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
The contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to worsen as record levels of radioactivity were found in a well near a storage tank at the site. According to the plant's owner, TEPCO, 400,000 Becquerel per liter of beta ray sources, including strontium - which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer - were discovered. This was a massive 6,500 times higher than the reading of 61 Becquerel taken the day before. The storage tank leaked 300 tons of contaminated water in August. Some is believed to have reached the sea. "We don't know the reason (for the increased concentration)," a TEPCO spokesperson said. "The effect of highly contaminated water leaked (from the nearby tank) is one possibility."
To make matters worse, workers at the plant had to deal with heavy rainfall from Typhoon No. 26, which lashed Western Japan this week and was described as the strongest in ten years. They were forced to drain nine storage areas to prevent rainwater overflowing from storage tanks. TEPCO had stated it would first move the water to temporary storage tanks to measure its radiation levels before releasing it, but this protocol had to be abandoned after rainfall became too great. Despite these efforts, one tank close to reactor #2 did overflow - TEPCO insists no water has leaked into the sea or soil - and it is also thought strontium and other contaminants measuring 1,400 Becquerel per liter were washed into a ditch 150 meters from the sea by the Typhoon.
Not only that, radioactive contamination from cesium-134 and cesium-137 is rising in seawater in the harbour of the Fukushima plant. The levels measured on October 11- a combined 10 Becquerel - are the highest since monitoring began in June. The samples were taken at the mouth of the harbour, closest to the ocean.
TEPCO's handling of the water crisis at Fukushima drew criticism from both home and abroad. Judging the measures taken at the stricken reactors, Toyoshi Fuketa, commissioner of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority said: "Our conclusion is that little effect has been seen." Another NRA official added that "it is reasonable to assume that the total amount of radioactive materials flowing into the sea has risen." Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission added his voice. He said the lack of any "any type of instrumentation, monitoring, for those tanks […] demonstrate a weakness in the safety system, in the oversight and the management of the project." However, he said, it would not be "an easy task to replace TEPCO because there are a number of workers who are involved in this effort. You cannot simply replace all those workers".
As the crisis continues, TEPCO promised this week to "increase the workforce at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and make sure we have an accurate grasp of the situation, follow procedures, and introduce proper communications and instructions needed to carry out competent management of the site".
However, this may prove difficult for the company as the morale of the workers at Fukushima continues to fall. Some workers have been exposed to nearly double the annual exposure limit for the general population - 2 millisierverts - in a single day. Workers with an accumulated exposure of 50 millisieverts are banned from returning to work for the rest of the year. "If we exceed our radiation exposure limits, we will simply be disposed of as workers," said one worker. "Right now, I do not feel that our efforts are being recognized by society. My motivation to work is gradually disappearing." The lack of proper training and experience has been noted, with some worker not even able to remove protective clothing properly. The complicated bureaucracy involved in recruiting workers has led to fears that some are being hired illegally. NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka has said that this situation has caused the problems seen at Fukushima. "Mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don't make silly, careless mistakes when they're motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems," he said. Professor Takeshi Tanigawa from the department of public health at EhimeUniversity in western Japan said, "I'm particularly worried about depression and alcoholism. I've seen high levels of physical distress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder." This was confirmed by one unnamed worker: "Lots of men I know drink heavily in the evening and come to work with the shakes the next day. I know of several who worked with hangovers during the summer and collapsed with heatstroke."
In the face of all these problems, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to maintain that the issue of accumulating contaminated water at Fukushima remains "under control". "The effects of radioactive substances in the sea are contained within 0.3 square kilometers of the plant’s port," he said. This prompted a skeptical response from the Banri Kaieda, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) - the country's main opposition political party, who described Mr Abe's remarks as "extremely flippant."
Meanwhile, Japan's International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning will soon begin collecting proposals both nationally and internationally for the best way to decommission the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. TEPCO estimates that the task will take 40 years. “We will set up a website in both Japanese and English to notify interested parties at home and abroad of our calls for decommissioning ideas so that we can offer more useful and practical proposals to the government,” said an official for the Institute.
A first step towards the decommissioning of the plant was taken this week as work began to remove nuclear fuel from the undamaged reactor #6. Reactors #5 and #6 were out of operation when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck the plant and so were not damaged like reactors #1, #2, #3 and #4.
