Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2015
The Great Northeast Japan Earthquake in March of 2011, which resulted in the deaths of 15,000 people and destroyed the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactor complex, caused the evacuation of 160,000 residents who might not return in their lifetimes.
The catastrophic meltdown of three separate nuclear reactors, out of the six at the complex, was unprecedented and—between hydrogen explosions and ongoing flushing of the molten uranium fuel, with tons of seawater—sent plumes of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and into the Pacific Ocean. Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has positively documented radioactive contamination from Fukushima in seawater off the west coasts of the US and Canada, said in a statement last April 7, “Radioactivity can be dangerous, and we should be carefully monitoring the oceans after what is certainly the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants to the oceans in history.” Woods Hole began its monitoring regime when US agencies declined to initiate routine measurements.
Buesseler told the (Oregon) Statesman Journal April 6 that radiation concentrations off the east coast of Japan near Fukushima in the first weeks of the catastrophe measured 50 million Becquerels* per cubic meter. Woods Hole has tracked the radiation plume for 5,000 miles as it spread across the Pacific, and its concentration now is both diluted and ubiquitous. Reuters news service reported that Canadian water samples off Vancouver Island, British Columbia contained 1.4 Becquerels per cubic meter of cesium-134 and 5.8 Bq per cubic meter of cesium-137.
Decommissioning lacks plan, method, means
At the reactor site, Naohiro Masuda, President of the Fukushima-Daiichi Decommissioning Company, told Japanese Public Television NHK in a March 31 interview that technical equipment needed to remove the brutally radioactive melted fuel wreckage from three shattered reactor vessels still needs to be invented.
“We have no idea about the debris [the melted fuel]. We don’t know its shape or strength. We have to remove it remotely, from 30 meters above, but we don’t have that kind of technology yet. It simply doesn’t exist.” The current manager of the reactor site, Akira Ono, said likewise. “For removal of the debris, we don’t have accurate information (about the state of the reactors) or any viable methodology…”, he told the Times of London March 30.
Robots sent inside the vessels have repeatedly broken down under the harsh radioactive environment and have failed to transmit sufficient information to even pinpoint the location of the mass of fuel much less design a decommissioning process.
Theoretically, during the fuel removal process—not expected to begin for another five years—workers must keep all the melted uranium submerged under water, which shields workers by absorbing much of the radiation. This theory may not be sound.
“We still don’t know whether it’s possible to fill the reactor containers with water,” Masuda told NHK. There are so many cracks and holes in the containers, Masuda says, “We may have to look for some other way to remove the debris.”
Can the removal begin in 2020 as the government insists? Masuda said he doesn’t know if that is possible either, and “There is no text book to teach us what to do.”
Taiwan imposes new limits on Japanese food imports
Taiwan imposed new bans on food imported from Japan, the French news agency AFP reported May 15. The cause was the recall of hundreds of products in March whose labels were faked in order to disguise the fact they came from areas contaminated by Fukushima’s radioactive fallout.
Taiwan’s government banned food sent from five prefectures near Fukushima soon after the March 11, 2011 disaster when it was found to be contaminated. Now, all food imports from Japan will have to carry proof that they come from outside the banned areas. Some particular foods will also require “radiation inspection certificates,” according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Japan complained about the new restrictions through its de facto embassy in Taipei, saying, “Falsified labels of product origins and food safety are different issues.” Three weeks earlier, on April 22, Japanese officials brought a complaint against South Korea in the World Trade Organization, over similar food import restrictions saying they violate trade rules. In place since March 2011, South Korean precautions include an outright ban on seafood from the Fukushima region and require radiation testing and certification for other foods.
Separate courts reject, approve reactor restarts
A three-judge panel set back Japanese government and industry hopes to restart the idled nuclear reactor industry, ruling April 14 that restart of two Takahama reactors appear too unsafe. The ruling affects reactors 3 and 4 which went on-line in the 1980s but have been shut down since the catastrophic March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and triple meltdowns at Fukushima.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) had approved the restart at Takahama, in west-central Japan, but a group of citizens filed suit to stop it. They convinced the court that the NRA had underestimated the reactors’ vulnerability to earthquakes and that evacuation plans in the event of another disaster, prepared by the Kansai Electric Power Co., were inadequate. Presiding judge Hideaki Higuchi, who issued a similar ruling against separate reactor restarts last May, said the restart proposal was “lacking in rationality.”
A similar lawsuit—against restart of the Sendai reactors No. 1 and 2 in Japan’s far southwest—was dismissed April 22, although citizens had argued that a recent increase in volcanic activity threatens potential disaster. The citizens vowed to appeal.
Then on May 27, the NRA announced that only operational tests were still needed to fire-up the Sendai reactors, opening the door to the possible restart of Unit 1 in July and Unit 2 in September.
Owned and operated by the Kyūshū Electric Power Company, Sendai is located on Japan’s main southern island of Kyushu, home to Japan’s most active volcano, Mount Aso, as well as the great Sakurajima volcano.
