2 september 2013

Fukushima’s Radioactive Legacy is Just Beginning

By Paul Brown, Climate News Networ, September 1st, 2013

LONDON — The discovery at the plant of a leak of radioactive caesium eight times more dangerous than the levels immediately after the Fukushima accident in March 2011 has aroused international concern that Japan is incapable of containing the aftermath of the accident.

A Chinese statement expressed shock at the news and urged Japan to be more open about the problem. This prompted Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority to upgrade the leak from a level one incident, “an anomaly”, to a level three: “a serious incident.”

At the same time last week the Authority chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, said: “Mishaps keep happening one after the other.” His staff, he said, were trying to prevent the leak becoming “a fatal or serious accident”.

The latest leakage is so contaminating that a person standing close to a puddle of the water for an hour would receive five times the annual recommended radiation limit for nuclear workers.

As with previous leaks, the Tokyo Electric Power Co, Tepco, responsible for the plant, is pumping the contaminated water into storage tanks. This is acknowledged to be only a temporary solution, since there are already hundreds of full storage tanks on the site. These contain contaminated water used to cool the cores of the melted-down reactors. Some have already leaked and need stronger replacements.

The cause of the latest leak is still not clear and there are concerns about the continuing contamination of the Pacific Ocean, where local fishing is suspended because of radioactivity in the water.

Criticism from Abroad

The hope expressed in the aftermath of the disaster in 2011 that the plant would be safe and all problems under control within a year was clearly wildly over-optimistic. The knock-on effects are becoming clear — the number of thyroid cancers in children in the area is increasing, for example — and the chances of people returning to the contaminated area are vanishingly small.

After the latest news South Korea’s Asiana Airlines was reported to have cancelled four charter flights between Seoul and Fukushima in October because of public concerns over the radioactive water leaks.

The city, around 60 kms (37 miles) from the nuclear facility and with a population of some 284,000, is a popular destination for golfers and tourists visiting nearby local hot springs and lakes.

Decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima power plant in 2011.
Credit: IAEA Image Bank/flickr

On August 24, an editorial in the South Korean newspaper JoongAn Daily, headed “Tokyo lacks any sense of urgency”, said: “Leakage from the Fukushima nuclear complex . . . is ballooning into a catastrophic disaster.”

If anything, the future consequences of Fukushima for Japan are more serious than for the countries still suffering from the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986.

There the 30 km (18.6 mile) exclusion zone round the plant is still in force, and the ruined reactor has still not been made safe. The current international effort is aimed at placing a giant concrete shield over the reactor at a cost of around $1.5 billion. That work is not expected to be complete for another two years — until 30 years after the disaster.

The International Atomic Energy Agency team that looked at Fukushima and the problems of making the plant safe said in April that Japan may need longer than the projected 40 years to decommission the wrecked plants.

Britain’s Long Wait

Tepco, which offered the 40-year timetable, has admitted it does not yet have the technology to achieve it. Radiation levels are so high that for any human to try to tackle the melted-down reactors would be lethal. Robots to carry out the work need to be developed, and meanwhile the reactors must be kept cool and plants kept safe and stable.

One almost forgotten reactor core meltdown that happened in 1957 gives a clue to how long the Japanese problem may persist. This was a fire in a reactor at Windscale in Cumbria in the UK — small by comparison with both Chernobyl and Fukushima.

It was one of the two reactors producing plutonium for the British nuclear weapons programme. It caught fire and part of the core melted. Fifty-six years later, the reactor still has to be constantly monitored and guarded.

Several plans have been developed to dismantle the core and decommission it. But all have been abandoned, because it is considered too dangerous to tamper with. Although the UK’s nuclear expertise is arguably as good as Japan’s, the problem remains unresolved.

The reactor building is among the abandoned relics of Britain’s 1950s nuclear arms race, sitting behind barbed wire at the now renamed Sellafield site.

The Fukushima accident left Japan with three much larger reactor meltdowns. There is a long way to go.

Paul Brown is a joint editor for Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.


Tepco reports new radiation hotspots at Fukushima plant

By Ben McLannahan in Tokyo, Financial Times, September 1, 2013

Tokyo Electric Power has reported new radiation hotspots at four locations near tanks holding contaminated water at its stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, raising fresh concerns over its ability to manage the aftermath of the March 2011 crisis.

Radiation of 1,800 millisieverts per hour – 18 times the cumulative maximum exposure allowed for nuclear power workers over five years – was detected near the bottom of one storage tank on Saturday, Tepco said.

None of the tanks showed any visible drop in their water levels, the plant operator said, adding that it was investigating the cause of the high readings.

The disclosure is likely to intensify fears that Tepco is not up to the task of safely decommissioning the tsunami-hit site, where last month a tank was reported to have leaked about 300 tonnes of contaminated water.

That incident drew fire from Shinji Kinjo, leader of a disaster task force at Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, who accused Tepco of carelessness in its monitoring of hundreds of tanks hurriedly built to store water used as reactor coolant. The tanks at the centre of Saturday’s incident were of the same type, built from steel plates held together by rivets, rather than welded.

Japan’s government plans to dip into reserves in this year’s budget to support Tepco’s immediate response to the water crisis. Over the longer-term, the government is focusing containment efforts on an ambitious plan to fence off the plant by freezing the soil around it with coolant pipes, sunk deep underground. Such a barrier would prevent water flowing from hillsides from coming into contact with the reactors.

Meanwhile, some believe that the updates from Fukushima will prevent the restart of dozens of idled nuclear plants across the country.

All nine of Japan’s biggest utilities missed their targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions over the past five years, the Federation of Electric Power Companies said last month, mainly due to reliance on thermal power since the Fukushima meltdowns.

“It’s difficult,” said Takato Ojimi, president of the Tokyo-based Asia Pacific Energy Research Centre, a broadly pro-nuclear group. “We’d like to have a discussion about Japan’s ideal energy mix, considering the costs of fossil fuel imports and of [CO2] emissions and so on. But people are still negative.”

There are concerns, too, that Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics could also be affected. At the end of this week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to join a general meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, making a final push to edge out Tokyo’s rivals, Madrid and Istanbul.

The 300-tonne leak disclosed last month – ranked as “level 3” by the NRA, denoting the most serious event since the level 7 meltdowns of March 2011 – “showed the world that the disaster is not over”, said Katsunobu Onda, an investigative journalist and author of a critical book on Tepco.

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