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

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said this weekend that his government will step up efforts to manage the ever-worsening nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The move comes as new leaks of radioactive water have been discovered, and criticism is increasing from both international and domestic sources, as well as from Abe’s own political party.

This week, workers discovered possible leaks in five new storage tanks containing highly radioactive water, which sit in four different areas of the compound. They also found a leak in piping connecting those tanks, an issue that could present far greater complications. On Friday, TEPCO reported that radiation levels near the tanks measured between 70 and 1,800 millisieverts per hour. The latter reading is capable of killing humans within four hours if they are not wearing protective gear, and Japan forbids nuclear workers from exposure to more than 50 millisieverts over the course of an entire year. A radiation reading from the same tank was only 100 millisieverts on August 22, meaning that the new level is 18 times greater, but TEPCO has now admitted that it used a radiation monitor that was only capable of recording up to 100 millisieverts, so the actual reading may have been far higher at the time. Workers are now using equipment that can measure up to 10,000 millisieverts. Officials said that water levels have not dropped in any of the five tanks. All were constructed by bolting together sheets of metal, rather than welding them. Although welded tanks are more secure, TEPCO chose the bolted type because they are cheaper and faster to construct.

A subcontractor who worked on putting the tanks together reported that workers were concerned about the integrity of the tanks even as they were constructing them. “We were required to build tanks in succession. We gave priority to making the tanks, rather than quality control. There were fears that toxic water may leak,” he said. The worker noted that one 1,000 ton-capacity tank was constructed every three days, but criticized the way that the project was managed, saying that supplies did not always arrive on time, and sometimes, bolts were rusty before they were even used. However, he added, “We never cut corners in constructing the tanks, and we used the latest technology. [Still], all of the tanks are makeshift. More toxic water may leak as they deteriorate…Everyone [at Fukushima] is working hard, but I don’t know whether this method is the right answer.” Each of the tanks only has a lifespan of five years, so the chance of more tanks springing leaks as the highly corrosive water eats away at bolts is high. “While we hold very strong concerns about the flange-type [bolted] tanks right now, that does not mean we can be confident about the welded tanks. There are many things we have to be concerned about,” warned Toyoshi Fuketa, a Commissioner with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). TEPCO plans to replace the bolted tanks with welded ones, but each will take approximately one month to construct. In the meantime, toxic water continues to leak.

In another area, a worker discovered that a pipe connecting two tanks was leaking when he pressed on insulation covering the pipe, and water dripped out. When the insulation was removed, water began to drip from the pipe at a rate of once every 90 seconds. Radiation on the floor below it measured 230 millisieverts per hour; the water itself contained 300 million Bq/liter of radiation. In another example of the makeshift fixes that the utility has continuously employed since the Fukushima disaster first began to unfold in March 2011, workers stopped the leak—with tape. The discovery of the leak could be significant, because the Fukushima compound is filled with a vast network of such pipes, connecting both bolted and welded tanks. If this leak is not an anomaly, it could mean that highly contaminated water is leaking all over the plant from numerous locations.

Meanwhile, workers also discovered 900 Bq/liter of radioactive tritium in groundwater samples taken from a well near a tank that leaked 300 tons in August. Tritium measurements taken in February were only 450 Bq/liter. In a drainage ditch that runs out to the ocean, water samples contained 920 Bq/liter of radioactive substances, including strontium-90, which can accumulate in human bones and has been linked to cancer. On August 22, less than two weeks earlier, that reading was only 520 Bq/liter.

Analysts say that the rising number of newly discovered leaks is due to increased patrols at the tanks—but it also highlights TEPCO’s poor management of the situation up until this point. Initially, TEPCO assigned only two workers to inspect 1,000 tanks, during twice-daily patrols of two hours each. That meant that each worker took only 15 seconds to inspect each tank, and they rarely took radiation readings. Although they sometimes saw puddles of water, they generally assumed that they were rainwater, which tends to collect near the bases of the tanks. It took the utility six weeks to notice or report a 300-ton leak from one tank, which prompted the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to issue a Level 3 rating on the International Radiological and Nuclear Events Scale (INES). Last week, the number of inspectors was increased to 10, and 50 more workers were added yesterday. They will conduct checks four times per day, including during the night.

Although the government injected a trillion yen ($10.2 billion) into TEPCO last year, deeming it “too big to fail,” Prime Minister Abe has studiously maintained distance from the actual management of the nuclear disaster, leaving that in TEPCO’s hands. But now, he is stepping to the forefront of the crisis. “It should not be left entirely in the hands of TEPCO to deal with the accident. The government should face up to the situation with a sense of urgency, including the problem of radioactive water. From now on, the government will be out front in initiatives to implement comprehensive measures, not leaving the situation in the hands of TEPCO,” Abe said. But, many are asking why the government waited two and a half years to intervene. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a member of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), blasted the administration for a “lack of a sense of crisis.” It was the first time that the LDP has overtly criticized the government. “The issue of radioactive water is increasingly seen as an international problem,” Shiozaki said, “and lawsuits may be filed [against Japan] overseas.”

