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Fukushima Fallout: Four years on
Almost four years have passed since the 3/11 triple-disaster. Around 160,000 people were relocated because of the nuclear disaster and very few have returned to their homes. Apart from the radioactive contamination, there is little for them to return to.
A steady stream of reports detail the misery faced by evacuees from the triple-disaster. The latest of these reports concerns the number of evacuees who have died in solitude. At least 145 evacuees from the triple-disaster have died in solitude since March 2011. It is believed that prolonged isolation damages their health.1
The clean-up and decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi site will take decades to complete − but no-one knows how many decades. There is little precedent for some of the challenges TEPCO faces, such as the robotic extraction of damaged nuclear fuel from stricken reactors and its storage or disposal ... somewhere.
Last October, TEPCO pushed back the timeline for the start of the damaged fuel removal work by five years, to 2025. Dale Klein, a member of TEPCO's Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, says the decommissioning schedule is pure supposition until engineers figure out how to remove the damaged fuel.2
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report
The IAEA completed its third review of the Fukushima clean-up operations in mid-February.3 The 15-member IAEA team released a preliminary report and the final report will be released by the end of March.4 The report does not consider contamination and clean-up operations outside the Fukushima Daiichi site.
"Japan has made significant progress since our previous missions," said IAEA team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo. "The situation, however, remains very complex, with the increasing amount of contaminated water posing a short-term challenge that must be resolved in a sustainable manner. The need to remove highly radioactive spent fuel, including damaged fuel and fuel debris, from the reactors that suffered meltdowns poses a huge long-term challenge."3
The preliminary report notes that the safe decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi "is a very challenging task that requires the allocation of enormous resources, as well as the development and use of innovative technologies to deal with the most difficult activities."
Achievements since the last IAEA mission in 2013 include the complete removal of nuclear fuel from reactor #4 (1,533 new and spent fuel assemblies); progress with the clean-up of the site; and some progress with water management. Challenges include persistent underground water ingress and the accumulation of contaminated water; the long-term management of radioactive waste; and issues related to the removal of spent nuclear fuel, damaged fuel and fuel debris.
A large majority of the 7,000 workers at Fukushima Daiichi are working on problems associated with contaminated water − groundwater that becomes contaminated, and cooling water that becomes contaminated.5
An estimated two trillion yen (US$16.7 billion; €14.8b) will be spent on water management alone, which is 20% of the estimated cost of decommissioning the entire site.6 (In 2012, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers provided a "rough estimate" of US$500 billion (€447b) for on-site decommissioning costs, clean-up of contaminated lands outside the Fukushima plant boundary, replacement power costs, and compensation payments.7)
The IAEA report states that achievements since the last IAEA mission in 2013 include:
- Improved and expanded systems to clean contaminated water;
- The installation of new, improved tanks to store contaminated water (fully welded tanks replacing bolted flange type tanks), construction of dykes around the tanks with enhanced water holding capacity, and provision of covers to deflect rainwater from the dykes; and
- The installation and operation of a set of pumping wells to reduce the flow of groundwater towards the reactor buildings, sealing of sea-side trenches and shafts, and the rehabilitation of the subdrain system. Groundwater ingress has been reduced by about 25% or 100,000 litres per day.
The installation of additional measures to reduce groundwater ingress, such as a frozen (ice) wall, is ongoing. The partially-built ice wall will enclose the area around reactors #1−4 on both the sea-side and the land-side. Whether the ice wall will effectively prevent the ingress and contamination of groundwater has been the subject of debate and scepticism.8
According to the IAEA report, the rehabilitation of subdrains (wells built around reactor buildings) and the construction of a treatment system for pumped subdrain water, are nearly complete. As the subdrains are placed in operation, they are expected to further reduce the groundwater ingress by about 150,000 litres per day, and to near zero following the installation of the land-side ice wall (if it works as hoped).
As of February 2015, about 600 million litres of contaminated water was stored on-site, of which more than half has already been treated to remove some radionuclides (including most caesium and strontium, but not tritium) and TEPCO expects to complete the treatment of the remaining water in the next few months.
Nevertheless the situation remains "complex", the IAEA report states, due to the ingress of about 300,000 litres of groundwater into the Fukushima Daiichi site each day, and the ongoing use (and contamination) of water to cool stricken reactors. The IAEA states that not all of the large number of water treatment systems deployed by TEPCO are operating to their full design capacity and performance. One of the many remaining challenges for TEPCO will be to seal leakages in reactor and turbine building walls, which it plans to tackle after controlling groundwater ingress.
