(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
Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) says that new estimates of nuclear power—which include the cost of evacuation, compensation, and decommissioning of reactors—raise the cost of nuclear energy by up to one yen per kilowatt-hour. The commission contends that this is still cheaper than other forms of power, although experts (including one member of the panel) say that the estimate should also include costs related to decontamination and waste storage—both ongoing issues in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. If those costs were included, the price per kilowatt-hour would be 12 times higher, exceeding the cost of coal and natural gas power.
In addition, the AEC panel said that recycling nuclear fuel may be less cost-effective than simply discarding it. Japan’s government is in the process of reviewing all aspects of its policies regarding nuclear power.
The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSCJ) has revealed that in spite of its repeated warnings to the contrary, Tokyo municipal officials failed to distribute iodine tablets to residents exposed to high levels of radiation immediately after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March. Iodine tablets can reduce the thyroid absorption rate of radiation, thereby preventing or reducing the chances of developing thyroid cancer. Nine hundred people received doses high enough that they would have been eligible for the tablets had they been available. A government task force investigating the causes of the nuclear crisis is expected to explore the issue further.
In spite of popular disapproval among the Japanese people, Japan is expected to sign an accord with Viet Nam, allowing for transfer of nuclear technology. Viet Nam is hoping to use the technology to build its first nuclear power plant beginning in 2014.
Hiroshima University will partner with the Japan Red Cross in cross-training to respond to nuclear disasters.
Representatives from 11 countries (including Angola, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Egypt, Finland, Lesotho, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, and the United States) visited Fukushima Prefecture this week in an effort to learn more about the effects of the nuclear crisis, tsunami, and earthquake.
Under Japan’s Nuclear Compensation Law, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has requested 120 billion yen from the Japanese government, in an effort to reimburse the 150 billion yen it has already paid out in damages to victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. The law provides that the government pay damages up to 120 billion yen for each nuclear accident—in essence, passing along those liability costs to the Japanese taxpayer.
TEPCO is abandoning its plan to build a retaining wall around three sides of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, citing lack of effectiveness. The utility originally hoped that the retaining wall would prevent radioactive water from contaminating nearby groundwater. TEPCO still plans to build a wall on the ocean side of the plant, which will stretch 800 meters. Construction will begin this week; officials expect to complete it in two years.
TEPCO will sell a 20% share in Euras Energy, which generates wind power, in order to cover compensation costs for victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. TEPCO denied reports that it plans to sell its uranium investments.
TEPCO expects to post a $7.64 billion net loss for fiscal year 2011, due to exorbitant compensation and decommissioning costs from the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The company has requested financial support for the government to offset some of those expenses.
State of the Reactors
For the first time, Japan has admitted that decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors will take more than 30 years, according to a report being drafted by the nation’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC). The process will include removing spent fuel from fuel ponds, which is expected to begin in 2015, and removing melted fuel from reactors, which will not begin until 2022. There are a total of 4,604 spent nuclear fuel rods at the plant; all must be removed, cooled, and stored under stable conditions. However, in order to remove the fuel, containment vessels of the reactors need to be filled with water to block radiation. Experts say that step may be difficult, since the vessels are leaking in numerous places.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)
A new study, led by scientist Andreas Stohl and released in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, reveals that the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant released almost twice as much radiation as official estimates announced by the Japanese government and TEPCO. The study used global radiation data to prove that only 20% of the radiation emitted fell over Japan, while 80% was dispersed over the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, data shows that significant amounts of radiation leaked from the spent fuel pool of Reactor 4. Japan had previously denied that any radiation leaks occurred in the fuel pool, blaming radiation emissions entirely on the damaged nuclear reactors.
France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a government-run agency, said this week that the Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster resulted in the largest-ever release of radiation into the Pacific Ocean. IRSN scientists estimate that 27.1 peta becquerels were released between March 21 and mid-July. A peta bequerel equals one million becquerels. The agency said that although ocean currents have diluted radiation concentration, coastal areas remain highly contaminated.
The hospital in Minami-Soma is reporting that over half of elementary and junior-high school students have exhibited low levels of radioactive cesium-137, presumably from inhaling it or ingesting it in foods. Officials plan to monitor the children to learn more about the effects of low-level radiation, on which there is currently little research. Earlier this year, 45% of children tested in areas of Fukushima Prefecture showed thyroid exposure to radiation, making them susceptible to developing thyroid cancer.
The Ranch of Hope: Fukushima Project, a grass-roots organization, is encouraging universities and research institutes to pursue radiation studies on animals wandering the 20 kilometer no-entry zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in an effort to keep them alive. Currently, experts estimate that approximately 2,000 cattle are roaming the countryside, many without dedicated food and water sources. Officials believe that 30,000 pigs and 680,000 chickens, as well as many cattle, have died over the past seven months as farmers were forced to evacuate the area. Many starved to death.
Scientists at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) are hoping a new method of soil decontamination will effectively reduce cesium levels. Researchers say that heating the soil to 800ºC and filtering the resultant fumes through filters could hypothetically evaporate the cesium.
Education officials in Chiba Prefecture said that high levels of radiation were discovered at two elementary schools in the city of Abiko. Radiation at one school measured 11.3 microsieverts per hour. At the second school, they measured 10.1 microsieverts per hour. Contaminated areas have been sealed off.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
The incinerator in Nagareyama, in Chiba Prefecture, which is temporarily storing radioactive ash after waste disposal sites refused to accept it, is on the verge of reaching capacity. Currently, the facility is housing 493 tons of ash stored in 1,260 bags. No decision has been reached on where to permanently store the radioactive waste.
Tokyo government officials announced that beginning in November, they will accept rubble and debris from Iwate Prefecture. The rubble will be crushed and burned; the resulting ash will then be dumped into Tokyo Bay.
Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, Goshi Hosono, will travel to Fukushima on Saturday to meet with Governor Yuhei Sato. Hosono plans to discuss the government’s plan to build interim nuclear waste storage facilities in the prefecture.
TEPCO has revised the damage assessment formula for tourism businesses applying for compensation for Fukushima nuclear disaster. Originally, TEPCO said it would cut estimates by 20% when determining compensation rates, a move that was met with resounding criticism.
Other Nuclear News
China’s Environmental Minister, Zhou Shengxian, has admitted that the nation’s nuclear reactors pose a danger to his country. Aging reactors, a lack of qualified staff, and flood and earthquake-prone geography have all contributed to a steadily declining level of safety. China currently has 13 active nuclear reactors, with an additional 28 under construction. In a speech published on the Chinese parliament’s website, Shengxian said, ‘The safety standards of China’s early-phase nuclear facilities are relatively low, operation times are long, some facilities are obsolete, and the safety risks are increasing.’
Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) announced that its Tokai Daini nuclear power plant, located in Ibaraki Prefecture, experienced a large leak of radioactive water on Wednesday, released at a rate of 400 liters per minute for over two and a half hours. Plant officials insisted that no radiation leaked into the atmosphere, and blamed the incident on workers who had mistakenly loosened a screw. Officials from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) estimated the leak at 64 tons of contaminated water, although plant officials said it was only 22.4 tons. The Mayor of Tokai Village is pushing for the closure of the plant, citing age of the reactor and concerns about villagers’ safety.
In an effort to restart its Oi Number 3 reactor, which was idled after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March, Kansai Electric is expected to submit stress test results to NISA on Friday. NISA anticipates that assessing the tests, which use computer simulations determine a plant’s ability to withstand natural disasters, will take months.