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
Another record was broken this week after TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, announced that radiation levels in a drainage ditch on October 23 were the highest since monitoring of drainage ditches began in August. Radiation from strontium - which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer - and other beta radiation sources, measuring 140,000 Becquerels per liter in water was recorded. The government limit for strontium releases is 30 Becquerels per liter. The reading was more than double that taken the previous day. "We believe it stems from the effects of rain that has fallen until now that has flushed out radioactive materials from the surrounding areas into the drainage ditch," a TEPCO official said. The drainage ditch in question is 600 metres from the sea.
In order to deal with the pools of contaminated rainwater that have accumulated since two typhoons brought heavy rainfall to the Fukushima plant, TEPCO has begun moving the water to underground storage tanks. TEPCO had previously stopped using these tanks after radioactive water escaped from one in April of this year. In addition, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority has allowed TEPCO to implement a simpler protocol for dealing with the contaminated rainwater accumulating behind barrier walls at the plant. In the event of another rainfall emergency, TEPCO is permitted to measure radioactivity in contaminated water without first transferring it to a temporary storage tank. The move comes after heavy rainfall on October 20 that threatened to inundate storage barriers before workers could implement the usual safety protocol. “It is not in our intention to change the protocol, but we are talking (to the NRA) about what to do during heavy rains,” said Noriyuki Imaizumi, acting general director of TEPCO's Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division. Atsunao Marui, a geochemist at the Geological Survey of Japan who has studied the water crisis at Fukushima, told the New York Times, “This has become a slowly unfolding environmental misery. If we don’t put a stop to the releases, we risk creating a new man-made disaster.”
TEPCO also said this week that it had restarted test operation of one of the Advanced Liquid Processing Systems (ALPS) at Fukushima. Two of the three of the ALPS units, which remove radioactive contamination from water, have been out of action since June when it was found that their storage tanks were being corroded. It is hoped that the third system will be operational again by mid-November.
In other news, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck 370 kilometres (230 miles) off the east coast of Japan on October 25. A tsunami advisory warning was issued but lifted two hours later. The resulting tsunami was up to 40 cm high in some areas. TEPCO said the quake did not cause further damage to the Fukushima reactors and no abnormal radiation readings were found. Staff working close to the sea were retreated as a safety precaution.
In a meeting with NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka this week, TEPCO president Naomi Hirose said the company is looking to transfer workers from power plants elsewhere in order to address to the growing staff crisis at Fukushima Daiichi. However, TEPCO vice president Zengo Aizawa voiced concerns about long-term staff levels. "We are not sure about our long-term staffing situation during the upcoming process of debris removal, which requires different skills," he said, adding he was open to the idea of recruiting workers from overseas. Recent reports have highlighted the plight of workers at the plant who are suffering low pay and morale, long hours and illegal hiring practices sometimes involving organized crime syndicates. At the same meeting, Mr Tanaka urged TEPCO to take "drastic measures" to stop the errors that have plagued the operation at Fukushima. He has previously talked about the "silly mistakes" made at the plant.
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", expressed concern this week of the long term viability of the government's financial support for TEPCO. It has been estimated that it will take 31 years to recover the money lent to TEPCO to pay compensation for the Fukushima disaster. Due to its parlous financial state TEPCO has so far been unable to make any repayments to the government. The problem is compounded by the fact that the government is selling bonds to finance the assistance it is giving to TEPCO. Interest payments on these bonds may reach 79.4 billion yen which will have to be paid by the Japanese taxpayer.
Meanwhile, documents have emerged showing TEPCO's refusal to pay for the costs for the Fukushima cleanup, with the refusal apparently being accepted by the government. The move is to prevent TEPCO becoming bankrupt and means the Japanese taxpayer will have to pay the bill. The document, dated February 21, says: "The company reached a conclusion that it is too difficult to pay." TEPCO has so far only paid 6.7 billion yen out of the 40.4 billion it owes the Japanese environment ministry which is in charge of decontamination efforts. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party will propose that the government cover part of the costs for decontamination work and all expenses to build intermediate storage facilities for radioactive debris, which means that taxpayers would end up paying the bill. The decontamination costs alone are estimated at more than 5 trillion yen (about $50 billion).