The NRA’s announcement came two days before the May 29 volcanic eruption on the southern island of Kuchinoerabujima, 70 miles away. The eruption may lend weight to the citizen’s appeal of the court’s restart approval. Restart may also be reconsidered in view of recent earthquakes: the severe 8.5 magnitude earthquake that struck deep undersea, 620 miles south of Tokyo, and dramatically shook buildings there May 30, and the 5.5 level quake on May 25 that hit northwest of Tokyo.
Hong Kong finds radioactivity in Japanese tea
Powdered tea imported by Hong Kong from the Japanese prefecture of Chiba in March, was found to have traces of radioactive cesium-137, although at levels below what the government allows in food, the New York Times reported March 12. Chiba is over 135 miles from Fukushima-Daiichi in northeast Japan—site four years ago of the world’s worst or second worst radiation disaster.
Soon after Fukushima’s triple reactor meltdowns and massive radiation releases began in March 2011, Hong Kong’s state Center for Food Safety found three samples of vegetables imported from Japan to have “unsatisfactory” levels of radioactive contaminants. Since then, Hong Kong has repeatedly found samples of food imports contaminated with low levels of Fukushima’s radioactive fallout.
Hong Kong’s limits for radioactive materials in food are “low and stringent,” the New York Times indicated. But allowable limits of radioactive contamination in foods are set arbitrarily and enforcement is poorly regulated. Ingestion of even the smallest trances of radioactive materials can cause cancer and other illnesses, although illnesses may not appear for years or decades following ingestion or inhalation.
Surge in workers exposed to high radiation
Radiation containment workers at the devastated Fukushima site have increasingly been exposed to high levels of radiation, the Japan Times reported May 10.
A total of 992 workers were exposed to more than 20 milliSieverts* in 2014, according to data made public by Tokyo Electric Power, Co. (Tepco), which runs the operation. The number of highly contaminated workers was 50 percent higher than the 660 who were so exposed in 2013. Tepco said that the increases were because of increased debris removal and decontamination work in areas of high-radiation.
The most dangerous work in the worst of high-radiation areas—the three destroyed reactor vessels, where hundreds of tons of melted fuel rods make them inaccessible—has not been started, and “poses a huge long-term challenge,” the IAEA said.
Failed pumps cause additional ocean spills
On April 22, all eight water transfer pumps at the Fukushima-Daiichi complex were shut down by an electric outage, and the shutdown led to another spill of highly radioactive water into the Pacific, the Japan Times reported.
The April accident followed a series of ocean-contaminating leaks of highly radioactive water that came from faulty holding tanks. Thousands of such tanks were hastily built to hold waste water poisoned with cesium, strontium, tritium and dozens of radio-toxic chemicals. The contaminated water results from constantly flushing seawater through the three wrecked reactor vessels and over the 150–300 tons of melted uranium fuel. Thousands of tons of contaminated waste water is also produced by the movement of groundwater that enters the wreckage through cracks and smashed duct work before finding its way to the Pacific.
According to Tepco admissions over the last few months, the period between May 2011 and August 2013, saw leaks that put at least 20 trillion Becquerels of cesium-137, 10 trillion Becquerels of strontium-90, and 40 trillion Becquerels of tritium into the sea.
New leaks douse attempts to limit water pollution
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors hurried to Japan in April to investigate a spike in radiation levels caused by highly contaminated water leaking into the Pacific Ocean. Tepco had known about the leaks for months, but kept the information secret during the IAEA monitors’ February 2015 visit. Bloomberg News reported May 5, that Tepco has since claimed to be disclosing more of its radiation data, although, as IAEA spokesperson Serge Gas wrote in an e-mail from the agency’s offices in Vienna, “Tepco has no obligation to report to the IAEA.”
Tepco behind in payments for decontamination work
The Japan Times reported March 30 that Tepco has only covered 2 percent of the $638.8 million that municipalities have spent on decontamination work since 2011.
According to the federal Environment Ministry, the company has refused to cover the costs of removing and bagging up contaminated soil and debris in radioactive fallout-hit areas, saying it is studying whether the law requires it. A law enacted in August 2011 stipulates that Tepco bears financial responsibility for the decontamination work.
The central government has paid for the cleanup and expects to be reimbursed by Tepco. So far the company has paid only for decontamination work done by the central government near its reactors. Japan allocated $11.3 billion in this regard, including around $5.08 billion for work done by local municipality offices by the end of fiscal 2014. The Environment Ministry asked that Tepco reimburse $638.8 million by the end of February, but Tepco has only covered $12 million.
Accidents still happening
On March 1, the Japan Times reported that waste water pouring into the Pacific from the reactor wreckage showed a huge spike in radioactivity. Tepco acknowledged that levels of strontium-90 in the waste water were up to 70 times, or 7,000 percent higher than what is allowed to be dumped into the ocean. Strontium was measured at up to 7,230 Becquerels per liter of water, while the contamination limit is supposed to be 5 Bq/L.