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The ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster and the continuing impact

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
LAKA Foundation

Four months after the earthquake and the resulting tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant senior engineers at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) admit that they knew that a potentially dangerous design flaw in five of the nuclear reactors weren't fully upgraded, the Wall Street Journal reported on July 1. Meanwhile the nuclear power plant continues to leak large amounts of radioactive substances. After initially problems and failures, workers succeeded in setting up a machinery to clean contaminated water and then use it to cool the reactors, while other workers had to repair a leaking hose in reactor 5 and to double the amount of water being injected into unit 1 after the water level decreased. Tepco said it will soon begin injecting nitrogen into reactor 3 to prevent a hydrogen explosion. Medical tests in Fukushima prefecture reveal that almost half of the children tested positive for thyroid exposure. High levels of cesium were found in the soil at four locations of Fukushima city, 60 km away. The scientist who coordinated this soil survey says that these areas have to evacuated.

In what could be an attempt to distract attention from generic unsafe nuclear reactors to 'specific unsolved safety problems at Fukushima', former senior and current engineers at Tepco, including those who were involved when the design decisions were made in the 1970s, stated that Tepco knew for years that five of its Fukushima nuclear reactors had a potentially dangerous design flaw. The company, however, didn't fully upgrade them, dooming them to failure when the earthquake hit, according to the statement. Tepco used two different designs for safeguarding its 10 reactors in Fukushima Daiichi and Daini. After the March 11 quake, the five reactors with the newer design withstood the resulting 12-meter tsunami without their vital cooling systems failing. Those reactors shut down safely. The cooling systems of four units with older designs, however, failed, and the backup generators and other equipment for switching were flooded, ultimately causing melt downs in three reactors.

Some of the engineers declared that Tepco had opportunities to retrofit the oldest reactors in the past decades. They blame a combination of complacency, cost-cutting pressures and lax regulation for the failure to do so (not extra-ordinary for Tepco, considering it's history). However, spokesman for Tepco declined to comment for this story, citing the Japanese government's ongoing investigation into the cause of the accident.

Because Tepco's first reactor buildings were small, the generators had to go somewhere else. They  put them into neighboring structures that house turbines. The reactor buildings had thick concrete walls and dual sets of sturdy doors. The turbine buildings were far less sturdy, especially their doors. “Backup power generators are critical safety equipment, and it should have been a no-brainer to put them inside the reactor buildings,” one of the senior engineers says. Kiyoshi Kishi, a former Tepco executive in charge of nuclear-plant engineering, says that people thought a large tsunami on Fukushima's Pacific coast was “impossible.” Later Tepco adjusted some parts of the plant to address tsunamis less than half the height of the one that hit in March. “Some of us knew all along and were concerned about the inconsistent placements of diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi between reactor No. 6 and the older reactors 1 through 5, and their potential vulnerability,” says one of Tepco's top engineers who has guided the company's nuclear division. In 2001, when the original 30-year operating permit for Daiichi's unit 1 reactor was set to expire, Tepco applied for and received a 10-year extension. It got another one earlier this year, just five weeks before the accident. Regulators never reviewed whether the basic blueprint of the older reactors was flawed, the abbreviated minutes of government deliberations show.

Ongoing problems at Fukushima NPP
Meanwhile the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi NPP is far from over. Tepco and the Japanese government have admitted to three 100 percent meltdowns, but can't confirm with any reliability the current state of those cores. There's reason to believe one or more have progressed to “melt-throughs” in which they burn through the stainless steel pressure vessel and onto the containment floor. The molten cores may be covered with water. But whether they can melt further through the containments and into the ground remains unclear. At least three explosions have occurred, one of which may have involved criticality.  Unit 4 is cracked and sinking. The status of its used radioactive fuel pool, which has clearly caught fire, is uncertain. Also unclear is the ability of the owners to sustain the stability of reactors 5 and 6, which were shut when the quake/tsunami hit.

Workers have now finally set up a system to clean contaminated water and then use it to cool the reactors. Establishing a closed cooling system is a key step to bringing the crisis under control. Hosing down the reactors from outside has left the facility with 100,000 tons of irradiated water. Tepco said cooling was lost temporarily on July 3 in reactor 5. A shutdown of the cooling system became necessary in order to replace a leaking plastic hose. The cooling operation resumed a few hours later. The temperature of the reactor was 43.1 degrees Celsius at the time of the cooling system shutdown. It continued to rise during the few hours that it took to replace the hose, but did not exceed 48 Celsius degrees overnight, Tepco said. If the leak had not been spotted, the reactor would have reached the boiling point within 24 hours, causing all the water to evaporate, which would expose the rods, placing the reactor in danger of a core meltdown. According to the utility the crack was the result of hydraulic pressure caused by tides and seawater. It plans to install a support structure to prevent the hose from rocking. The leaking hose was the first of two incidents in early July. Workers at the plant had to double the amount of water being injected into unit 1 after the water level decreased from 3.7 tons of water to 3 tons, setting off an alarm. The problem was suspected to be caused by debris that had accumulated inside the hoses resulting in a clog that reduced the water flow. 

