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
Gregory Jaczko, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), lambasted TEPCO and Japan this week for failure to address the ongoing radioactive water crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, saying that officials and regulators have long been aware that this was a problem. “It’s been known for a long time that this would be an issue. My biggest surprise is to some extent how it’s been allowed to deteriorate…and how it’s almost become a surprise again that there are contamination problems, that there is leakage out to the sea,” he said. Jaczko noted that in the first days following the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, Japanese officials expressed concern that increasing the amount of cooling water being poured over reactors, necessary to prevent further meltdowns, “would lead to greater leakage of groundwater. But the focus was lost,” he said. “This was known from the beginning that there would potentially be these contamination problems.”
Jaczko went further to say that because of its high risk for earthquakes, Japan should abandon nuclear power entirely. “When you look at what happened around the Fukushima Daiichi area, it’s simply unacceptable,”referring the massive evacuation that occurred in the wake of the nuclear crisis. Jaczko said that rather than restarting its nuclear reactors, Japan should put effort into exploring how to survive without nuclear power. “I really think that the Japanese people have the ability to do that,” he said. Jaczko was speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
Now, TEPCO is continuing to deal with massive amounts of groundwater that flow through the plant, become contaminated, and must be stored in more than 1,000 stainless steel tanks. Last month, officials announced that approximately 300 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked out of a faulty tank, flowing into the nearby sea. Workers have been dissembling the tank this week in order to determine the source of the breach, and have so far found five loose bolts, as well as two small holes near other bolts. The leaks were found by applying foam to the bolts, and then using a vacuum on the other side to expose the holes. “The fact that the bubbles were vacuumed means that there are spaces, and it is highly likely that they caused the leakage. But we will eventually need to [completely] dissemble the tank and examine it to be thorough,” noted Akiro Ono, Chief of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Each tank holds 1,000 tons of water, and experts believe that its massive weight may have caused the small holes to expand further. TEPCO has approximately 300 other bolted tanks—chosen because they are cheaper and faster to construct than a more stable, welded kind of tank—and experts fear that they, too, could eventually leak. The Diet’s Lower House Committee on Economy, Trade, and Industry will meet today to discuss the issue; TEPCO President Naomi Hirose has been invited to attend.
In a complete turnaround from his former hardline stance against restarting reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, Governor Hirohiko Izumida has given conditional approval to restart reactors #6 and #7 at TEPCO’s facility in Niigata Prefecture. Previously, Izumida said he would not consider granting approval until the utility uncovered the root causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a process that could take years. Oddly, as recently as Wednesday, he said that he would take a long time to make his decision. He met this week with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, who said that workers would install additional filtered vents on top of the ones already required by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Filtered venting systems allow power companies to release dangerous pressure when nuclear accidents occur, in order to avoid explosions. However, that steam is nevertheless radioactive, and people living near the plant are exposed to it.
In a business plan submitted to the government last year, TEPCO promised to make a profit this fiscal year, a necessary precursor to securing essential bank loans. Restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors was an integral part of that plan. Without such funding, the company will go under. Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, TEPCO has been buried under decommissioning and decontamination costs, as well as compensation owed to tens of thousands of victims of the disaster. The company was effectively nationalized last year with a one trillion yen injection of government funding, and taxpayers are now bearing the brunt of the cleanup costs. But, TEPCO is still being allowed to make all decisions about how to proceed with decommissioning and cleanup.Company officials have been desperate to restart the two Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, but could not do so without first obtaining local approval. Izumida has demanded that TEPCO promise as part of its application to the NRA that it will notify local residents before releasing radioactive materials into the environment. The utility plans to submit paperwork to the NRA today, in order to request government screenings. That process could take up to six months.
Nevertheless, even if the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors are restarted, TEPCO’s troubles are far from over. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Sumio Mabuchi said this week that TEPCO should be forced into either bankruptcy or full nationalization if taxpayers are forced to bear the cost of ongoing leaks of highly radioactive water at the plant, which are now pouring into the Pacific Ocean via groundwater. Mabuchi served as special advisor to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan during the first days of the Fukushima crisis. He was speaking with a reporter from The Asahi Shimbun.
