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
TEPCO has discovered yet another new leak of contaminated water at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, this time in a tank holding low-level radioactive water near reactor #6. Workers discovered water seeping out of joints between the tank’s stainless steel panels. It has a capacity of 500 tons, but workers were not able to determine how much water had escaped. The tank is of the bolted variety, which TEPCO embraced because they are cheaper and faster to build. However, they are also less sturdy than welded tanks, and this is the sixth bolted tank that has sprung a leak. Earlier this fall, a bolted tank leaked 300 tons of highly radioactive water that poured into the ocean, raising both domestic and international concerns.
In more unfortunate news for TEPCO, testing on water collected from a newly-dug well between reactor buildings #1 and #2 showed that the samples contained 40,000 Bq/liter of radioactive substances, including strontium-90. Strontium accumulates in human bones and has been linked to cancer. The well is located between the reactors and the Pacific Ocean, raising concerns that radioactive contaminants are spreading below ground, via groundwater and soil, and are pouring into the sea. Previously, TEPCO had not measured any radioactivity in that well, but tests on water from a nearby collection site, conducted in August, contained 900,000 Bq/liter, the highest measured since the nuclear disaster first began to unfold in March 2011.
Despite these discoveries, as well as ongoing leaks into the nearby Pacific Ocean, TEPCO’s President, Naomi Hirose, said last week that ocean leaks are “under control.” His assessment echoed an earlier statement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also said that the leak situation was under control while trying to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award hosting rights to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to Tokyo. Abe’s statement was roundly criticized by experts and analysts, including Kazuhiko Yamashita, a high-ranking official from TEPCO, who said, “I do not believe that TEPCO is able to control the situation.” Hirose was speaking before the Diet’s House of Representatives Committee on Economy, Trade, and Industry. Tetsuya Shiokawa, a member of the Communist Party, lambasted Hirose’s statement, saying, “The situation is critical and far from being under control. Radioactive contamination is spreading.”
Further complicating the radioactive water crisis, TEPCO was once again forced to shut down its Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) this weekend, after resuming tests there for less than 24 hours. ALPS is designed to remove most (although not all) radioactive substances from water used to cool reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, but the system has been plagued with problems. Test runs were halted earlier this year after one of the storage tanks sprung a leak; TEPCO later admitted that the water flowing through was so toxic that it had corroded the stainless steel container. This week, the system was shut down after pipes appeared to be clogged. Workers later discovered that a 20 cm x 20 cm rubber mat, which they had used to protect the bottom of the tank while doing repairs with a metal ladder, had been left behind and had subsequently clogged the system. TEPCO had hoped to process all contaminated water onsite by the end of fiscal year 2014, but thanks to repeated mechanical challenges, that possibility is looking more and more unlikely. Nevertheless, the government plans to spend 15 billion yen on additional ALPS systems. Meanwhile, workers removed the rubber mat, and the system resumed test operations yesterday.
The ongoing crisis has had significant impact on Japan’s economy, particularly within the fishing industry, and now threatens to damage international relations with South Korea. This week, that country’s Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, Yoon Jin-sook, expressed anger at Japan’s continual denials over the past two years that radioactive water was seeping into the ocean, until it finally admitted that leaks were occurring this July—just one day after the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took control of Japan’s Parliament. Yoon, who recently banned seafood imports from eight Japanese prefectures, called Japan immoral.
In other news, in addition to suggesting that TEPCO scrap reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), is urging utility officials to decommission all four reactors at the Fukushima Daini plant, which is located less than 10 km from the Daiichi facility. Motegi said that TEPCO needs to focus on cleaning up the mess from the nuclear disaster. “The decommissioning of nuclear plants is something the utilities should decide, but we cannot treat the Daini plant in the same manner as other plants when considering the current feelings of Fukushima residents,” he said.
TEPCO submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for safety screenings for reactors #6 and #7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture last week. In addition, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said that he plans to submit applications for other reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant very soon, including reactors #1 and #5. “We have asked the NRA to confirm whether our safety measures are sufficient after we learned hard lessons from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant,” said Takafumi Anegawa, managing executive officer at the utility. Nevertheless, TEPCO’s efforts to improve its bottom line by resuming nuclear power generation may not guarantee success. Six out of seven reactors at the plant sit atop fault lines that, according to TEPCO’s own studies, have moved within the last 300,000 years. Japanese law states that nuclear reactors cannot operate if they are built on top of active fault lines. NRA assessments will take at least six months to conduct, but 10 other reactors across Japan need to be examined first. And, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors are boiling water reactors (BWRs), the same type as those that melted down at Fukushima; analysts expect that the NRA may conduct stricter tests on them.
The move to restart the Niigata reactors has spawned protests in two Tokyo districts, as public opposition to nuclear power remains stiff across Japan. “I cannot accept that the economy is put ahead of the lives and safety of the general public,” said Yuio Kurosu, who joined the demonstration from Ibaraki Prefecture. The protest was organized by the Metropolitan Coalition of Nukes, which has arranged anti-nuclear demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence every Friday since March 2012.
TEPCO’s efforts to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors stem largely from a desire to avoid bankruptcy.Creditors were eager for the company to prove that it could turn a profit after showing losses over the past two years. In response to Hirose’s announcement that TEPCO will attempt to bring the reactors online again, a consortium of 30 banks in Japan pledged 80 billion yen ($800 million) in financing to the struggling utility. However, the company is not yet out of the woods: loans totaling 200 billion yen will come due in December, and TEPCO is now trying to borrow an additional 300 billion yen. Hirose also said that the company will attempt to cut costs further and change the way that maintenance expenses are recorded. Meanwhile, TEPCO is welcoming the government’s efforts to deal with the water crisis, something that doesn’t sit well with some members of Parliament. “It is illogical that taxpayers’ money is used to solve problems resulting from the nuclear accident. There are other things that should be done before taxpayers’ money is spent,” complained Tetsuya Shiokawa.