Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Wednesday, September 11 marks exactly two and half years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, and many areas near the plant will remain uninhabitable for decades. Experts estimate that decommissioning the crippled reactors will take 40 years or more.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO admitted this week that a recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water from a defective tank is spreading underground, and has contaminated groundwater at the Fukushima Daiichi compound. Officials announced the leak on August 19, but believe that it began back in July and had been seeping out for at least six weeks. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) rated the incident Level-3, “very serious,” on the International Radiological and Nuclear Events Scale (INES). Last week, workers discovered groundwater samples measuring 650 Bq/liter of radioactive materials, including strontium-90, from a well that was located 20 meters south of the tank. Yesterday, groundwater collected from a well 20 meters north of the tank measured 3,200 Bq/liter.Strontium-90 is very dangerous because it accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer. Radiation levels at a nearby drain valve measured 16 millisieverts per hour, leading officials to believe that more contaminated water is leaking from the valve. TEPCO plans to dig more wells to determine how far the contamination has spread. Company officials are insisting that toxic water pouring into the ocean has stayed within the plant’s port, and has not moved further into the sea.
Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the Fukushima radioactive water crisis is “a matter of high priority that needs to be addressed.” He was speaking at an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna.
A joint government and TEPCO task force assigned to deal with the fast-growing water issue met in Naraha for the first time yesterday. The group ordered TEPCO to present a plan to replace defective water storage tanks by October, and said that the utility should increase the size of barriers surrounding tanks holding the contaminated water.
A recent poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun shows that 72% of those polled think that Prime Minister Abe’s recent efforts to address the Fukushima leaks—including establishment of the task force and allocation of 47 billion yen ($473 million) of taxpayers’ money to deal with the problem—are “late.” A whopping 89% feel that the government should take charge of the Fukushima disaster, and 95% of respondents said that the growing radioactive water crisis at Fukushima is “serious.”
Prosecutors who had been investigating a potential legal case against 40 government and TEPCO officials who were charged with alleged professional negligence resulting in death and injury have decided not to indict any of the defendants. Those charged included former Prime Minister Naoto Kan; Tsunehisa Katsumata, who was Chairman of TEPCO; and Masataka Shimizu, the company’s president. Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Banri Kaieda, former head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), were also targeted. Lawyers involved said that proving criminal liability would be too difficult, because no one could have predicted the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. Their assessment comes despite TEPCO’s own in-house reports, produced as early as 2008, which said that a tsunami exceeding the design standards of the Fukushima Daiichi plant could strike the Japanese coast. Hiroyuki Kawai, who represented the Fukushima residents who filed the lawsuit, said he plans to submit the case to an inquest panel of civilians, and will file criminal charges with police in Fukushima Prefecture. Local residents, who are still forbidden from returning to their homes because of dangerous radiation levels there, expressed anger and frustration. One man from Namie said he did not understand why no one was being held responsible for the nuclear crisis. Another said that politicians who pushed to build the plant should also be held accountable.
Financial Impact on Japan
The Fukushima nuclear disaster has begun to take a significant toll on Japan’s economy. This week, South Korea announced that it would halt exports of all fishery products from eight Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, and would tighten restrictions on seafood from other areas of the country. The new limits will remain in place indefinitely. A spokesman for Jung Hong-won, Prime Minister of South Korea, explained, “The measures are due to the sharply increased concern of the public about the flow of hundreds of tons of contaminated water into the ocean at the site of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.” Another South Korean government source noted, “If nothing was done, criticism would have been directed at the South Korean government. It is likely believed that there was a need to placate the public by taking serious measures.” The South Korean public has become increasingly wary of Japanese seafood imports, citing radiation fears and concerns that both the Japanese government and TEPCO have not been forthcoming about leaks and risks from the nuclear crisis. Despite experts’ suspicions to the contrary, TEPCO spent much of the last two and a half years denying that highly radioactive water was pouring into the nearby Pacific Ocean, but then was forced to rescind that claim in June. Experts estimate that 300 tons of toxic water is leaking into the sea each day.
The Japanese fisheries industry has been decimated by the Fukushima disaster, with fishermen from the northeast especially hard hit. But analysts believe that South Korea’s decision could destroy the industry nationwide, particularly if other countries follow suit. Last year, Japan exported $92 million worth of fish to South Korea, accounting for 13% of its total seafood exports. In response to the South Korean decision, Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato said, “We are conducting strict inspections and only safe products are going to the market. Providing accurate information will lead to eliminating [negative publicity about Fukushima’s seafood].”
Farmers are also taking a hit as a result of the Fukushima disaster; many people in Japan are hesitant to buy and eat food produced in the prefecture. Prices of food from Fukushima continue to drop. In an effort to break that trend, the Science Council of Japan has proposed that the government enact stricter inspections of food in order to reassure consumers and reduce harmful rumors. In addition, they said that farms across Japan should be tested for radiation, the government should release maps showing which areas have been adversely affected, radiation should be better monitored, and information among various agencies and educational institutions should be coordinated.
Moody’s Investors Service said that Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis, including failure by the government and TEPCO to adequately address radioactive water leaks, acts as a “credit negative” factor in determining Japan’s credit rating. Nevertheless, the company said that it will retain its Aa3 rating of the country.
Despite the negative effect that the Fukushima disaster has had on Japan, Prime Minister Abe is continuing to push for exports of Japanese nuclear technology. He recently signed agreements with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and is exploring similar arrangements with Brazil, South Africa, and India. Tatsuya Murakami, Mayor of Tokaimura in Ibaraki Prefecture, slammed the move. “We have not been able to determine the cause [of the Fukushima disaster] and many of the Fukushima residents are still displaced. And we don’t know the future of Fukushima. I don’t think that Japan is qualified to export nuclear infrastructure. Such exports are unethical, and the government should stop this shameful act,” he said.
Other News in Japanese Nuclear Politics
Despite the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo on Saturday. Madrid and Istanbul were also contenders. During a press conference,Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted that the situation at Fukushima is “under control.” He added, “I would like to state clearly that there has not been, is not now, and will not be any health problems whatsoever. Furthermore, the government has already decided a program to make sure that there is absolutely no problem, and we have already started.” Tsunekazu Takeda, who heads the Japanese Olympic Committee, said, “Tokyo [which is just 250 km (140 miles) from Fukushima] is very safe. The water, the seafood, and also the radiation are absolutely safe.” Meanwhile, leaks at the plant continue to worsen. Many critics have said that Japan should spend its resources on decontaminating areas affected by the crisis, compensating victims, and decommissioning the Daiichi reactors, rather than building new infrastructure to support the Olympic games. Kazuyoshi Sato, a municipal official from Iwaki, just 30 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said, “I don’t think anyone can say that it is true that it is under control.” But others expressed hope that international pressure to address the nuclear crisis would increase as a result of the winning bid. “Now, the eyes of the world will be watching,” said Yumiko Okada, a resident of Tokyo.