Mabuchi directly blamed TEPCO for not appropriately addressing the water issue immediately, and in fact, said that groundwater has been a problem at the plant for decades. “TEPCO constructed buildings on sites lower than the groundwater table by lopping off a cliff. Therefore, it was natural to consider the possibility that groundwater could flow into buildings and be contaminated by radioactive materials. But TEPCO denied the possibility, saying, ‘There are no effects of groundwater at all.’ [But] I checked the data for the years starting in 1971, when the nuclear plant started operations. As a result, I found that groundwater repeatedly flowing into the buildings of reactors #1 through #4, and TEPCO conducted work to stop the inflow,” he said.In the days following the disaster, Mabuchi suggested that TEPCO construct dig a clay pit, “like a huge square bathtub,” which would stem the flow of groundwater. The Associated Press obtained an internal TEPCO document this week from June 2011 that discussed the necessity of building the clay pit “in order not to further contaminate the sea,” it said.
The plan was expected to cost approximately 100 billion yen ($1 billion), but at the last minute TEPCO convinced the government to refrain from announcing the plan, out of concern that it would adversely affect shareholders and the company’s stock. TEPCO said that it would still construct the clay wall, but then never did so. Now, the government is planning to reduce groundwater contamination by surrounding the crippled reactors with a frozen soil wall at taxpayers’ expense, a solution that will be astronomically expensive. What’s worse, experts have doubts about whether or not it will even work. “If the government will use taxpayers’ money, it should consider having TEPCO go bankrupt or nationalizing it,” Mabuchi insisted.
More than two and a half years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has released results from a study of radiation levels within a 3 km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Astronomically high radiation levels made doing so impossible before now. The agency used an unmanned helicopter to determine contamination between August and October 2012. Radiation readings measured 19 microsieverts per hour south and west of the compound, although levels northwest of the plant were also high. In addition, the JAEA has been conducting ongoing analysis of radiation levels in 10,000 locations within an 80 km radius of the Daiichi facility. Although levels are falling—mostly because they are being washed away by rain or are sinking into surrounding soil, or, in the case of cesium-134, which has a half-life of two years, are naturally decaying—60% of the area surveyed still has radiation exceeding 1 millisievert per year, the international standard for acceptable exposure.
Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture announced that they have resumed test fishing off the coast of Fukushima, after suspending those tests earlier this month. Their catches, which will be sent to market in Tokyo and other locations as early as this week, included octopus, hairy crab, spear squid, blackbelly rosefish, and angler. The fish were caught at least 50 km off the coast, from sea regions at least 150 meters in depth. The Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations released a statement that read in part, “Through tests we know the radioactive levels of the fish are not an issue and that they are safe.” The fishing industry in Fukushima has been largely decimated by the nuclear disaster there; many residents are afraid to buy and eat seafood, because they are worried about radiation contamination. One fishing boat captain said,“I felt good when I went fishing, but I’m concerned whether the catches will find buyers. I want consumers to feel secure and eat the products as we will only ship them after screening them strictly.”
However, convincing consumers of that safety may be an uphill battle. The fishing industry got more bad news yesterday, when TEPCO admitted that a so-called oceanic “silt fence,” designed to prevent radioactive materials from escaping its port, as well to keep mud from clogging intakes of seawater used to keep reactors cool, had developed a hole. TEPCO believes that the damage was caused by large waves from the typhoon currently raging in Japan. Workers will not be able to begin repairs until the weather improves. The fence, which is located near reactors #5 and #6, which were relatively undamaged by the 2011 nuclear disaster, was constructed by hanging weighted fabric from buoys. There is a separate silt fence that contains water near reactors #1 through #4, where radiation levels are higher.
Also this week, the government announced that radiation levels in fish caught off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture are largely declining, but those caught in shallow waters close to the plant are still contaminated. Those fish include bottom feeders such as several varieties of flounder, sea bass, Japanese rockfish, and Japanese black porgy. The study, which was conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, measured cesium levels in the fish, but did not measure radioactive strontium, which accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer. Strontium is difficult to detect, and the test takes a week before results are obtained. Officials said that they estimate strontium levels at approximately 12% of that of cesium in a given sample. “We have to keep carefully studying the situation,” warned Jota Kanda, a professor at the Tokyo University of Maritime Science and Technology. “We have to increase the number of inspections for strontium levels.” The Ministry tested 472 samples of fish. Of those, 0.6% contained more cesium than the government limit of 100 Bq/kg. Thirteen percent contained between 10 and 100 Bq/kg.