In response to the growing crisis, Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, which includes all Cabinet members, will convene today to compile “a package of comprehensive countermeasures” to deal with the leaks, as well as the vast amount of radioactive water that continues to accumulate at the plant on a daily basis. Some of that water is constantly pouring into the sea. NRA Chief Shunichi Tanaka once again said this week that he believes Japan will eventually have to dump radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, although he said that TEPCO will first treat it to remove most radioactive materials. “I’m afraid it is unavoidable to dump or release water into the sea. But if we decide to discharge water into the ocean, we will use various methods to ensure that radiation is below accepted levels.”  In addition, Commissioner Fuketa said that the NRA is considering reducing the amount of water it pours over the crippled Fukushima reactors every day to keep them cool, in order to reduce the amount of radioactive water that needs to be stored.

Politically speaking, the move to take control of Fukushima may be a risky one for the government. Despite the ongoing Fukushima crisis, Abe has continued to advocate for restarting nuclear reactors in Japan, saying that they are necessary for the nation’s financial health. He has also pushed to export nuclear technology to other countries. But that insistence on supporting nuclear power, coupled with the government’s inability to manage the worsening crisis at Fukushima, could have significant financial and political implications for Japan, as both international and domestic criticism heats up. Fishermen, whose livelihoods have largely been decimated by the nuclear disaster, have lambasted both TEPCO and the government for their handling of the crisis, or lack thereof. “We must say that TEPCO’s system of handling radioactive water has broken down. We want the government to take the initiative in dealing with the situation immediately,” said Hiroshi Kishi, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations.

Some have charged that the government is purposely delaying dealing with the crisis in an effort avoid negative publicity as Tokyo bids to host the 2020 Olympic games. This week, a Diet Committee that was supposed to address the radioactive water issue said that it would delay meeting until the government had unveiled its plans for Fukushima—at least until mid-September. In the meantime, the Mayor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, is reiterating that radiation levels in his city are not dangerous. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will announce the host city for the games this coming Saturday; Madrid and Istanbul are also vying for the honor. Masakazu Yabuki, head of the Iwaki Fisheries Cooperative, complained, “If they think it is all right to delay dealing with the contaminated water, that shows an extremely low sense of what the problem is. I have gone beyond angry to being completely astounded,” he said.

International organizations are also joining the chorus of distrust in Japan’s response to the Fukushima disaster. The Chosun Iibo newspaper in South Korea wrote, “The South Korean government should take preventive actions based on a worst-case scenario, without relying only on information from the Japanese government and TEPCO.” Another environmental organization there has suggested banning all Japanese seafood from entering the country. China is also expressing concern. Tamotsu Baba, the Mayor of Namie, has said that repopulating the area may be impossible if residents do not feel that it’s safe to return: “The measures being taken now [by TEPCO and the government] are haphazard. As the saying goes, ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ It would be preferable to calmly put together fundamental measures to deal with the problem.”  But one government official pointed out how difficult that has become: “We know that complaining will not help, but we feel as if we are playing Whac-a-Mole, because new problems crop up one after another, as the abnormal situation continues.”

Other Nuclear News in Japan

Reactor #3 at Kansai Electric’s (KEPCO) Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture was taken offline yesterday for required routine maintenance, leaving just one reactor operating in all of Japan: reactor #4 at the same facility. However, that reactor is slated to go offline on September 15. For the first time in 14 months and only the second time since 1966, Japan will be entirely nuclear free. The nuclear power industry loudly warned that widespread blackouts would occur when only two reactors were operating, but this summer was the hottest on record in Western Japan; Eastern Japan experienced its third hottest summer ever. Despite that, and a shorter than usual rainy season, no blackouts occurred.

KEPCO plans to apply to the NRA to restart the Oi reactors once maintenance has occurred, but NRA assessments generally take approximately six months to complete. This week, after arguing for months about whether the F-6 fault line running beneath the Oi reactors was active, an NRA panel of seismic experts finally said that the fault has not moved in the last 400,000 years and is not expected to move in the future, opening the door for a possible restart in the future. Those committee members who had been so staunchly opposed to declaring the fault inactive did not say why they had suddenly changed their minds.

Radiation Contamination and Exposure

Scientists from Tohoku University have unveiled a new device that, unlike its predecessors, can determine the radioactive content of food without first requiring that samples be pulverized. The new equipment, which can check up to 1,400 samples per hour, would allow consumers to purchase food that had actually been checked for radiation, as opposed to simply examining a similar sample. “The new device will allow us to test each single fish [or other item] and ensure that we are shipping safer products to consumers. That could help stop falling fish prices, which have been hurt by harmful rumors of contamination,” said Keizo Ishii, who led the study. Current government guidelines require that food samples be pulverized, so regulations would need to be updated in order to use the new equipment.