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
For the third time in a week, human error caused a serious incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, this time resulting in a leak that splashed highly radioactive water over six workers. TEPCO reports that the workers were trying to disconnect an unused pipe from desalination equipment, but accidentally removed the wrong one. Approximately seven tons of water poured out before they were able to get the pipe reconnected more than an hour later. The water contained 34 million Bq/liter of radioactive materials, including strontium; the legal limit is 30 Bq/liter. Strontium accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer. Tests also showed that the water contained a combined 1,690 Bq/liter of cesium-134 and -137. Officials downplayed the risk to workers, saying that they were wearing facemasks and waterproof jackets, reducing the chance that they suffered internal exposure. The workers’ radiation doses of beta rays were measured at 1.2 millisieverts, and gamma rays at .42 millisieverts. Nevertheless, Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA), criticized TEPCO yet again for what he called “carelessness.” Less than a week before, the NRA ordered TEPCO to reduce the number of human-caused mistakes in dealing with the ongoing contaminated water crisis at the plant.
This leak follows numerous others, including one on October 3, when workers overfilled a tank of dangerously radioactive water, resulting in a spill of 430 liters. Some of that flowed into the Pacific Ocean via a nearby drainage ditch. And, on October 7, power needed to keep reactors from melting down was shut off when a worker mistakenly hit the wrong switch. In that instance, backup generators kicked in, but analysts point to it as an example of poor management of the nuclear crisis. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose attributed some of the errors to exhaustion among workers, who often toil long hours for little pay. He promised to provide more lounge facilities at the plant, and said he would hire additional staff. That may prove difficult, however, in a nation where the public has come to ostracize those working for nuclear power companies, especially TEPCO.
The most recent problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant may have deeper implications for TEPCO, particularly with regard to restarting its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. During an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, NRA Chief Shunichi Tanaka did not overtly dismiss the idea of granting approval to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, which the utility hopes will bring it back into financial solvency. But, he noted, “We will first and foremost evaluate the situation with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. [It] has been hit by trouble almost every day. We must wait until the current situation is settled and the utility can properly manage the facility. We will [then] examine if TEPCO is actually implementing what it states [it will].” Tanaka added, “The work environment at the Fukushima plant is fairly harsh. For such tough work, TEPCO’s regular employees should take the lead, but I wonder what actually has been going on at the site. TEPCO tends to use subcontractors and is likely to have avoided directly tackling [the problem].” He said that the NRA would take special care in evaluating the safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility. “We can’t work on the [Kashiwazaki-Kariwa] plant as quickly as other nuclear plants. The public won’t tolerate that.”
In response to the recent leaks at the Fukushima plant, and an offer by Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to provide assistance, both Tanaka and Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), requested IAEA help in monitoring radiation levels in ocean water off the coast of Japan. While trying to secure Tokyo as the host site of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that radioactive water was securely contained within TEPCO’s port. However, this week, radiation levels in seawater there, which was collected just off the coast of reactor #2, reached 1,200 Bq/liter of cesium, the highest measured in nearly two years, and 13 times greater than that of the day before. That amount far exceeded legal limits. In addition, TEPCO reported yesterday that radioactive cesium was discovered beyond its port, in the open sea and approximately one kilometer from the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Although contamination levels in that sample were within the bounds of legal limits, they prove that Abe’s statement that all radiation has remained contained within a .3 square meter area in the port is false. Even more worrying were samples that contained 160 Bq/liter of cesium, collected from an open sea area near the plant, but far from the port’s entrance. Radiation levels from that spot were nearly double that of a sample collected on the previous day.
In more bad news for Japan, a citizens’ watch group is reporting numerous radioactive hot spots at future venues for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, all located in and near Tokyo. The new data negates statements by Prime Minister Abe insisting that the situation is “under control” and that radiation levels in Tokyo are safe. The group asked 92 private citizens to use personal dosimeters to measure nine spots above both asphalt and grass at each of a number of proposed Olympic venues, checking readings at 5 cm and 1 meter above ground. The group then calculated the median measurement for each site, in order to reduce error. They found radiation levels high enough to require decontamination at the Yumenoshima Stadium, which Tokyo plans to raze in order to build facilities for equestrian events. Soil there contained 3,040 Bq/kg of cesium. Other venues with high radiation levels included the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, planned site for table tennis matches; the Yoyogi Gymnasium, proposed site for handball; and the Uminomori Cross Country Course, where equestrian events may be held. The group was not able to assess some of the other 37 proposed sites because they were too far away or construction was taking place there.
Takehiko Tsukushi, head of the citizens’ radiation assessment group, said, “The central and Tokyo metropolitan governments have not informed athletes and audiences around the world about data concerning possible radiation exposure…I felt it was our moral responsibility as citizens to conduct the measurement and inform people.” Tokyo government officials continue to insist that their own measurements have not shown high levels of radiation, and say that there is not a problem. Kunikazu Noguchi, an Associate Professor of radiation protection at Nihon University, is urging the metropolitan government to conduct additional testing. “Saying that there is no problem without even measuring for radiation is the same response as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government [denying that there were nuclear meltdowns] immediately after the Fukushima nuclear accident. As host nation for the Olympics, it is imperative that radiation levels at the venues be released,” he said. The citizens’ group notified the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and more than 200 national Olympic committees of its findings, but so far has received no response.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
The village of Iitate has signed an agreement with Japan’s Environment Ministry to incinerate radioactive waste from Fukushima and five additional prefectures on a short-term basis. Officials hope to complete the incineration facilities by the end of 2014; they will operate them for a period of three years. All of Iitate’s residents were forced to flee in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the area is still off-limits, as radiation levels remain too high for habitation. When possible, the government hopes to remove cesium from the burned ash and use the remaining residue to create construction materials. If cesium removal fails and the ash remains contaminated, it will be stored in concrete boxes and kept at an interim storage facility, which has yet to be designated.