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

The Mainichi Daily News has published a new exposé showing that significant amounts of radiation leaked from the crippled Fukushima reactors as they were melting down in March 2011, even before workers vented the vessel at reactor #1. The meltdowns damaged the vessels in which the reactors were housed, allowing dangerous radioactivity to leak into the environment. As a result, nearby residents were exposed to as much as 700 times the legal limit of radiation before evacuations were ordered. Although Fukushima Prefecture had installed 25 radiation monitoring posts around the plant before the disaster, five were swept out to sea as a result of the tsunami, and power loss prevented the remaining 20, although still able to measure radiation, from transmitting data. Confusion about evacuations was rampant as the meltdowns began to occur. Officials ordered those within 2 km to evacuate at 8:50 pm on March 11; those within 3 km to evacuate at 9:23 pm on March 11; and those within 10 km to evacuate at 5:33 am on March 12. However, most of the 50,000 residents affected did not even begin to flee until 8 am on the 12th.  Officials did not start the venting process until 10 am on March 12, and by the time a hydrogen explosion occurred mid-afternoon, radiation levels had reached 1,591 microsieverts per hour.

Even after the disaster, as both the Diet and Government prepared investigative reports, information about the radiation release was not revealed, and was not used to determine how resident health examinations should be performed. The delay in analyzing radiation data has prompted ire among local residents. Reiko Hachusika, who represented Fukushima Prefecture on the Diet-appointed commission, noted, “If the prefectural government was thinking first about the health of its residents, then it would have considered the data vital information that needed to be analyzed quickly. As a prefectural resident, I find the Fukushima Prefectural Government’s response shameful.” Another member of the Diet-appointed commission, Mitsuhiko Tanaka, warned, “We haven’t yet been able to identify the location within the reactor containment vessel from which radioactive materials leaked. There’s a mountain of issues that should be examined before we start talking about restarting nuclear reactors.”

Yukio Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), proposed week that an international team of experts, including some from Russia and the US, where nuclear disasters have occurred, should participate in the decommissioning of crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—a process expected to take at least 40 years. “The safe decommissioning should be undertaken not just by Japan but should draw on wisdom and the most advanced technologies from around the world,” Amano said. An IAEA team will submit a proposal for the plan in April, and experts will visit the prefecture as early as next week to begin working with local government officials. Ostensibly, Amano believes that Japan needs additional expertise in an incredibly complicated technical task, and has promised assistance with decontamination, monitoring of residents’ health, and emergency response training in addition to decontamination.

But, analysts also surmise that the move to involve other countries is an effort to prevent Japan from developing sole expertise in what will eventually become a lucrative business, as almost 400 aging reactors worldwide will require decommissioning in the coming years and decades. A government official in Tokyo acknowledged, “There is suspicion in the international community that Japan may be aiming to secure interests in decommissioning work that will be needed in various parts of the world, by monopolizing technology attained in [decommissioning] the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”

The NRA has approved renewed testing for a water decontamination device (advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS) at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Earlier efforts to test the equipment were halted after storage tanks experienced major leaks when dropped from low levels during testing. Because the highly radioactive sludge-filled tanks will be moved around the plant, they need to be strong enough to withstand accidental drops. The system is able to remove more contaminants than previous systems, including strontium, but fails to remove radioactive tritium, which has a half-life of 12 years. As a result, Ikuji Takagi, a professor at Kyoto University, said that the processed water should not be released into the ocean, despite earlier statements from TEPCO that it wants to do so. Local fisheries cooperatives are expected to strongly oppose that move, in which case the utility would need to continue to store the water in tanks it has built in a nearby forest. TEPCO is hoping that ALPS will go live in March.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

A survey of operators of all 16 of Japan’s nuclear plants (but which excludes the Fukushima Daiichi plant) conducted by the Asahi Shimbun show that not one has met all of the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s (NRA) proposed safety requirements for restarting reactors. Nine respondents said they cannot predict when they will be able to complete the requirements, in spite of the fact that the NRA will start accepting applications for restarts in July. So far, not one of the 50 reactors at the plants has installed filtered vents in containment vessels. The NRA has said it will not grant grace periods for installing these vents in boiling water reactors (BWRs), the same type of reactor as those that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Only two plants have installed anti-flood devices, out of 13 that are at low enough elevations to require them. And, only seven plants have ensured that the plant’s main operations center is earthquake-proof. Five more are at risk of being taken offline completely because of potentially active faults running beneath reactors or critical safety equipment. NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa predicts that none of Japan’s plants may be ready to submit an application for restart in July.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

The psychological effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster continue to impact the lives of those living near the site of the crisis almost two years later. “We are starting to see more cases of suicide, depression, alcoholism, gambling, and domestic violence across the area. From the point of view of mental health, this is a very critical time,” said psychologist Noriko Kubota. The stresses have put so much strain on marriages that a new phrase has been coined: “atomic divorce.” Obesity rates in children are on the rise, because parents are afraid to let their children exercise and play outdoors, where they might be exposed to radiation. Distrust of government and authorities is high, and many residents no longer know whom they can trust after numerous cover ups were revealed, including several regarding food safety. “Nobody trusts the government any more. You can only trust yourself,” laments Katsuko Arima, who operates a restaurant in Koriyama.

Radioactive Waste Disposal and Decontamination

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment said that it will bury radioactive waste at permanent disposal sites located in five prefectures, a change from its original plan to deposit the waste in the prefectures where it originated. The government has struggled with finding places to store contaminated waste, both temporarily and permanently, because local government officials and residents have balked out of concern about radiation hazards. Ministry officials said that only 35% of waste generated by the tsunami has been disposed of; in Fukushima Prefecture, that number drops to just 17%, almost two years after the disaster first began to unfold. (Source: NHK)