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
In response to a growing radioactive water crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant—and to assuage concerns of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is in the process of deciding whether or not Tokyo should host the 2020 Summer Games—Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, announced this week that the government will spend 47 billion yen of taxpayer money (nearly half a billion dollars) to deal with worsening water problems at the plant. In addition, Abe said that the government will begin to implement a coordinated effort to address problems at Fukushima, rather than the piecemeal, haphazard approach TEPCO has embraced over the last two and a half years. “Instead of the ad hoc approaches that have been taken in the past [by TEPCO], we put together a basic policy today that will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water. The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved.” The announcement was made during a meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, of which all cabinet ministers are participants. Additional reports this week revealed that Abe and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which works to promote nuclear energy, had announced the 47 billion yen allocation without first checking with the Ministry of Finance. One official from Abe’s office admitted, “The issue of the Olympics is at hand. We can’t leave things unattended forever.” Other officials have admitted that the Olympic bid has spurred the government to finally address Fukushima.
The newly allocated funding will be divided as follows: 32 billion yen will be spent on building a frozen wall around the reactor buildings, in order to try to reduce the flow of contaminated groundwater into the sea. The government has earmarked an additional 15 billion yen to improving TEPCO’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a purification system designed to remove many radioactive substances from contaminated water. Unfortunately, that water is so corrosive that it began to eat away at the ALPS tank, causing a leak. The system is now being repaired, and officials hope to be able to test it again by the end of this month. Of the allocated funding, 21 billion yen will be taken from reserve funds set aside in the current 2013 fiscal budget. Those monies were supposed to be spent on dealing with natural disasters. In addition, Abe said that he will create a special committee of ministers to deal directly with the water crisis; officials from those ministries will be stationed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant full time. One government official noted, “The central government is moving into this area because the groundwater continues to flow into the plant site.”
Some experts have expressed concern that out of the 47 billion yen, no funds have been allocated to repair or replace leaking storage tanks on the compound. TEPCO is currently holding 430,000 tons of water in 1,000 tanks scattered across the grounds of the plant (as well as in leaky reactor building basements). That amount increases by 400 tons each day as groundwater flows into the damaged buildings, consequently becoming contaminated. Several tanks have begun to leak over the last month, and one leak was so severe—300 tons of highly radioactive water poured out—that it prompted Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to rate the incident Level 3 on the International Radiological and Nuclear Events Scale (INES). Of the 1,000 tanks, 350 were constructed using bolts rather than welding them together. TEPCO chose the bolted variety because they are cheaper and faster to construct, but they are already beginning to leak and need to be replaced. Last week, piping connected to one of those tanks also began leaking, raising concerns that the problem may be far more widespread—the Fukushima Daiichi plant sports a vast network of pipes (connected to both welded and bolted tanks) and it could be difficult to pinpoint problems if more pipes are found to be defective. When asked about the lack of funding to deal with the tank issue, a government official from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy said only, “We will consider the issue in the future.”
Analysts have long questioned why the Japanese government took two and a half years to intervene in the ongoing nuclear crisis, as TEPCO constantly bungled steps necessary to decontaminate and decommission the plant. Fukushima has been fraught with multiple power losses (twice caused by rats which chewed through wires); equipment breakdowns; repeated failures to protect worker safety; and multiple leaks of highly radioactive water, some of them immense. Public confidence in TEPCO is low, but the nuclear power industry has long had a cozy relationship with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and both are pushing to restart reactors across Japan and export nuclear technology, even as the problems at Fukushima multiply. Gregory Jaczko, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), noted, “I think that there was a lot of attention on trying to restart reactors. People put this issue on the back burner and didn’t give it as much attention and focus as it probably needed. The government stepping in is a fairly strong statement that they’re trying to restore confidence in the Japanese nuclear industry. It’s a response, I think, to what is failing confidence in TEPCO’s ability to manage this project successfully.” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who led a major independent investigation into the Fukushima disaster, said, “Japan is clearly living in denial. Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off problems until the future.”