Other Nuclear News in Japan
News that the Japanese government is planning a secrecy law has raised concerns that it will have a chilling effect on journalism including the ability to report on events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. "This may very well be [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe's true intention - cover-up of mistaken state actions regarding the Fukushima disaster and/or the necessity of nuclear power. As things stand, the state gets a more or less free hand in deciding what constitutes a state secret and it can potentially keep things secret forever," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at SophiaUniversity. Under the law, which would broaden the definition of official secrets, journalist found guilty could face five years in prison.
This week Prime Minister Abe also responded to recent calls from former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for the country to abolish nuclear power. “I think it is irresponsible to promise zero (nuclear power plants) at this stage,” said Mr Abe. "Koizumi is probably playing his hunch (in arguing for zero nuclear plants), but Japan is losing nearly 4 trillion yen ($41 billion) in national wealth a year." However, Mr Koizumi's views have found approval with Japan's opposition political parties, including Your Party, the People’s Life Party and the Democratic Party of Japan. Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party said: "(Koizumi says) Japan must do away with nuclear plants because it cannot dispose of nuclear waste. It makes perfect sense. We will cooperate with people with any stance as long as we agree on zero nuclear plants."
It was announced by industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi that drawing up Japan's medium to long-term energy strategy will take three years and a further ten to implement. The government is legally obliged to revisit its Basic Energy Plan every three years which outlines the mix of energy sources the country will rely on.
The merger of the NRA and the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organisation (JNES) was also announced this week. It is hoped the move will give the NRA more access to knowledge and experience. Staff from JNES will mentor those with the NRA.
At the meeting mentioned above, between NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka and TEPCO president Naomi Hirose, Mr Tanaka linked the ongoing crisis at Fukushima Daiichi with TEPCO's plan to restart two reactors at its currently idle Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in NiigataPrefecture. “The NRA will decide whether to go ahead with the safety assessment [of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors] by seeing how the situation at Fukushima No. 1 improves.” Reactors #6 and 7 at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, the world's largest nuclear power plant, cannot be restarted before full safety screening by the NRA. TEPCO wants to restart them before the end of the 2014 fiscal year. The company hopes, by having the reactors operational again, it will be able to improve its financial fortunes.
However, TEPCO faces stiff opposition to its plans to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors in the shape of Niigata Prefecture Governor Hirohiko Izumida. Restarting the reactors is subject to Mr Izumida's approval but he has accused TEPCO of "institutionalized lying" and said this week that: "If they don't do what needs to be done, if they keep skimping on costs and manipulating information, they can never be trusted." He also called for TEPCO to lose its responsibility for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the company be forced into bankruptcy.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) into the effects of radiation on the people of Fukushima has been criticized by human rights groups and U.N. special rapporteur on the right to health Anand Grover. In its studies in Fukushima, UNSCEAR said it had found “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected.” However, Mr Grover has produced his own report which says the UNSCEAR report does not go far enough in ascertaining the effects of radiation on health. Japan's Human Rights Now have also called for UNSCEAR's report to be revised and recommend that evacuation from contaminated areas where radiation exceeds 1 millisievert per year rather than the government’s recommendation of 20 millisievert.
The government panel overseeing compensation payments to the victims of the Fukushima disaster are likely to allow payments to be stopped a year after evacuation orders are lifted. TEPCO currently pay 84,000 people 100,000 yen ($1,030) a month for psychological suffering. The Committee for Dispute Resolution for Compensating Damages from the Nuclear Power Plant Incident is expected to agree that TEPCO can cease payments "subject to change based on circumstances at the time" after one committee member said that one year is too short a time period. The actual compensation amounts paid by TEPCO were also revealed - "90 million yen in compensation, on average, for a four-person household who lived in a zone where residency is prohibited for an extended period."