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
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assertions last week that the Fukushima nuclear disaster is “under control” and that highly radioactive water has been “completely blocked” within a .3 km square area of TEPCO’s port on the Pacific Ocean are coming under fire, with international parties, government officials, and even TEPCO questioning the claims. Abe was delivering a presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Buenos Aires, in an effort to secure a bid for Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Games. Tokyo was eventually awarded the honor.
During his speech, Abe said, “Some may have concerns about Fukushima. Let me assure you, the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.” Nevertheless, both China and South Korea have raised concerns that Japan has not been entirely forthcoming about the Fukushima leaks, and TEPCO admitted that it sent an inquiry to the government, asking it to clarify Abe’s statement and his intentions. “It is hard to tell what can be called as being ‘under control’, but it is certain that you can’t say the contaminated water has been ‘completely blocked’ in a technical sense,” acknowledged a Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) official. Seiji Takeda, Head Researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), said that he believes the water is still flowing into the ocean, probably via a trench located near reactor #2, based on tritium levels in seawater samples. TEPCO has set up silt fences within the bay, in order to restrict the flow of some radioactive materials, but tritium is still able to permeate the barrier. Although radiation levels are lower in the open ocean than they are within the port, experts say that they have “simply been diluted by large quantities of seawater.” Those experts remain worried that radiation is accumulating at the bottom of the ocean, thereby affecting plants and fish, and is contaminating the food chain.
Local fishermen, whose livelihoods have been decimated by the Fukushima disaster, are furious at Abe. Toshimitsu Konno, a fisherman from Soma, said, “He must be kidding. We have been tormented by radioactive water precisely because the nuclear plant has not been brought under control. [Abe] can say [it has been] completely blocked, because he does not know what is going on at the site.”
Meanwhile, despite the Prime Minister’s declaration, the radioactive water situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues to worsen. On Tuesday, TEPCO reported that groundwater samples taken from a well located 20 meters north of a tank that recently leaked 300 tons of contaminated water contained 64,000 Bq/liter of radioactive tritium. That reading was more than double that of just one day before, when it measured 29,000 Bq/liter; on Sunday, groundwater from the same well measured only 4,200 Bq/liter. TEPCO said it was investigating the cause of the rapid increase in radiation, and said that workers will dig more wells in order to further assess how contamination is spreading in groundwater. Experts suspect that water from the 300-ton leak—which the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) rated Level 3 (“serious incident”) on the International Radiological and Nuclear Events Scale (INES)—has seeped into nearby soil and is spreading. They are not able to explain, though, how that is occurring, since the well is not located near areas where groundwater is flowing. The Japan Times has referred to the area as a “radioactive swamp.”
In other news, TEPCO officials have ordered workers to dismantle the tank from which 300 tons of water leaked, in an effort to discover the root of the problem. NRA officials have advised the utility to examine all parts of the tank, including joints and steel panels, as well as its foundation. TEPCO hopes to finish dismantling the tank by the end of next week. The Fukushima Daiichi plant has more than 1,000 holding tanks dotting its compound, containing a total of 340,000 tons of radioactive water. Some of these tanks were constructed by welding steel panels, but 350 others were made by bolting together panels, a cheaper and faster method of construction. Five of those bolted tanks have now sprung leaks, and experts are worried that more will follow. None of the 1000 tanks has a lifespan longer than five years. In addition to those concerns, Joto Kanda, a professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, is warning that another earthquake or tsunami could destroy some or all of the tanks onsite, causing a massive disaster. “We still have extremely contaminated water in those tanks,” he said. “In that sense, we are in a crisis-like situation.”
Victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, many of whom are still unable to return to their homes two and a half years after the crisis first began to unfold, are expressing anger and disbelief following an announcement by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office that says it will not prosecute 40 high-ranking TEPCO and government officials, including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and then-Chair and President of TEPCO, Tsunehisa Katsumata and Masataka Shimizu, respectively. Past Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Banri Kaieda, former head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), were also named in the suit. Approximately 1,500 victims filed the case, charging officials with professional negligence resulting in death and injury. In particular, criticism is building around prosecutors’ failure to conduct raids on TEPCO’s offices, in order to gather pertinent documents.Hiroyuki Kawai, lead attorney for the victims, blasted the investigation. “How can they say that they conducted a thorough investigation when they did not carry out any raids on relevant offices? From the very beginning, it was not an investigation seeking indictments, but rather, one conducted so that no indictments would be handed down. As long as there is the possibility that new evidence could emerge, such raids should have been carried out, and a decision should have only been made after all the evidence was examined,” he said.
TEPCO has asked Lake Barrett, a former official of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who worked on the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, to advise it on dealing with the ongoing contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Lake also worked at the US Department of Energy. In his new capacity, he will act as an advisor to the Contaminated Water and Tank Countermeasures Headquarters, which was established in August.
Japan’s Environment Ministry announced this week that its original roadmap for decontaminating seven of eleven municipalities affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster—a task that that was supposed to be completed at the end of this fiscal year—is no longer valid. Officials gave no new deadlines for when decontamination efforts will be finished. Both residents and local government officials, who are trying to determine when people will be able to return to their homes and how to rebuild communities, are up in arms. Minami-Soma, Iitate, Kawamata, Katsurao, Namie, Tomioka, and Futaba are all affected. Decontamination efforts have not yet begun in Namie and Tomioka, and a basic plan hasn’t even been drafted to clean up Futaba. Ministry officials are indirectly blaming local communities for the delay, citing an inability to find “temporary” storage sites for radioactive debris that results from the cleanup, although efforts to actually decontaminate affected areas have been riddled with problems, and have often been ineffective. Many residents have expressed concern that those sites will become permanent repositories for the waste, and are worried about radiation leaks and what will happen if another natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami, occurs.
Nobuteru Ishihara, who heads the Environment Ministry, admitted that the timeline for the project was ill conceived. “The road map was worked out hastily, amid confusion,” he said. Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno angrily agreed, noting, “It was but an armchair theory worked out by people who knew nothing about the front-line ordeals of the cleanup process. Rather than saying, ‘Temporary disposal sites haven’t been selected,’ and laying the blame on local bodies, they need to act while understanding how residents feel.” Muneo Kanno, a farmer from Iitate who was forced to evacuate, said, “I have run out of patience. We villagers are brimming with distrust of the central government and are concerned about whether we can eventually return. We are left deprived of our lives, and our return has been kept on hold. Central government officials must have known that the initial plan was unfeasible; why didn’t they tell us earlier?”
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Even if decontamination efforts are eventually successful, local governments may have a difficult time convincing people that it’s both safe and worthwhile to return to their homes. Currently, 84,000 people are still restricted from areas affected by the Fukushima disaster. In areas where residents have been allowed to return, approximately 40% have opted not to do so, citing lack of infrastructure such as stores and hospitals, failure to find employment opportunities, and fear of both radiation and future nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Recent news about contaminated water leaks has done nothing to keep those fears at bay.
However, evacuation carries its own risks. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross Societies (IFRC) reports that evacuation from the Fukushima disaster has killed more people than the 2011 earthquake and tsunami combined. A total of 1,599 people were killed by the March 11, 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent massive tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of Japan. Red Cross documents show that 1,600 people have now died as a result of their evacuation status. Causes of death include poor conditions in evacuation shelters, illness and exhaustion from forced travel, lack of adequate hospital care, and suicide. A spokesman for the IFRC, Francis Markus, explained the gravity of the situation in Japan.“What we are seeing are some very, very difficult social and emotional effects that communities are having to cope with. A lot of the people suffering are the older generation, and they need a lot of support to make it through with as little ill effect as possible. It’s a very serious and painful existence. People from the worst affected areas are really very concerned as to when they will be able to go back, and if they will be able to go back at all,” he said.