Many are charging that the government is acting now only in an effort to secure Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic Summer Games. Madrid and Istanbul are also contenders, but Tokyo is considered the front-runner. The IOC will announce its decision on Saturday from Buenos Aires. However, during a press conference conducted by the Japanese bid committee this week, which was attended by more than 100 journalists, four out of six questions revolved around Fukushima and Japan’s ability to keep athletes and spectators safe. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is just 250 km (155 miles) from Tokyo. Officials insist that there will not be any problems.
In the meantime, many experts are urging Japan to enlist the help of international agencies and other groups not directly connected to the country’s nuclear industry. Numerous countries, including the US and Russia, have offered assistance over the last two and a half years, but their offers have been largely rebuffed. Some say it’s because Japan wanted to keep lucrative decontamination and decommissioning contracts within its own borders. Now, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of METI (which oversees the Fukushima decommissioning process), said that officials have been in contact with US experts at an unnamed national research institutionregarding the best ways to deal with the constant leaks and glut of contaminated water. “We will be looking for the best knowledge, technology, and information with regard to how to manage the contaminated water at the plant and how to decommission the complex,” he said. But, another METI official said that no decision had been made regarding foreign advice or intervention.
Dealing with the water crisis will be a difficult task. Beta radiation escaping from a suspected tank leak discovered last week has increased, from 1,800 millisieverts per hour on Sunday to 2,200 millisieverts per hour on Tuesday. A person not wearing protective gear would die within four hours if exposed to the 1,800 millisievert dose. TEPCO is not able to explain why the levels were increasing.
In addition, workers found additional high radiation 100 meters south of the 300-ton leak, at a tank located in the plant’s H6 area. Levels measured 100 millisieverts per hour, but officials believe that they are far higher; the monitors used to measure the radiation were only capable of recording 100 millisieverts or less. TEPCO did not find leaking water near the tank, but is continuing to investigate.
Perhaps most concerning, groundwater samples collected yesterday contained 650 Bq/liter of radioactive strontium-90, which is highly dangerous: it collects in human bones and has been linked to cancer. Experts say that strontium and other radioactive substances are almost certainly leaking into the ocean.
In order to deal with the deluge of groundwater that is surging through the compound, government engineers plan to conduct a feasibility study for the planned 1,400-meter long ice wall in October, during which they will insert steel pipes 30 meters into the ground around a 100 square meter area. Workers will then pump liquid calcium chloride, cooled to -40ºC into the soil, and hope that it freezes. Although this method has been used in the past to stabilize soil when building subways and other construction projects, it has never been used in such a large area or for such a long time. The Fukushima soil will probably need to be frozen for years or even decades. Experts have significant doubts about how effective the experiment will be. Just testing the project will cost 1.3 billion yen ($13 million); overall, the project is expected have a price tag of at least $400 million.
In other news, TEPCO said this week that it has finally located one area in which groundwater is leaking into the building housing reactor #1. That building is connected to a trench that runs out to the Pacific Ocean. This is the first time since the nuclear crisis began that a leak in a reactor building has been identified. Workers drilled a hole through the first floor and inserted a camera, which allowed them to see and hear groundwater rushing into the building. Officials said that they will conduct additional studies to figure out how to stop the leak, and how to discover others. TEPCO believes that 70,000 tons of highly radioactive water is sitting in the basements of reactors #1, #2, #3, and #4. An additional 400 tons of groundwater flows in daily.
Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture continue to mourn the loss of their livelihoods, and have begun to wonder if the art of fishing, a tradition in many families, will fade away for good. Young people who once would have followed in their fathers’ footsteps are now choosing other careers.Trial fishing was scheduled for September, in an effort to determine whether radiation levels in sea life had dropped enough for it to be safe to eat, but local fisheries cooperatives cancelled those tests in light of TEPCO’s recent announcement that radioactive water is flowing into the sea. TEPCO and METI hosted an informational meeting this week in Soma City; approximately 100 fishermen attended. Distrust in both the government and nuclear power industry remains high.