Meanwhile, Tepco said July 3 that it installed about 50 iron sheets on the floor of the reactor 3 building to shield against radiation. While the inside of the building has high levels of radiation mainly due to a hydrogen explosion on March 14, which is hampering reconstruction work, the utility said it aims to reduce radiation levels by one-third or more. High levels of radiation were detected on the first floor of the reactor building, measuring 58-178 mSv/hr as of June 24. In an effort to lower radiation levels, Tepco used a robot to clean the floor on July 1, but the radiation levels as of July 3 remained as high as 50-186 mSv/hr. On July 9, Tepco said it will soon begin injecting nitrogen into reactor 3 to prevent a hydrogen explosion. Tepco says it could achieve stable cooling of all the crippled reactors by mid-July as initially planned. The injection of nitrogen into reactor 3 will be carried out as soon as Tepco gets the green light from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and local governments. Tepco has already began injecting nitrogen into reactors 1 and 2. Tepco began injecting nitrogen in unit 1 in April. This wasn't possible for unit 3 because excessively high radiation prevented workers from laying the necessary groundwork. The utility said it can start the injection after connecting hoses to the necessary pipes at the reactor. Still, high levels of radiation at  reactor building 3 could prevent workers from carrying out the nitrogen injection, a Tepco official said.

Thyroid exposure to radiation
About 45 per cent of the children in Fukushima prefecture have experienced thyroid exposure to radiation, according to an investigation led by the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission. In late March, the Commission conducted the testing on 1,080 kids from infants to 15 year-olds and maintains the exposure is minimal and doesn't warrant further examination. Among children who tested positive for thyroid exposure, the amounts measured 0.04 microsieverts per hour (µSv/hr) or less in most cases, while the largest exposure was 0.1 µSv/hr, equivalent to a yearly dose of 50 mSv for a one-year-old baby.

Hot spots in Fukushima
A soil survey at four locations in Fukushima city found all samples were contaminated with cesium-137, measuring 16,000 to 46,000 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg), exceeding the official limit of 10,000 Bq/kg, citizens groups said. Measured in sieverts the survey showed radiation levels exceeding 13 mSv/yr, more than six times natural levels. The city of 300,000 is located far from the 20-km zone around the plant, about 60 km from Fukushima NPP. The group detected as much as 931,000 Bq/m2 at one location, above the 555,000-Bq limit for compulsory resettlement ordered by Soviet authorities following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 Bq/m2. The citizens' groups - the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation and five other non-governmental organizations - have called for the evacuation of pregnant women and children from the town. Kobe University radiation expert professor Tomoya Yamauchi conducted the survey on June 26 following a request from the groups. “Soil contamination is spreading in the city,” Yamauchi said in a statement. “Children are playing with the soil, meaning they are playing with high levels of radioactive substances. Evacuation must be conducted as soon as possible.”

Increasingly panicked residents take matters into their own hands. They scoop up soil from their gardens and dump it in holes dug out in open spaces in the surroundings, scrub their roofs and refuse to let their children play outside. They are scrambling to cope with contamination on their own in the absence of a long-term plan from the government. Experts, however, warn that their do-it-yourself efforts to reduce contamination risk making matters worse by allowing radiation to spread without monitoring and by creating hotspots of high radioactivity where soil is piled high. They say the longer it takes Japanese authorities to organize a clean-up the greater the risk of additional, long-lasting damage. “Such clusters of radiation can also leak into the groundwater and pose more health hazards for a sustained period,” said Takumi Gotoh, a cancer specialist. “That's why Japan urgently needs a comprehensive, long-term plan to deal with the issue,” Gotoh said.

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has issued guidelines that urge governments dealing with a nuclear emergency to set up a radiation monitoring system with a detailed read-out on hotspots and a health monitoring system for the affected population. While checking radiation in schools is now commonplace, health check-ups have only started in the worst-affected areas. Tokyo has promised that the radiation hotspot map will be ready by October - seven months after the disaster.

