* Please do not copy, quote and/or distribute this article without my permission. – Melanie Pawlyszyn
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report released its 2014 report on Sept. 14. Not only does this report contain a comprehensive overview of the precarious state of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) various decontaminating and decommissioning tactics, but it shines valuable light on the economic impacts of the ongoing crisis for both the refugees and residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the country of Japan as a whole.
Where this report lacks is usually a direct result of a deficiency of information collected by the Japanese government and academic and medical institutions on the radioactive contamination of the environment and its biota in Fukushima Prefecture as well as greater Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures. I would have liked to have seen more information on efforts made in order to deal with nuclear waste; the contamination of food and fish being sold in Japanese markets; the symptoms and illnesses related to radiation exposure, including the dozens of cases of thyroid cancer in children from Fukushima Prefecture; and the social impact and opposition to nuclear energy that this crisis has created, including the massive protests held in Tokyo and elsewhere during the past few years.
In this article, I would like to summarize some of the report’s important information that has been well overlooked in the world’s mass media. Furthermore, with the intent of avoiding redundancy in mind, I will include a brief summary of the issues at Fukushima No. 1 that the report clarifies in detail. See the “Summary and Prospects” section of the status report (page 72) with a comprehensive list of challenges the Fukushima Daiichi site faces during the 40 or more years it will take to decommission it.
Please refer to “Fukushima – A Status Report” on pages 59-72 of the 2014 World Nuclear Industry Status Report for elucidation on the information provided in this article. All quotations are from the status report unless otherwise stated.
* * *
We’ve all heard of the Great East Earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, causing the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Station, a.k.a. Fukushima Daiichi. Scientists still debate whether the earthquake or tsunami stopped the plant’s cooling capacity and ultimate meltdowns (or, some scientists conjecture, melt-throughs). What was certain, however, is that Fukushima Daiichi, sitting near the Pacific coast in Futaba District, Fukushima Prefecture, was vulnerable. Though Daiichi was the only Japanese nuclear power plant that experienced utter devastation, the status report reminds us that 10 other reactors at four power stations were considerably damaged and narrowly escaped the same fate. These were two BWR units at Fukushima Daiichi, three BWRs at Onagawa, four BWRs at Fukushima Daini and one BWR at Tokai Daini. Furthermore, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant on the Pacific coast of Aomori lost all external power supplies, but its emergency generators luckily kicked in. This is a reminder that despite Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s push to restart all 50 nuclear power stations in Japan under stricter safety measures by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), there is no guarantee that Japan’s nuclear reactors can withstand the forces of Mother Nature.
Evacuation and resettlement
As of March 10, 2014, over 130,000 people remain evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture, about half of the evacuees total from the earthquake- and tsunami-stricken prefectures. Of the 130,000, 102,000 people are from evacuation order zones, with 48,000 living outside Fukushima Prefecture and 86,000 within. As of February 20, 2014, 98,144 evacuees still live in temporary housing in the Tohoku region and Chiba, Ibaraki, Nagano and Tochigi Prefectures. There are 1,671 recognized deaths due to the nuclear plant accident and 46 suicides in 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined.
On April 1, 2014, an evacuation order for a part of Tamura city was lifted. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey, only one quarter of the households returned; many people commute from outside the city. Radiation levels in some areas are as high as 0.40-0.49 microsieverts per hour.
Weeks after the Tamura evacuation lift, the Japanese government disclosed for the first time a survey and simulation on the radiation dose rate the residents would be exposed to (“below the 20 mSv/y limit, but not below the 1 mSv/y level, the pre-accident legal exposure limit”). The National Institute of Radiological Sciences and Japan Atomic Energy Agency conducted the survey in October 2013.
Upon assessing the survey at its fourth meeting of the “Study Team on Safety and Security Measures for Evacuees to Return Home” on Nov. 11, 2013, the NRA concluded “the evaluation of exposure doses of people who returned homes should be implemented on the basis not of the exposure dose estimated from the air dose rates but of the individual dose measured actually.” Furthermore, the NRA report recommended that the Japanese government collect specific individual dose data for people whose evacuation order may be lifted and provide them with related information. As of mid-2014, the Japanese government did not implement these measures.
Updated since the status report was published, an evacuation advisory for part of Kawauchi town, only 20 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi, was lifted on Oct. 1, 2014. About 48 of the 274 registered residents have indicated they are planning to return, Japan Today reported.
The “Special Law to Manage the Radioactivity released by the Nuclear Accident on 11 March caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake,” adopted on Aug. 30, 2011, requires TEPCO to pay all costs for decontamination operations, “identification of interim storage sites and development of disposal methods and technologies.” The status report identifies three reasons why these measures have not proceeded to schedule: “technical difficulties, lack of waste disposal arrangements and shortage of manpower.”
The Ministry of Environment (MOE) manages the decontamination program and sends TEPCO the bills. Its decontamination budget for fiscal years 2011 to 2013 was about $13 billion, but only $4.7 billion was spent. TEPCO refunded only $67 million, or 17 percent, of the requested reimbursements.