Leaks and spills are still occurring. On February 22, sensors detected a fresh leak of radioactive water to the ocean. The sensors, rigged to a gutter that directs rain and groundwater to a nearby bay, detected contamination levels 50−70 times greater than normal, falling to 10−20 times the normal level later that day.9,10
On February 24, TEPCO acknowledged that it had failed to disclose leaks to the ocean of highly contaminated rainwater from a drainage ditch even though it was aware of the problem 10 months ago. The ditch receives run-off from the roof of the #2 reactor building. TEPCO said it recorded 29,400 becquerels of caesium per litre in water pooled on the rooftop, and 52,000 becquerels per litre of beta-emitting radionuclides such as strontium-90.11
The governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Masao Uchibori, said the incident was "extremely regrettable". Masakazu Yabuki, head of the Iwaki fisheries cooperative, said he had been "betrayed" by TEPCO. "I don't understand why [TEPCO] kept silent even though they knew about it. Fishery operators are absolutely shocked," Yabuki said.12 The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations said: "The anger among local fishermen who have been waiting to resume their business is immeasurable."13
Fishing industry and ocean dumping
A Fisheries Agency survey released in February revealed that the fishing industry has been slow to recover in coastal prefectures affected by the 3/11 triple-disaster. Only 50% of the surveyed companies in five prefectures said their production capacities have recovered to 80% or more of the levels before the disaster, with Fukushima Prefecture recording the lowest figure of 25%. Selling the catch has also been problematic. In the Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, only 28% of the fish processing businesses have seen their sales rise to 80% or more of the pre-disaster levels.14
In January, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations called on the government not to allow the release of contaminated water into the sea.15 Yet the IAEA report reiterates earlier advice to do just that. According to the IAEA, TEPCO's present plan to continue storing contaminated water in tanks, with a capacity of 800 million litres, is "at best a temporary measure while a more sustainable solution is needed."
Meanwhile, subsidiaries of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom are working on plans to build a demonstration plant to test technology for tritium removal from contaminated water.16 However the demonstration plant would not be operational until early 2016 and it is doubtful whether it could be deployed before the existing tank storage capacity is full.
The Prince of PR
The IAEA's latest report is one part substance, one part public relations. It is silent about the miserable situation faced by evacuees, sub-standard working conditions at Fukushima, the government's disgraceful secrecy law17, and much else besides.
Prince William's visit to Japan in late February was used for more pro-nuclear PR by the Japanese government. Escorted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Prince William visited Fukushima prefecture, ate local produce and went to a children's playground. However they drove straight past a village where some of the Fukushima evacuees are still living as refugees.
Tokuo Hayakawa, a Buddhist priest who lives near the Fukushima plant, said: "I think Abe is using him. It's true that you can find children playing outside, and you can eat some Fukushima food. But to take that as the overall reality here is totally wrong. If I could, I would take him to these abandoned ghost towns, and to the temporary houses where people still live, so he could see the reality that we are facing."18
Worker accidents and deaths on the rise
Shortly after the third anniversary of the triple-disaster, Fukushima workers rallied outside the Tokyo headquarters of TEPCO, complaining that they were forced to work in dangerous conditions for meagre pay.19 Little has changed over the past year.20,21,22
The number of serious work-related accidents at Fukushima Daiichi doubled in 2014. Nine serious accidents occurred between March 2014 and January 2015, resulting in two deaths and eight serious injuries. The total number of accidents at Fukushima Daiichi, including heatstrokes, has almost doubled to 55 this fiscal year (which ends on March 31). "It's not just the number of accidents that has been on the rise," said labour inspector Katsuyoshi Ito. "It's the serious cases, including deaths and serious injuries that have risen."22
On January 19, a worker died at Fukushima Daiichi after falling into an empty rainwater tank, and the following day a worker at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant died after being hit on the head by a piece of heavy equipment in a waste treatment facility. In March 2014, a worker died at Fukushima Daiichi after being buried by gravel while digging a ditch.