High levels of cesium in tea leaves
Besides Fukushima prefecture, excessive levels of cesium-137 have been detected in samples of tea leaves in Chiba prefecture. The health ministry asked the Chiba prefecture authority to expand a restriction on shipments of tea leaves produced near Katsuura city in addition to six areas in the prefecture restricted on June 2. Dried leaves from Katsuura city, 78 km from Tokyo, had radiation levels exceeding safety standards, the health ministry said. The leaves had 2,300 Bq/kg, more than the government safety standard of 500 Bq/kg, according to a statement on July 1 by the local government. The country’s tea production, including fresh and dried leaves, was worth 102.1bn yen (US$1.3bn) in 2009, according to the agriculture ministry. Tea from Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture had above-standard cesium levels three months after radiation leaked from the plant about 360 kilometers from the area. Shizuoka, which accounts for about 40 percent of the nation’s tea output and lies southwest of Tokyo, asked farmers in June to recall products and halt shipments. Other products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, milk, plums and fish have been found to be contaminated with cesium and iodine as far as 360 kilometer from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the London-based World Nuclear Association has warned that prolonged exposure to radiation in the air, ground and food can cause leukemia and other cancers.

Cesium found in Tokyo's tap water
Cesium-137 was found in Tokyo's tap water. The level discovered, 0,14 Bq/kg, was below the safety limit set by the government. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health no cesium-134 or iodine-131 was detected. In March, after radioactive iodine was found in the city's supply at levels twice the allowable limit for infants, Tokyo's metropolitan government warned residents not to give tap water to small children.

Compensation and reconstruction budgets
Japan's government has approved a second budget of 2tn yen (US$24.7bn) for reconstruction. The money will be spent on rebuilding, and on compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. About 85,000 people have been forced to evacuate the area around the plant. This emergency budget will be sent to parliament for approval this July. In June, Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence motion brought by MPs critical of his handling of the reconstruction process. Mr Kan, who is just over a year into his post, has vowed to step down soon, but only once several key bills on disaster recovery and renewable energy are passed.

Japanese families who had to flee their homes because of the nuclear disaster will receive additional compensation of up to US$3,700 per person. The money, following earlier payments of US$12,300 per household, is meant to compensate the radiation refugees for their “mental suffering”, Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said, according to the Kyodo News agency. Tepco estimates that the new round of payouts will total up to 48 billion yen (US$592m). The utility will give the new payments to 160,000 people who have fled from a 30-km radius around the NPP, including a 20 km legal no-go zone, and from other radiation hotspots further afield. The new payments take into account the time families have spent away from their homes so far, and amount to 100,000 yen (US$1,234) per person per month. Those who have returned home will be paid for the period they were gone.

Avoiding power shortages
Japan will conduct new safety tests of all its nuclear reactors, the nation’s top energy official said. After the start of the Fukushima nuclear accident, reactors had to be shut down and delays in restarting others already undergoing regular maintenance checks mean that only 19 of Japan's 54 reactors are currently operating, hindering the county's effort to recover. Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said Japan's reactors would undergo "stress tests" to determine how well they can withstand major disasters. The government is worried that unless more rectors are restarted the country could soon experience power shortages. Although safety checks are already being carried out on all of Japan's nuclear reactors, the government said the new round of testing would focus on their resilience to extreme and multiple disasters. The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said the tests would be modeled on those under way at 143 reactors in the European Union. Speaking on Japanese television, Mr Kaieda said: "We are planning the stress tests to gain the understanding of local residents. We will get further confidence from the people and will restart operations at some plants." He did not say when the stress tests would begin; however, he promised there would be enough energy available for the peak usage during the summer months.

As said, only 19 of Japan's 54 reactors are currently operating. On July 1, the government imposed restrictions on electricity consumption by large-lot users in eastern and northeastern Japan to avert power shortages. Major companies in Japan began operating on weekends to avoid the concentration of electricity use on weekdays. Although the government's curb on power consumption applies only to large-lot users in the service areas of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. in eastern and northeastern Japan, respectively, some factories and companies in other regions will also operate on the weekends as the automobile industry's supply chain is spread across the country.

Large-lot users in the areas are required in principle to reduce peak-time electricity consumption by 15 percent from a year earlier. Hospitals that provide emergency treatment and shelters for evacuees from the March 11 disaster are exempted, while the reduction target will be relaxed to up to 10 percent for medical, nursing-care and transportation service providers.

What was that again about nuclear power being necessary for energy security reasons?

