Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced on May 10, that Japan is scrapping plans to build 14 new nuclear reactors and instead will rethink its energy policy with a focus toward renewable energy sources and efficiency.
Three months earlier, on February 7, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry gave unit 1 of Fukushima-I permission to continue operations beyond 40 years of commercial operation. Just over one month later the Fukushima I Unit 1 was wiped out by an earthquake and tsunami.
The May 10 decision to abandon plans to build more nuclear reactors and “start from scratch” in creating a new energy policy, will mean the end for a plan that the Kan government released last year to build 14 nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply to 50 percent. Japan currently has 54 reactors that before the earthquake produced 30 percent of its electricity. But 13 of those could well be closed permanently after the March 11 earthquake: six at Fukushima-I, four at Fukushima-II and three at Hamaoka.
Could the Chernobyl 1986 accident be characterized as a Soviet accident in a unique type of reactor, the Fukushima accident occurred in a high-tech nation with broad international cooperation and a common reactor type. Even more, the accident as a result of the earthquake happened in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, in a society prepared for massive earthquakes.
After initially rating the accident Level 5, on April 12, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency uprated the ongoing accident to Level 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), indicating a major accident with significant environmental consequences. Helmut Hirsch, a consultant to Greenpeace Germany, already published an analysis two weeks earlier (March 25), saying the Fukushima events should be rated at Level 7, or even three Level 7s for the three damaged core's, based on releases up to March 25.
On the same day, April 12, an official from Tepco (world's #4 power company) told a press briefing that radiation leakage “has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl.” The phrase "leakage has not stopped completely" turned out to be the understatement of the year, given the fact that late April and early May enormous peaks in releases occurred, and it can take months before (accidental) radioactive release stop.
In uprating the accident to Level 7, however, the government appears to be downplaying the actual radiation releases, with several media reports quoting government officials as saying releases have been about 10% of those from Chernobyl. However, the Austrian weather service, which has been monitoring radiation across the world and advising the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on March 23 (!), that releases of Cesium-137 at that time could amount to about 50% of the Chernobyl source term of Cesium-137 and Iodine-131 releases were at 20%. It is true however that prevailing winds blew the vast majority of the radioactivity onto the sea, but in several periods the emissions were transported inland.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest nuclear companies are trying to capitalize on the nuclear catastrophe: they are forming consortia to bid for work to stabilize and clean up the Fukushima I nuclear power plant. Tepco and the Japanese government face the challenge of managing a huge project that will dwarf the Three Mile Island-2 cleanup. “TMI took 10 years and a billion dollars, and this is a lot bigger,” one industry source said.
Hitachi is leading one group of companies, including reactor business partner General Electric, seeking Fukushima I work. Toshiba has formed another consortium with several US companies. Areva is in talks with Tokyo Electric Power Co. The consortia could divide the work by unit or by task; the remediation of contaminated air, water and solids are different areas requiring different work.
On May 9, Chubu Electric Co. agreed to Prime minister Kan’s request that the three operational reactors at the Hamaoka nuclear complex be closed, at least until seismic upgrades can be performed and a new seawall to protect against tsunamis be built. The betting here is that these reactors, which sit atop probably Japan’s most dangerous earthquake fault, will not reopen.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has announced a post-Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety to be held in Vienna June 20-24.
Sources: Nucleonics Week, 31 March and 14 April 2011; NIRS Update; Nuke Info Tokyo 141, March/April 2011