactor #4, as they were transferring water from a holding area that was in danger of overflowing because of a typhoon that is currently ravaging the coast of Japan. Tests showed that the water contained 160 Bq/liter of radioactive materials. Officials say that they believe it soaked into nearby soil, which could contaminate any groundwater that flows through there.
Just two days later, workers found another leak, this time of far more toxic water. TEPCO reported that 430 liters of highly radioactive water, containing 200,000 Bq/liter of radioactive materials, including strontium, spilled out of a 450-ton capacity tank, also located near reactor #4. At least some of that flowed into the nearby Pacific Ocean via a drainage ditch. Strontium tends to accumulate in human bones and has been linked to cancer. The spilled water is 6,700 times more radioactive than the legal limit, which is 30 Bq/liter. Although it mixed with rainwater, diluting its toxicity, the water within the tank itself measured 580,000 Bq/liter. “We believe that contaminated water flowed into the ocean,” confirmed TEPCO’s Acting General Manager of Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, Masayuki Ono.
The leak occurred when workers were pumping up rainwater that had accumulated within a barrier surrounding a group of five tanks, after concerns were raised that the water would overflow and flood nearby areas. They pumped the water into the tank in question, filling it to 98.6% capacity, but apparently did not realize that the tank, along with others in the area, had been built on an incline. Capacity measurements were taken at the top rim of the tank, not the bottom, where water began to overflow. The tank is not watertight, and the lid was reportedly not fastened properly. Normally, tanks are not filled to capacity, but the utility is running out of room to store the ever-burgeoning supply of contaminated water. TEPCO has since placed sandbags in the area.
The radioactive water crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant continues to worsen by the day. Approximately 400 tons of groundwater flow into reactor buildings every 24 hours, mixing with contaminated materials and consequently become radioactive and requiring storage. Officials estimate that about 300 tons of contaminated groundwater is flowing downhill and into the ocean on a daily basis. Numerous leaks have occurred over the past months, including a 300-ton leak from a faulty tank hastily constructed, as TEPCO tries to deal with an ever-growing supply of radioactive water that needs to be stored. Already, more than 1,000 tanks, most with a 1,000-ton capacity, dot the Fukushima premises. The company has razed a forest to make room for even more.
The leaks have prompted shrill criticism from local government officials, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yuhei Sato, Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, said, “TEPCO has said it would place priority [on the contaminated water crisis] and that it would inject corporate resources to deal with it, but I doubt that their actions match what they have said.” Prefectural officials are livid, and said that they themselves plan to monitor seawater to determine the extent of contamination, rather than leaving the task to TEPCO.
Meanwhile, Yukiya Amano, Director General of the IAEA, said that Japan needs to employ international experts to help deal with the Fukushima water crisis. He also highlighted the importance of conducting high-level oceanic monitoring for contamination. “There are different ways to conduct monitoring, including the selection of test locations and depths. However, if the methods are inconsistent, it will be impossible to compare data. There is a need to conduct monitoring in line with international standards. Because there is also a problem with negative publicity, it is insufficient for Japan to only say, ‘we conducted monitoring and will inform the world of the results.’” Amano has offered the services of the IAEA’s Environmental Laboratories in Monaco.
Despite these objections and concerns, and the ever-growing leak problem, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed the words of Prime Minister Abe and TEPCO’s President Naomi Hirose, both of whom said in recent weeks that the situation at Fukushima is “under control.” Suga insisted that the situation is “under control as a whole” and blamed rainwater from the ongoing typhoon for the most recent leak, but did not comment on the fact that Japan has long been highly susceptible to typhoons.
NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka is warning TEPCO that failure to deal with the ongoing water crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, as well as other cleanup required there, may have a negative effect on the utility’s recent efforts to restart four reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. TEPCO recently applied to the NRA to restart reactors #6 and #7 there, and said that it also plans to apply to restart reactors #1 and #5. This comes despite the fact that all four reactors sit atop fault lines that have moved within the last 300,000 years, according to TEPCO’s own studies. Japanese law prohibits operation of nuclear reactors that are built on top of active faults. The company is pouring significant resources into installing filtered vents, and has built a stronger levee system to ward off tsunamis. All told the plant upgrades are expected to cost 120 billion yen ($1.23 billion), while TEPCO is still floundering to cover the costs of decommissioning four crippled reactors at Fukushima, decontaminating areas destroyed by the meltdowns and hydrogen explosions, and compensating victims of the disaster. Last year, the government injected one trillion yen into the company, effectively nationalizing it, in order to keep it from going bankrupt. But, TEPCO’s creditors said that they will not continue to float loans to the company unless it begins to show a profit; officials believe that restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors will do that.
Tanaka stressed that TEPCO should be focusing on the Fukushima crisis before expanding its business. “I want TEPCO to do what it should do first, which is to deal with the problems of Fukushima Daiichi,” he said. NRA Commissioner Kayoko Nakamura added that she was “surprised” that the utility was trying to reopen the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, and said bluntly that she does not believe that TEPCO can ensure the safety of Niigata residents.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a member of the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), raised eyebrows this week when he publicly declared that nuclear power in Japan should be abolished. Koizumi was Prime Minister from 2005 to 2009. “Since retiring, I have had more opportunities recently to speak with business leaders…During such discussions, I often hear comments that Japan cannot grow without any nuclear power plants, or that calling for zero nuclear power plants is irresponsible. However, I studied what experts have said until now about nuclear power being safe, clean, and inexpensive, and I harbor doubts. I wonder if human beings can really control nuclear energy. I have now become an advocate calling for zero nuclear plants and urge politicians to make that decision as quickly as possible.”
Koizumi said he came to that conclusion after learning that nuclear waste in Finland is buried 400 meters belowground in a repository that engineers hope will last 100,000 years—the amount of time needed before the waste is no longer a danger to humans. Japan has no such waste disposal plan. He added, “If the government and LDP now came out with a policy of zero nuclear plants, the nation could come together in the creation of a recyclable society unseen in the world. A large majority of the population now understands that nuclear energy is the most expensive form of power generation.” Koizumi, who is still extremely popular, won a sweeping victory when he secured the Prime Minister seat, and is the fifth-longest serving Prime Minister in Japanese history. He joins former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was in power when the nuclear disaster first began to unfold, in denouncing nuclear power in Japan and urging its complete eradication.
Nuclear Waste Disposal
A central government working group tasked with finding locations to dispose of tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste resulting from the Fukushima nuclear crisis met again this week, but was not able to select final destinations for the debris. Although more than two and a half years have passed since the disaster first began, local residents have staunchly opposed having waste repositories built in their back yards. As a result, there’s still nowhere to put it. The government says that waste will only be stored at the sites for three years, but most residents doubt the veracity of that statement. In the meantime, much of the contaminated material is being stored outdoors, often under tarps, where it is exposed to wind, rain, and is poorly protected.