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
Radioactive contamination of groundwater at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant continued to worsen this week. Officials at TEPCO reported that new groundwater samples collected on September 11 from a well located 20 meters north of a recent massive tank leak contained 97,000 Bq/liter of radioactive tritium, up from 64,000 Bq/liter just one day before. On September 8, samples contained only 4,200 Bq/liter.
Workers also discovered high levels of radioactive strontium in a drainage ditch 150 meters from the edge of the sea. Water samples contained 220 Bq/liter of strontium-90, and 104 Bq/liter of cesium. Both strontium and cesium have been linked to cancer and have long half-lives; strontium is known to accumulate in human bones. Officials say they believe that the contamination stems from workers using high-pressurized hoses to clean radioactive debris stemming from 300 tons of highly radioactive water that leaked from a storage tank onsite.That leak was announced on August 19, although the company now believes that it started at least six weeks earlier.Pressure from the hoses probably sent the contamination further downstream and into the sea. Water taken from other areas around the ditch contained 2,400 Bq/liter of strontium-90. A TEPCO company official admitted, “The possibility that some of the water may have reached the ocean cannot be denied.”
The ongoing leak has raised concern in Japan’s Parliament, prompting members of the Economy, Trade, and Industry Committee to call for an extraordinary meeting this month to discuss how to deal with the issue, despite the fact that the Diet is currently not in session. The group first began discussing a meeting on August 19, but agreed to a delay in order to avoid negative publicity in advance of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to award the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo on September 7. Madrid and Istanbul were also contenders. An official from the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, whose members have been hit hard by the nuclear disaster, noted, “We understand that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is one of the most important projects for Japan, but if the Diet delays dealing with these issues afflicting Fukushima Prefecture, the prefecture will suffer. Whether we will be able to survive or not depends on how you, our lawmakers, deal with the problem.”
In the meantime, TEPCO workers spent the first part of this week trying to prepare the Fukushima plant—still largely damaged and in many places, filled with debris from massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck in 2011—for the arrival of typhoon Man-yi, which was headed directly for the Daiichi compound. TEPCO reported that it weighted down several cranes on the premises, which in the past have been known to topple over, and tied down pipes and pumps used to cool crippled reactors. In addition, workers collected rainwater that was gathering around tanks holding toxic radioactive water, in an effort to prevent it from overflowing surrounding barriers. TEPCO officials said that the water contained acceptable limits of radioactivity, so they released it into the nearby Pacific Ocean. “The typhoon has little chance of destabilizing the reactors, but it will certainly add more water to a site already crowded with hastily assembled steel storage tanks and relatively poor oversight,” said Daniel Aldrich, a professor at Purdue University who writes about the politics of natural disasters and has studied Japanese nuclear power extensively.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent statement that the radioactive water crisis is “under control” was contradicted by TEPCO itself this week. The Prime Minister made his comments in Buenos Aires on September 7, while trying to convince members of the IOC to award hosting rights of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to Tokyo. Japan expects that honor to be quite lucrative. Abe also insisted that radioactive water within the port in front of the Fukushima Daiichi plant has stayed within a .0.3 square km area of the harbor. TEPCO was reportedly not consulted before Abe made his remarks. Kazuhiko Yamashita, an executive with the utility, subsequently told members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), “Predictable risks are under control, but what cannot be predicted is happening. We believe that the current conditions show that [the problem] is not under control.” The fact that Yamashita used almost the exact same language as Abe did the week before is raising eyebrows. The government immediately moved to contradict Yamsahita’s comments; Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held a news conference, during which he declared, “The effects of radioactive materials are confined within the plant’s harbor. Abe said that the situation is under control, meaning that steps will be taken to prevent the water from affecting the ocean.”
Nevertheless, the Japanese public largely doubts Abe’s statements. According to a new poll conducted on September 14 and 15 by the Mainichi Daily News, 66% of respondents said that they did not believe that the radioactive water crisis was under control. Just 8% believed that Abe’s statement that water in the port was “completely blocked” were accurate. And, a whopping 86% of those polled said that Japan should do whatever necessary to stop the ongoing leaks, no matter what the cost.
In spite of Yamashita’s comments, TEPCO is still downplaying the long-term effects of the toxic leaks, including the effect of contaminated water flowing into the ocean. Newly-hired TEPCO advisor Lake Barrett, who oversaw cleanup efforts at the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, said this week that the recent leaks at Fukushima are “not a concern,” and that vast amounts of radioactive water sitting in cracked reactor basements are being “adequately controlled.” Eventually, Barrett, who dismissed concerns of residents and fishermen, believes that low-level radioactive water should be released into the ocean. “My sense is that [the Japanese] are hesitant to do this because it’s a burden for the Japanese people, a burden for the fishermen, so [they think] ‘maybe we’ll just continue with more tanks.’ But you’re just delaying the problem. Now is the time to deal with [the water].” Barrett is being paid directly by TEPCO, although the amount has not been disclosed.
Nevertheless, he did acknowledge the overall severity of the Fukushima disaster. “In comparison to Three Mile Island, Fukushima is much more challenging, much more complex a job,” he said. Barrett was formerly a commissioner with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as well as an employee of the US Department of Energy.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
For the first time in 14 months, not a single nuclear reactor is operating in Japan, and none is expected to restart in the near future. On Monday morning, Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) shut down reactor #4 at its Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture for routine maintenance, as is required in Japan every 13 months. Reactor #3 at the Oi plant, which was the only other reactor operating in the nation, was shut down at the beginning of this month. The Abe administration is pushing hard to restart many of Japan’s 50 idle reactors, but all are required to undergo comprehensive checks by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), a process that will take at least six months. Even then, operators will be required to obtain local permission to bring the reactors online. That may be difficult in the current political climate, where the vast majority of the Japanese public believes that nuclear power should eventually be eradicated.
The event spurred a major protest in Tokyo, where more than 8,000 demonstrators demanded that nuclear power be eliminated from Japan. Nobel prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who helped organized the protest, said, “We want to keep telling what is happening at Fukushima, even though everybody is talking about the Olympics. Let’s hand down an environment in which children can live without fear.” Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has embraced anti-nuclear activism since leaving his post, agreed, saying, “Nuclear power is not cheap and is, as a matter of fact, quite risky. It takes a long time for radiation to decay. We should ask ourselves whether it is responsible to leave it for our children and grandchildren to take care of.” Kan was speaking from Taipei.
Katsumi Hasegawa, a protester who was forced to evacuate his home after the Fukushima disaster, lamented, “With the future of my children tainted, I have realized that radiation and human beings cannot coexist.” Jun Yokoyama, who has been organizing anti-nuclear demonstrations in Osaka since 2012, noted, “Power demand was met this summer [in spite of record-breaking heat waves] with only two nuclear reactors online. There is no need for 50 reactors across Japan.” Indeed, although power companies warned of doomsday like power shortages, no blackouts occurred.