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
Documents newly obtained by The Asahi Shimbun reveal that United States nuclear experts urged TEPCO to install frozen soil barriers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant as early as April 2011, in an effort to prevent massive amounts of groundwater at the compound from becoming contaminated. However, TEPCO officials balked at the cost (which at the time was estimated at $1 billion), worrying that it would damage investors’ confidence in the utility and possibly send it into bankruptcy. Although they were originally scheduled to announce the soil-freezing plan in June 2011, TEPCO executives submitted a memo to government officials, asking them to delay the announcement in order to protect the company’s finances. “There is a strong possibility that the market will conclude that we are moving a step closer toward insolvency or headed in that direction,” the memo stated. Banri Kaieda, then-head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees the promotion of nuclear power in Japan, agreed to hold off on making an announcement. At the time, TEPCO Executive Vice President Sakae Muto reportedly promised to quietly proceed with the ice wall project, but never did so. TEPCO denies that Muto made such an agreement.
Now, almost two and a half years later, TEPCO continues to struggle with a growing radioactive groundwater crisis. Because the plant is built on a hill, an estimated 800 to 1,000 tons of groundwater flow downward through the plant each day; government experts believe that 300 tons of contaminated water are flowing into the ocean every 24 hours. An additional 400 tons of groundwater seep into damaged reactor buildings on a daily basis, mixing with highly radioactive cooling water and also becoming toxic and requiring storage. Workers have still not been able to identify where the water is entering the buildings, or how to stop the leaks; radiation levels there remain so high that they cannot get close enough to do so. As of mid-September, TEPCO was storing 435,000 tons of radioactive water in aboveground tanks, as well as in basements of the reactor buildings—137,000 more tons than were stored there last year. Those numbers continue to rise. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has vowed to use $470 million in taxpayer funds to finally begin building the ice wall, as international pressure mounts in advance of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, which were recently awarded to Tokyo.
Charles Casto, a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) employee who was stationed in Japan at the time of the disaster, noted, “It was obvious to us that there was a great deal of groundwater intrusion into the plant, and we shared that with the Japanese government. At the time, they didn’t believe that there was a significant amount of groundwater getting into the plant.” Sumio Mabuchi, an opposition party lawmaker who was an aide to then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan during the early stages of the crisis and led a taskforce on the proposed frozen soil solution, observed, “We finished technical considerations two years ago—this wall could be done by now.”
Members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) slammed Japan this week for its inability to deal with the water crisis over the course of more than two years, resulting in damage to the sea and environment. The group was conducting a general meeting in Vienna. “[The toxic water issue] did not emerge this summer. It was there from the beginning.” In addition, they criticized the Japanese government for lack of transparency and failure to disclose problems with the Fukushima plant in a timely manner, pointing out that in one instance, news about the disaster appeared on social networking site Twitter two days before the government even admitted that there was a problem.
Not surprisingly, the ice-wall revelation has incensed fishermen, who have not been able to sell their seafood since the disaster first began to unfold in 2011. Fishermen from Iwaki City said that they will postpone test fishing for whitebait until the spring, pointing out that consumer confidence in fish remains low, and fears of radiation are high. Those tests were originally scheduled for September. In order to better assess ongoing contamination, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) plans to begin wide-scale radiological testing of ocean waters off the Fukushima coast, using a ship with a radiation counter that will examine the ocean floor within a 1,000 km radius.
But in the meantime, the government of South Korea has refused a request by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to lift an indefinite ban on seafood imports from eight Japanese prefectures. South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety imposed that ban on September 9.
In other news, TEPCO has admitted that it dumped 1,130 tons of reportedly low-level radioactive water into the nearby Pacific Ocean last week, after heavy rainfall resulted in water collecting within barriers set up around tanks of contaminated water. Officials called the move an “emergency measure.” TEPCO said that the water contained between 3 and 23 Bq/liter of radioactive strontium, which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer. Although the legal limit for strontium in seawater is 30 Bq/liter, the company later acknowledged that they failed to test the water for cesium-134 or -137, both of which are known to cause cancer. Officials said that water from more radioactive areas was collected and was being stored. Groundwater wells in that area, which was the site of a recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water, have begun to show increasing levels of contamination. Water samples taken from one well near the leak on September 14 contained 170,000 Bq/liter of tritium, up from 130,000 Bq/liter just two days earlier.
Workers at the Daiichi plant have discovered that a 66-meter tall structure supporting a 120-meter tall vertical ventilation pipe is cracked or damaged in at least eight different places. TEPCO officials believe that the damage occurred during the massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck in March 2011. Because the pipe, which is currently idle, sits between reactors #1 and #2, experts are concerned that it could topple or collapse if another large earthquake occurs. It was originally used to vent radioactive steam and pressure from containment vessels after the 2011 meltdowns, in order to avoid further hydrogen explosions. Workers are now trying to determine the severity of the situation, but have been thwarted by dangerously high radiation levels that prevent them from getting too close to the pipe.
This week marks one year since the NRA was established to oversee nuclear safety in Japan. Chairman Shunichi Tanaka issued a reminder that the Fukushima disaster is still in a precarious state and a danger to Japan’s citizens. “The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains unstable. Every time a radioactive water leakage, a blackout, or other trouble occurs, I think of the [150,000] people, living inconvenient lives in areas where they have been evacuated, getting worried about their hometowns. We will do our utmost, with a strong belief that we can and must overcome this issue,” he said. Tanaka was frank about the challenges that the agency has faced over the past year, admitting that at times, they were “groping in the dark.”
During a visit to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged TEPCO officials to decommission the two remaining undamaged reactors there. Thanks to a backup generator that kept reactors #5 and #6 cool, they did not melt down. TEPCO has been reluctant to dismantle them, hoping they could eventually restart them for profit, despite strong disapproval from local government officials and residents.Abe said, “I want a decision to be reached on the scrapping of the nos. 5 and 6 reactors, so that TEPCO can focus on accident response matters.” Although the government injected a trillion yen into TEPCO last year, effectively placing it under government control, Abe nevertheless is leaving the decision up to TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, who said that he will announce the company’s plans by the end of the year. Hirose also indicated that the company might ask for yet another trillion yen in taxpayer funds to cover decommissioning costs. The Prime Minister is under strong domestic and international pressure to deal with the disaster, which continues to worsen under TEPCO’s control.