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’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which is designed to remove many (but not all) radioactive nuclides from water used to cool the crippled Fukushima reactors, shut down again this week after an alarm sounded, just the latest in a series of mechanical difficulties for the system. Officials blamed the way the system had been programmed, which allowed for programming of discordant directions. “The reason the warning sounded was because conflicting signals were sent at the same time, instructing that water be flushed out, but also not allowing other water to enter,” noted a company official. It was eventually restarted using a manual override, after being inoperable for 12 hours on October 4. In the beginning of the month, the system shut down after a rubber mat clogged a pipe. Workers left the mat behind after using it to protect a tank floor from a metal ladder while performing repairs. Earlier this year, the utility intentionally stopped test operations when it realized that the radioactive water the system is designed to treat was so corrosive that it burned holes in the stainless steel tanks. They have since been coated with resin.
But problems at the plant persist, much of them a result of human error. Just three days after the ALPS incident, power required to maintain cooling functions at reactor #2 briefly went out, after an employee mistakenly hit the wrong switch. Although a backup generator kicked in soon after, the incident highlights a long string of problems with the plant’s power supply, necessary to keep the crippled reactors there from melting down. Last spring, power to the plant was shut off when rats chewed through wiring and electrocuted themselves, shorting out the system—twice. This summer, a worker pushed the wrong button and disconnected power to the cooling system for more than two hours.
TEPCO’s President, Naomi Hirose, acknowledged the high percentage of incidents attributed to human error at Fukushima Daiichi while testifying before a Parliamentary Upper House panel on Monday. The lawmakers have been tasked with addressing the large number of radioactive water leaks at the plant. Hirose said that some of the errors can be attributed to worker exhaustion and promised to provide more lounges at the site, as well as to hire additional staff. The latter may be difficult, though, in a nation where working for TEPCO has become a reviled profession.
Monday’s meeting followed one on Friday, when Hirose met with members of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), after yet another leak of highly radioactive water near reactor #4. The 430 liters of spilled water contained 200,000 Bq/liter of radioactive materials, including strontium, nearly 6,700 times the legal amount. Strontium accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer.
TEPCO admitted that that the leak occurred when workers were trying to pump large amounts of rainwater, which had built up within a barrier surrounding several tanks as a typhoon was striking Japan’s shore, into the storage receptacle. The storage tanks in question had been built on an incline, and only one tank had a water gauge. The workers thought that they were filling the tank to 98.6% capacity, but because it was located further down the hill from the gauge, in fact, it overflowed. During the proceedings, NRA Secretary-General Katsuhiko Ikeda slammed TEPCO for its continuing poor handling of the water crisis. “That these leaks occurred due to human error is very regrettable. The failure to make rudimentary checks reflects a clear deterioration in the ability to manage the site,” he said. “Problems have been caused by basic mistakes. They will recur unless appropriate site control measures are taken.” Ikeda is urging TEPCO to increase the number of workers at Fukushima Daiichi, including bringing staff in from its other plants. That could affect the company’s ability to restart reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, which officials hope will bring it back to profitability.
Indeed, TEPCO is in a financial quagmire right now. Although the company is currently valued at $83 billion, that number is misleading. It includes assets such as reactors #5 and #6 at Fukushima Daiichi, and four reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant. All six will most likely be decommissioned before they ever go back online. And, the utility posted $27 billion in losses since the crisis first started, and is expected to lose $21 billion more by the end of this fiscal year. In fact, the company’s debts are five times that of its assets. “It’s all Kabuki [theater]. TEPCO still faces significant problems,” said Tom O’Sullivan, a Tokyo-based energy consultant. “You have the trade minister saying that the utility is fine. You have TEPCO’s president…applying for restarts, and you have banks falling in line to roll over loans. It’s a very orchestrated presentation.” CV Ramachandran, an executive with Alix Partners in Hong Kong, observed, “The biggest challenge in the TEPCO situation is that the total liabilities are unknown. Estimates vary widely and the latest water leakage issues are likely to further increase liabilities.”
More than two and a half years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally reached out for international assistance this week. “My country needs your knowledge and expertise. We are wide open to receive the most advanced knowledge from overseas to contain the problem,” he said, while speaking at an international science meeting in Kyoto. The statement is a major turnaround. Other countries, including the US and Russia, have repeatedly offered technical assistance, but Japan has consistently, albeit politely, rebuffed the offers. Some analysts have charged that both TEPCO and the central government were loathe to award lucrative decontamination and decommissioning contracts to non-Japanese companies, in a nation where the nuclear industry has long had a cozy relationship with government regulators.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which recently urged TEPCO and Japan to accept foreign assistance, has announced that it will conduct another in-person visit to the plant, in order to “review the implementation of remediation activities in areas affected by the accident…and provide advice to address associated challenges.” Specifically, the group will address cleanup challenges and the ongoing contaminated water crisis. The decision comes after Japan requested the IAEA’s presence.
In the midst of all of TEPCO’s ongoing challenges—including leaks, a power outage, and failure of its water decontamination system—the Asahi Shimbun has revealed that the utility “donated” 133.4 million yen (nearly $1.4 million) to the town of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture—host of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Tohoku Electric also contributed 66.6 million yen. TEPCO has plans to build a nuclear reactor there, and Tohoku began operation of a reactor in Rokkasho in 2005. The announcement comes despite the fact that TEPCO promised to stop making such “donations” in 2012, and at a time when it is responsible for decommissioning the reactors that melted down, decontaminating areas around the plant that were destroyed by radiation, and compensating tens of thousands of victims who were forced to evacuate their homes. Last year, the government injected one trillion yen into the company to prevent it from going bankrupt, and the utility asked the government to approve rate hikes for consumers. TEPCO and Tohoku say that the Rokkasho payments, which have occurred on a yearly basis since 2010 and are slated to continue for five years from that date, are designed to promote fishing in the region, but many analysts call these sorts of payments thinly-veiled bribes made in exchange for hosting nuclear facilities. Last year, TEPCO tried to include the fees into calculations for residential rate hikes, but the Industry Ministry denied the request.