Angry Tepco shareholders.
On June 28, angry shareholders lashed out at Tepco, demanding a retreat from nuclear power and the chairman's resignation over the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Anti-nuclear groups rallied around the Tokyo hotel where Tepco's meeting was held, foreshadowing the complaints that would be heard inside. Although the meeting was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., shareholders were still registering to enter at that time. As of 3:30 p.m., 9,302 shareholders had shown up, far exceeding the previous high of 3,342 who attended last year's Tepco meeting. Many could not enter the room where Tepco management was seated and were forced to use separate rooms with video monitors displaying the meeting.

A proposal submitted by 402 shareholders called on Tepco management to stop operations and decommission nuclear reactors starting with the oldest ones and not to construct new ones. However, the proposal failed to gain the approval of the required two-thirds of shareholders in attendance. 

Three other electric utilities had similar experiences at their shareholders' meetings., 29 June 2011

UK government 'in bed with nuclear industry'
Officials from the UK government approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated PR strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami  and before the extent of the disaster was known. At least 80 e-mails seen by The Guardian are described as “Orwellian”. Two UK government departments were working with nuclear companies to spin one of the biggest industrial catastrophes of the last 50 years, even as people were dying and a vast area was being made uninhabitable for generations. The e-mails show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK. “This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally,” wrote one official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), The Guardian reported. “We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.”

The e-mails makes clear how a weak government is controlled by a powerful industry colluding to  misinform the public and the media. We now know Fukushima is at least on the same scale as Chernobyl, and likely to be the most expensive accident in the history of industrial accidents. Yet industry and government here want to dismiss it as “not as bad as it looks”. Much more than the facts coming out of Japan, the emails now make the situation far worse for the industry caught with government trying to manipulate the truth.

Or, as John Vidal puts it in his July 1, Guardian article: "These guys –industry and government (Laka)- were not just cosy. They were naked, in bed and consenting. Their closeness now raises questions such as what influence could the industry have had on the chief nuclear inspector's report on Fukushima, and whether speeches by David Cameron, Chris Huhne and other ministers wefre informed or even written by the industry. Can we ever trust government to tell us the thruth on nuclear power, or should we just accept that the industry and government are now as one."
The Guardian, 30 June 2010: Revealed: British government's plan to play down Fukushima (amended 1 July 2011);
The Guardian, 1 July 2011: Fukushima spin was Orwellian

Sources: The Asahi Shimbun, 5 July, 2011: Leaky hose temporarily halts reactor cooling system; VPR News, 5 July, 2011: What Went Wrong In Fukushima: The Human Factor; NTI, 5 July 2011: New Equipment Cleaning Japan Plant Coolant; The Huffington Post, 5 July 2011: Fukushima Spews, Los Alamos Burns, Vermont Rages and We've Almost Lost Nebraska; Harvey Wasserman; UPI, 4 July 2011: Fukushima reactor cooling problem fixed; Digital Journal, 5 July 2011: Cooling of Fukushima nuclear reactor interrupted; Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2011: Design Flaw Fueled Nuclear Disaster; Moscow Time, 6 July 2011: Fukushima-1: secrets revealed; International Business Times,  4 July 2011: Fukushima: Radioactive cesium-137 found in Tokyo’s tap water; The Hindu, 5 July, 2011: 45 per cent of Fukushima children had thyroid exposure to radiation; Kyodo, 4 July, 2011; Business Insider, 5 July, 2011: Almost Half The Kids In Fukushima Have Thyroid Radiation Exposure; AFP, 5 July, 2010: Japan Soil Found Radioactive Outside Evacuation Zone; Bloomberg News, 05 July 2011: Japan expands tea restrictions as more radioactive samples found; Reuters, 4 July 2011: Fukushima residents dump radiated soil in absence of plan; BBC News, 4 July, 2011: Life on the edge of Japan's nuclear contamination zone; Channel News Asia, 5 July 2011: Japan radiation refugees to get more compensation; The Japan Times, 9 July 2011: Tepco to soon inject unit 3 with nitrogen; International Business Times, 6 July 2011: Fukushima nuclear crisis: Japan faces power shortages; BBC News, 6 July 2011: Japan to hold stress tests at all nuclear plants; New York Times, 7 July 2011: Japan Plans Safety Tests of Nuclear Plants; Mainichi Daily News, 2 July 2011: Major firms begin operating on weekends to save power

Contact: Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), Akebonobashi Co-op 2F-B, 8-5 Sumiyoshi-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162-0065, Japan.
Tel: +81 3-3357-3800