Japan's Board of Audit, the independent organisation that "audits the State accounts as well as those of public organizations and other bodies as provided by laws", announced this week that the total cost to the Japanese taxpayer of compensation the victims of the Fukushima disaster, along with the clean-up and decontamination efforts, could total 79.4 billion yen ($810 million). The figure incorporates a 5 billion yen loan to TEPCO from the government which the company will repay over an estimated 31 years from, amongst other things, electricity rates. The government has already loaned 3 billion for compensation and 1.3 billion for decontamination costs.
In addition, Prime Minister Abe has said that his government has no intention of forcing the financially precarious TEPCO into bankruptcy after two opposition leaders said this should be done. Instead, said Mr Abe, the company should "should steadily implement compensations, scrap (troubled) reactors, deal with the accumulation of toxic water (at the plant) and ensure a stable electricity supply as it continues to operate as a private company."
The opposition party DPJ also put forward a proposal stating that TEPCO be broken up and the company divested of its responsibility for tackling the contaminated water crisis and decommissioning the Fukushima reactors. Under the proposal, these responsibilities would be handed to a new organization jointly funded by the government and TEPCO.
Meanwhile, Ruiko Muto filed a protest this week against the decision not to indict TEPCO executives for their roles in the Fukushima disaster. Ms Muto, one of nearly 15,000 people who began legal proceedings against the company in June 2012, said, "If we don’t want to let it happen again, we must clarify who was responsible and what was wrong." Indictment was refused on the grounds that the executives could not have expected a tsunami higher than 10 meters to hit the Fukushima plant as happened in 2011. This despite executives being informed back in 2008 that a tsunami of such magnitude could damage the plant, and this warning being ignored.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Japan's Board of Audit also announced this week that 77% (247.2 billion yen) of the budget set aside to decontaminate areas around Fukushima remains unspent. Work has slowed due to local residents' objections to temporary storage facilities for contaminated debris. In September, the Environment Ministry scrapped its plan to have decontamination work completed by the end of the 2013 fiscal year. To make matters worse, TEPCO is refusing to cover the costs of decontamination despite it being required by law. The company has only repaid 6.7 billion yen from the 40.3 billion the government has spent on decontamination efforts so far. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose has said, "One company cannot bear it all." This was disputed by a senior official from Japan's Finance Ministry who said, "A framework to collect the cost of decontamination work in the long term has been established, and it is impossible to consider the idea of TEPCO collapsing because of decontamination efforts."
While the decontamination work continues in areas around Fukushima, the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has said that Japan's government may have underestimated the radioactive exposure experienced by workers during the first days of the disaster. Using data provided by the government, UNSCEAR says radiation dose estimates may be off by 20%. Long term monitoring of radiation exposure and its effects on workers may be under threat as companies involved in decontamination work have not conducted medical examinations despite a legal obligation. In addition, the government database that will hold workers' health records is not yet ready.
Fishermen from the Fukushima prefecture are beginning fishing again on a trial basis. Only eight types of seafood will be caught and only from depths greater than 150 meters. "This is the first step to resume our fishing in earnest. I hope we will become able to catch a wider variety of fish soon," said fisherman Hisashi Yoshida. The catches will only be sold if they pass radiation checks. Fishing co-operatives have set a standard of 50 Becquerel per kilogram and will dump any catches that exceed this limit. The government's Fisheries Agency says, however, that some bottom-dwelling species of fish still have contamination levels of 100 Becquerel per kilogram.
While fishing gets underway again, the World Trade Organisation has urged the government of South Korea to lift its ban on imports of Japanese fish from prefectures around, and including, Fukushima. The ban was announced on September 9th.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
After requests from residents of Miyakoji district of Tamura, a city close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the government has agreed to delay the lifting of the district's evacuation order. When the order is lifted, this would give the go ahead for residents to return to the former no-go area. The order will not now be lifted on November 1st. In a meeting with the government, residents asked that the order be lifted next spring. This month, Greenpeace radiation experts found contamination levels in Tamura city "that are clearly too high."
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Anti-nuclear power protests continued in Tokyo this week as 40,000 people gathered in the city centre to protest against government plans to restart Japan's 50 idle nuclear reactors. Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe told the protest, "If an opportunity to restart the nuclear reactors is given at some point in six months or a year, it will be impossible to push back the momentum to the restarting of the nuclear plants."
The first nuclear disaster drill since the Fukushima crisis began was held at the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture on October 11. The two-day drill involved acting out a scenario where an earthquake caused an accident at the Sendai reactors. In a change from disaster-preparedness training in the past, those taking part were not told in advance what would happen or how to act. “In past exercises, participants knew all the scenarios and their statements were prepared — which was more like performing a role in a drama. But we found that this method will not nurture people’s ability to cope with the situation,” said an NRA official.