Just one week before the two deaths in January, labour inspectors warned TEPCO about the rising frequency of accidents and ordered it to take measures to deal with the problem. The rising accident rate is partly due to the increased number of workers involved in the clean-up of Fukushima Daiichi − now around 7,000, more than double the 3,000 or so that worked there in April 2013. But other factors are at work. TEPCO acknowledged after the deaths in January that there has been a "lack of continuous safety enhancement activity, such as listing up danger zones and eliminating them." The company also noted that "because of strong pressure to comply with the schedule, accident recurrence prevention activity was not thorough, and the range of inspection and measures was restricted."21
TEPCO President Naomi Hirose announced in late 2013 that the daily hazard payment for Fukushima Daiichi clean-up workers would be doubled to about US$180 (€161). But many workers are not receiving the promised pay increase. TEPCO has declined to disclose details of its legal agreements with the 800 contractors and subcontractors who employ almost all of the Fukushima workforce. Only one of the 37 workers interviewed by Reuters from July−September 2014 said he received the full hazard pay increase promised by TEPCO. Some got no increase. In cases where payslips detailed a hazard payment, the amounts ranged from US$36−90 (€32−80) per day.23
Two former and two current workers have initiated legal action against TEPCO to reclaim unpaid wages, in particular unpaid hazard payments. The four workers are seeking a total of US$543,000 (€485,000).24
In November 2014, TEPCO acknowledged that that the number of workers on false contracts has increased in the past year. Survey results released by TEPCO showed that around 30% of those workers polled said that they were paid by a different company from the contractor that normally directs them at the worksite, which is illegal under Japan's labour laws. A similar survey in 2013 found that about 20% of workers were on false contracts.25
Yet another controversy emerged on February 18 when a construction firm executive was arrested for sending a 15-year-old boy to help clean up radioactive waste outside the Fukushima plant. Japan's labour laws prohibit people under 18 from working in radioactive areas. The boy was ordered to lie about his age. He said he was paid just ¥3,000 (US$25.1; €22.4) per day and was hit when he did not work hard enough.26
A New York Times editorial in March 2014 stated: "A pattern of shirking responsibility permeates the decommissioning work at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. ... It was the Japanese government, which had been leading the promotion of nuclear power, that made the Fukushima cleanup TEPCO's responsibility. The government kept TEPCO afloat to protect shareholders and bank lenders. It then used taxpayer money to set up the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, which provided loans to TEPCO to deal with Fukushima. This arrangement has conveniently allowed the government to avoid taking responsibility for the nuclear cleanup."27
The government passes responsibility to TEPCO, and TEPCO passes responsibility to a labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors. The government and TEPCO shirk responsibility for the Fukushima clean-up, just as they shirked responsibility for the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
1. 1 March 2015, '44 evacuees die alone in temporary housing in ’14', Yomiuri Shimbun, http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001971417
2. 7 Feb 2015, 'Mission impossible: An industrial clean-up without precedent', www.economist.com/news/asia/21642221-industrial-clean-up-without-precede...
3. IAEA media release, 17 Feb 2015, 'IAEA Team Completed Third Review of Japan's Plans to Decommission Fukushima Daiichi', www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-team-completed-third-review-j...
4. IAEA, February 2015, IAEA International Peer Review, Preliminary Summary Report: Mission on Mid-And-Long-Term Roadmap Towards the Decommissioning of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Units 1-4, www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/missionreport170215.pdf
5. Justin McCurry, 14 Nov 2014, 'Fukushima £11bn cleanup progresses, but there is no cause for optimism', www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/13/fukushima-11bn-cleanup-will-...
6. Mari Yamaguchi / Associated Press, 12 Nov 2014, 'Japan's Fukushima cleanup 3 years on: little key work done', www.cbc.ca/news/world/japan-s-fukushima-cleanup-3-years-on-little-key-wo...
7. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, June 2012, 'Forging a New Nuclear Safety Construct: The ASME Presidential Task Force on Response to Japan Nuclear Power Plant Events', www.asme.org/getmedia/73081de8-e963-4557-9498-f856b56dabd1/Forging_a_new...
8. 2 May 2014, 'Nuclear expert doubts ice wall will solve Fukushima plant leaks', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/05/02/national/nuclear-expert-doubts-ice-...
9. AFP, 22 Feb 2015, 'Fukushima nuclear plant detects fresh leak of radioactive water', www.smh.com.au/world/fukushima-nuclear-plant-detects-fresh-leak-of-radio...
10. Nuclear Regulation Authority, 25 Feb 2015, 'Possible Flow of Contaminated Water to the Outside of the Controlled Area of Fukushima Daiichi NPS', www.nsr.go.jp/data/000098312.pdf
11. 25 Feb 2015, 'Fisheries 'shocked' at silence over water leak at wrecked Fukushima No. 1 plant', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/02/25/national/tepco-admits-failed-disclo...
12. Arata Yamamoto, 25 Feb 2015, 'Radioactive Fukushima Water Leak Was Unreported for Months: Official', www.nbcnews.com/news/world/radioactive-fukushima-water-leak-was-unreport...
13. Kazuaki Nagata, 27 Feb 2015, 'Fisheries group lodges protest against Tepco's failure to disclose leak of radioactive rainwater', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/02/27/national/fisheries-group-lodges-pro...
14. 13 Feb 2015, 'Recovery slow in disaster-zone fish processing industries', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/02/13/business/recovery-slow-disaster-zon...
