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
With another typhoon expected to hit Japan this weekend, TEPCO are no closer to solving the contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Protective barriers around 11 storage areas at the site failed to contain contaminated water after heavy rainfall brought by last week's Typhoon No 26. TEPCO's forecast of rainfall of between 30 and 40 millimeters were proved wrong when 120 millimeters fell on the damaged reactors on October 21. The barriers were already full of rainwater and pumping equipment was not up to the task of clearing it. TEPCO do not know whether any of the contaminated water has reached the sea and the total amount of water that escaped in unknown. The company has now promised to install extra pumping capacity before Typhoon No. 27 arrives.
Water from the overflowing storage areas has revealed more worrying spikes in radiation. Readings of Strontium 90 - which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer - measuring 710 Becquerels per liter (far higher than the 10 Becquerels per liter limit) have been found. The above-limit water has been moved to storage facilities and below-limit water released. In addition, water taken from a drainage ditch near one storage tank at the site showed 59,000 Becquerels per liter of beta-emitting radioactive materials such as strontium. The reading is ten times the reading of 5,000 Becquerels found two days earlier.
In a further development, TEPCO stated that water found in a monitoring well last week that was last found to contain record levels of contamination (400,000 Becquerel per liter of beta ray sources, including strontium), may have taken two months to travel the ten meters to the well. "Radioactive water that escaped the tank probably seeped into the soil around pumping equipment adjacent to the well and migrated into the well itself," said Masayuki Ono, acting general director of TEPCO's Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division. The company has now dug "bypass" wells allowing groundwater to flow directly to the sea without coming into contact contaminated areas of the site. The site is now storing 340 million liters of contaminated water which is enough to "fill Yankee Stadium to the brim". Four hundred tons run into the Pacific Ocean every day.
After criticism of TEPCO's methods last week by former chairman US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko, another former chairman, Dale Klein, added his voice. He accused TEPCO of failing to draw up adequate contingency plans to deal with the crisis. “Tepco didn’t play enough of these what-if games. They didn’t have enough of that questioning attitude,” he said. Others have joined the chorus of disapproval. Groundwater expert and TEPCO adviser Atsunao Marui says the company did not have a single groundwater expert out of 40,000 employees at the time of the disaster.
Japan's Prime Minister Abe visited the port of Soma in Fukushima Prefecture this week in an attempt to allay public concerns over contaminated fish and seafood. Mr Abe sampled octopus caught in Fukushima waters saying, "I want everyone in the country to know they (fishery products from Fukushima) are good and safe." The Prime Minister also stated this week that, "We are monitoring radiation levels, and they are far below the safety limits for radioactive materials. The effects of the contaminated water are being completely blocked." A change in his language, however, may suggest that he is backing away from his recent insistence that the water crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is "under control". Answering questions from a budget committee, Mr Abe said, "The situation is under control all in all". He also faces an uphill battle convincing the Japanese people of his certainty. Yuichiro Tamaki from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan quoted a newspaper survey that found "about 80 percent of respondents lacked faith (in Abe’s assessment)".
Mr Abe's recent claim that "the effects of radioactive substances in the sea are contained within 0.3 square kilometers of the plant’s port" seems to have also been undermined by the discovery of Cesium-137 measuring 1.6 becquerels per liter one kilometer from the Fukushima plant. The readings are currently below the World Health Organisation's safety standards for drinking water.
In separate news, TEPCO also announced this week that it plans to start removing spent fuel from a storage pool in the Reactor #4 building early November. The pool contains 1,000 fuel assemblies and the work is expected to take until the end of 2014.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Liberal Democrat Party sources let it be known this week that, despite the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the government would maintain its medium and long-term policies for keeping nuclear power in Japan's energy mix. The government is expected to update its basic energy policy by the end of 2013. The policy has been in place since 2010 and changes will reportedly include lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.
It also emerged this week that in the early days of the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, the Obama administration expressed concerns that "entrenched bureaucratic behavior would exacerbate an unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan and called on Tokyo to remove those barriers to avert a catastrophe". Foreign Office records, obtained by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper under freedom of information requests, show President Obama was disturbed by the Japanese government's apparent lack of urgency over the unfolding crisis and how red-tape would hinder offers of international assistance. In a recent interview, Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister at the time of the disaster, confirmed the US's fears. “I think the president was feeling what I was feeling. Accurate information did not reach me. Information conduits were clogged up,” he said.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Officials for Japan's environment ministry admitted this week that the decontamination of six towns and villages around the Fukushima Daiichi plant will take up to three years longer than expected meaning evacuated citizens will have to wait much longer to return to their homes if they choose to. The work was supposed to be completed by March 2014 but the process has been more complicated than expected and work on the most contaminated areas has not yet started. “We would have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years, we haven’t exactly decided yet,” said ministry official Shigeyoshi Sato. Mr Sato also blamed a lack of storage facilities for radioactive waste. A new roadmap for decontamination efforts is expected by the end of this year.
This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s international expert mission presented its Preliminary Summary Report on decontamination efforts in areas affected by the Fukushima disaster. The report welcomed "the extensive provision of individual dosimeters so that residents can monitor their own radiation dose rates". It urged the government "explain to the public that an additional individual radiation dose of 1 millisievert per year (mSv/y), which it has announced as a long-term goal, cannot be achieved in a short time by decontamination work alone.” The IAEA feels that this is acceptable: “In remediation situations, with appropriate consideration of the prevailing circumstances, any level of individual radiation dose in the range of 1 to 20 mSv/y is acceptable and in line with international standards and the recommendations of the relevant international organisations such as the IAEA, International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and World Health Organisation (WHO)." But the IAEA does advise to that further optimization is needed “with the aim of obtaining the maximum benefit for the health and safety of the people affected.” “An annual dose of 1 millisievert is a targeted long-term goal,” said a Fukushima Prefecture official. However, many residents are not happy with this state of affairs, particularly in places such as Tamura in Fukushima Prefecture. The government announced the cleanup in Tamura finished in June but has postponed lifting the evacuation order there until next spring after residents expressed their concerns. This month, Greenpeace radiation experts found contamination levels in Tamura city "that are clearly too high."
Japan's Fisheries Ministry announced this week that it will soon publish radiation test results of fish and seafood in Korean in the hope this may encourage South Korea to lift its ban on importing fish and seafood from prefectures around and including Fukushima. The ban has been in place since September 9. Japanese experts have stated that contamination from Fukushima has had little impact on fish. “(Contamination levels) of fish now coming to the market are well below the government safety threshold. We consider them safe to eat,” said Jun Misonoo, from the government-linked the Marine Ecology Research Institute. However, Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution offered a different view. After having monitored the waters around Fukushima, he said “I could swim in that water. But you might not want to eat those fish. It’s a serious concern for internal doses. (Radionuclides) are now on the seafloor and could stay in the food chain for years, if not decades.”
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Naoto Matsumura, a resident and farmer in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture unveiled an exhibition of photographs this week showing the impact of the Fukushima crisis on livestock and pets. Tens of thousands of animals were left behind when people were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the disaster. Mr Matsumara returned some after and began caring for some of the animals despite his house being just 12 kilometers from the damaged Fukushima reactors. “When I (returned and) approached the animals, they mooed and meowed. (They were so happy to see me). That’s why I stayed in my house,” he said. Despite having no gas, electricity or running water, he cares for cows, ostriches, a pony, dogs and cats.