15. 27 Jan 2015, 'Fishermen oppose dumping radioactive water into sea', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/01/27/national/fishermen-oppose-dumping-r...
16. WNN, 18 Feb 2015, 'IAEA team sees improvements at Fukushima Daiichi', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-IAEA-team-sees-improvements-at-Fukushima-D...
17. Toko Sekiguchi, 13 Feb 2015, 'Japan Slips in Press Freedom Ranking', http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/02/13/japan-slips-in-press-freed...
18. Gordon Rayner / Reuters, 26 Feb 2015, 'Prince William in Japan: controversial visit to Fukushima during visit', www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/prince-william/11436152/Prince-William-t...
19. Agence France-Presse, 14 March 2014, 'Fukushima nuclear workers rally against plant operator over low pay, dangerous conditions', www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/03/14/fukushima-nuclear-workers-rally-against-p...
20. Yu Kotsubo and Akifumi Nagahashi, 17 Feb 2015, 'TEPCO vows safety first in training program for workers at Fukushima', http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201502170029
21. WNN, 3 Feb 2015, 'Tepco resumes work after contractor deaths', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Tepco-resumes-work-after-contractor-deaths...
22. Antoni Slodkowski, 19 Jan 2015, 'Fukushima worker dies after falling into water storage tank', www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/20/us-japan-fukushima-labor-idUSKBN0KT05...
23. Mari Saito and Antoni Slodkowski, 8 Oct 2014, 'Nuclear workers kept in dark on Fukushima hazard pay', www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/08/us-fukushima-workers-insight-idUSKCN0...
24. Justin McCurry, 9 Sept 2014, 'Fukushima fallout continues: now cleanup workers claim unpaid wages', www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/09/fukushima-daiichi-operators-...
25. Aaron Sheldrick, 28 Nov 2014, 'Fukushima workers still in murky labor contracts: Tepco survey', www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/28/us-fukushima-workers-idUSKCN0JC099201...
26. 18 Feb 2015, 'Construction firm exec arrested for sending teen to help Fukushima cleanup', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/02/18/national/crime-legal/construction-f...
27. Editorial, 21 March 2014, 'Fukushima's Shameful Cleanup', www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/opinion/fukushimas-shameful-cleanup.html
Reactor restarts in Japan
No power reactors have operated in Japan since 16 September 2013 but the slow process of restarting reactors is in train and the first restarts − Kyushu's two reactors at Sendai − will likely occur in the first half of this year. Next in line are Takahama #3 and #4.
Twelve utilities have applied to restart 21 reactors, and further applications will follow (Japan has a total of 48 operable reactors). The World Nuclear Association cites a 'high case' scenario developed by Itochu Corporation, with about 10 reactor restarts annually and a total of up to 35 restarts within five years.1
The Japanese public remains sceptical. A November 2014 poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that twice as many respondents oppose reactor restarts as support them (56:28).2 More than 16,000 people gathered in Tokyo last September to protest against the decision to approve the restart of the Sendai reactors.3 Of the 18,711 comments on the government's draft basic energy plan, 94.4% opposed reactor restarts, while only 1.1% were in favour.4
On the other hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party comfortably won the December 2014 election, and the government is intent on reactor restarts. Public opposition will delay many reactor restart approval processes and it may force the closure of at least a few reactors (in addition to those already slated for closure).
The government/corporate collusion that was a central feature of Japan's pre-Fukushima 'nuclear village' is re-emerging (if it ever went away). Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability, noted in a November 2014 speech: "Before the Abe administration, I was a member of an energy committee, an advisory body for the government charged with providing input on energy policies until 2030 for Japan. We had 25 members, of whom myself and seven others were not in favor of nuclear power. It was a small contingent, but this was still a huge departure from the past because citizens and experts against nuclear power have never been assigned as members of a governmental advisory body. The new administration, however, restructured the committee, eliminating anyone against nuclear power. ... In Japan we have what some people refer to as a "nuclear village": a group of government officials, industries, and academia notorious for being strongly pro-nuclear. There has been little change in this group, and the regulatory committee to oversee nuclear policies and operations is currently headed by a well-known nuclear proponent."5
With the nuclear village back in charge, familiar patterns are re-emerging. A November 2014 editorial in Japan Times, commenting on the Sendai restart approval, said the "move contains serious safety and procedural problems" such as inadequate evacuation plans, the lack of a permanent off-site command centre in the case of an emergency, the exclusion of eight municipalities from the approval process, and numerous other problems. "As the seemingly last key hurdle for the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant is lifted," Japan Times editorialised, "a dangerous precedent has been set and many fundamental questions remain unanswered."6
One post-Fukushima reform that has not yet been destroyed is TEPCO's outside advisory committee, the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, chaired by former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Dale Klein.7 Klein said late last year that TEPCO should convene a panel of foreign operators to review safety standards.
"I would like to see what I call a readiness review," Klein told Reuters. "You've got regulatory aspects – Do you meet everything? Do you have right training? – and then, I think, because of Fukushima Daiichi, the Japanese public would feel better if another group came in and said operationally they are ready. I have been pushing for that."8
So, might TEPCO appoint an outside committee to review safety standards and supplement the work of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee? A more likely outcome is that the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee itself will be abolished.
Permanent reactor shut-downs
A minimum of five reactors will be permanently shut down (in addition to the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors).9 The five reactors are Kansai's Mihama #1 and #2, Japan Atomic Power's Tsuruga 1, Chugoku's Shimane 1, and Kyushu's Genkai 1. All are relatively small (320−529 MW), and by October 2015 all will be more than 40 years old. Another two reactors, Kansai's Takahama #1 #2, which began commercial operation in 1974 and 1975, may also be shut down although Kansai may fight to restart them.
Other reactors may also be permanently shut down. Cantor Fitzgerald forecasts that in the long-term 32 of the 48 reactors will restart and the other 16 shut down.10 One of the other candidates for permanent closure is Tsuruga #2 − Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority disagrees with Japan Atomic Power Corporation about seismic risks.11
TEPCO's plan to restart reactors #6 and #7 at the Kashiwazaki−Kariwa plant (badly damaged by an earthquake in 2007) is meeting stiff resistance from the governor of Niigata province, Hirohiko Izumida. The governor says TEPCO must address its "institutionalized lying" before it can expect to restart reactors.12 He wants TEPCO executives held accountable for the negligence that led to the Fukushima disaster, but government prosecutors have refused to bring charges against TEPCO executives.13
Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, is reportedly considering revising accounting rules to lighten the financial burden on utilities that decommission nuclear reactors, with decisions expected by March.9 In other words, the government is planning to do what the government does best: throw taxpayers' money at the nuclear industry.
Among other smoke-and-mirror tricks:
• Reactors are limited to a 40-year operating life ... but utilities can apply for a 20-year extension.
• Government and industry are not (yet) promoting the construction of new reactors, but efforts are being made to move ahead with reactors under construction before March 2011. Expect double-dipping and triple-dipping: the closure of a small number of reactors is being used to quell opposition to reactor restarts, then the closure of the same reactors will be used to quell opposition to the completion of reactors under construction and reactors in the planning stages.
Debates over the future of the Monju fast reactor and the Rokkasho reprocessing plant will add spice to Japan's nuclear debate this year. Monju may be doomed, but Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd hopes to begin operating Rokkasho in early 2016.1
2. 6 Jan 2015, 'Editorial: Consensus-building process needed for nuclear policy decisions', http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/editorial/AJ201501060058
3. 23 Sept 2014, 'What's your anti-disaster plan?' Thousands protest Japanese nuclear revival', http://rt.com/news/190068-japan-nuclear-energy-protest/
4. Atsushi Komori, 12 Nov 2014, 'Energy plan overlooked flat-out opposition to nuclear power, analysis shows', http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201411120044
5. Junko Edahiro, November 2014, 'Toward a Sustainable Japan: Fukushima Accidents Show Japan's Challenges', JFS Newsletter No.147, www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id035110.html
6. 12 Nov 2014, 'Bad precedent for nuclear restart', www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/12/editorials/bad-precedent-nuclear...
8. Kentaro Hamada, 2 Dec 2014, 'Japan's Tepco needs safety review from foreign nuclear operators − adviser', http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/12/02/uk-nuclear-tepco-idUKKCN0JG0QV2...
9. 11 Jan 2015, '5 old nuclear reactors headed for decommissioning scrap heap', http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201501110012
10. 1 Jan 2015, 'Japan turns ignition key on efforts to restart its nuclear fleet', http://neutronbytes.com/2015/01/01/japan-turns-ignition-key-on-efforts-t...
11. 20 Nov 2014, 'Nuclear watchdog panel: Fault under Tsuruga reactor is active', http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201411200043
12. Antoni Slodkowski and Kentaro Hamada, 29 Oct 2013, 'Tepco can't yet be trusted to restart world's biggest nuclear plant: governor', http://planetark.org/enviro-news/item/70199
13. Reuters, 22 Jan 2015, 'Prosecutors won't indict former Tepco execs over Fukushima', www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/us-japan-nuclear-prosecution-idUSKBN0...