In response, on Nov. 8, 2013, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) drafted its third proposal for remediating radiation damage, which proposed that the government take responsibility for the decontamination program to meet a 20 mSv/y standard, considering the previous 1 mSv/y limit a long-term goal.
“As of 11 July 2014, more than 2.2 million compensation claims had been filed by individuals, corporations, trade unions, and local governments against TEPCO, of which TEPCO has paid ¥4 trillion (US$40 billion) in total settling around two million claims. In addition, there are around 12,000 cases handled by the Nuclear ADRs, of which about 9,000 have been settled.”
The Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation established in April 2011, according to the 1961 Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, set the guidelines for compensation. These guidelines did not cover people who voluntarily left non-evacuation zones, compensation for house and lands and “mental disruption.” The Japan Federation of Bar Association (JFBA) “criticized TEPCO for [excluding damage compensation from the earthquake and tsunami] and also for not including crucial issues such as loss of business in tourism, retail shops and restaurants, and cesium contamination of beef …”
On Dec. 26, 2013, the Dispute Reconciliation Committee determined guidelines for compensation to those who have little or no prospect of returning home. For those whose evacuation orders may be soon lifted, monthly compensation fees are limited to one or two years after they have started new lives elsewhere, essentially forcing them to return to areas with looser contamination standards where evacuation orders have been lifted.
See the status report for a list of lawsuits against TEPCO.
Causes of the accident
The status report discusses whether the earthquake or tsunami caused the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. It cites six separate investigations, only one of which, the NAIIC investigation commissioned by the Diet, “presents a strong argument that the loss of coolant accident at Unit-1, leading to its meltdown quicker than other reactor units, had been caused by the earthquake strikes before the tsunami crippled the emergency generators.” The status report explains the investigation of Mitsuhiko Tanaka, former member of NAIIC, and attorney Yoshinori Ito in detail. The NRA concluded in a July 18, 2014, interim report “that the disaster was ‘almost certainly’ triggered by the tsunami.”
TEPCO began decommissioning the Fukushima plant with the goal of flooding the reactor buildings up to the top of the reactor pressure vessels and then removing the molten fuel. Water leakages from basements, tanks and pipes have caused a number of setbacks, not to mention several accidental releases of contaminated water in and near the plant, its storage tank farms and the Pacific Ocean.
Amidst numerous contamination incidents that TEPCO tried to cover up, the operating company has been successful in one of its projects. Between Nov. 18, 2013, and July 10, 2014, workers removed 1,188 of 1,533 fuel assemblies from Unit 4’s spent fuel pool, including 22 unspent fuel assemblies. The task of removing all of the fuel assemblies is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
In April 2014, a separate company within TEPCO called the “Fukushima Daiichi Decontamination & Decommissioning Engineering Company” was established to work solely on decommissioning and cleanup.
Radioactive water management
Workers continue to pump water into the reactor vessels at Units 1, 2 and 3, where the reactor cores have melted down or likely melted through the vessels. Meanwhile, water continues to leak out and overflow into the basements of the reactor buildings and the connected turbine buildings. Operators try to collect the radioactive water and recirculate it back into the reactors, but they have encountered countless problems.
Exacerbating the volume of water is runoff from the hillside mixing with contaminated water under the buildings. Around 400 tons of contaminated groundwater has been flowing into the Pacific Ocean daily since March 2011. Another 400 tons of water is contaminated daily by cooling the cores; this water is stored in thousands of tanks that hold 1,000 tons each. As of July 14, 2014, over 500,000 tons of contaminated water was stored at the site. That number is rising quickly. See the status report for examples of water leaks and spills at the site.
The status report does a fantastic job of outlining the various ways TEPCO has attempted to solve the contaminated water problems, including mishaps and timelines of each project. Water management techniques include the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), the ice wall and the underground water bypass system.
Workers exposed to radiation
As of January 31, 2014, about 32,000 people have worked at the Fukushima Daiichi site since March 11, 2011. “Among those, at least 173 people received radiation doses over 100 mSv (internal and external), including nine who received over 200 mSv, between March 2011 and January 2014 … The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced on 25 March 2014 that some of the internal worker doses were underestimated by TEPCO and that the records of 142 workers would be corrected.”
“Radiation-exposed workers’ legal dose limit in Japan is 100 mSv over a five-year period, but up to 50 mSv in any given year. … By May 2014 at the Fukushima Daiichi site, a daily average of 4,200 workers were engaged on site, up from about 3,000 a year earlier.”
There is a serious workforce shortage for off-site decontamination projects. According to Reuters, “733 companies performing work under environment ministry contracts and 56 subcontractors ‘listed on environment ministry contracts worth a total of $2.5 billion’ in the most contaminated areas of the Fukushima exclusion zone.” Recruiters target homeless people for working in contaminated areas. According to Paul Jobin, Associate Professor at the University of Paris Diderot, public bids are controlled by construction companies at the top and the yukuza at the bottom; workers earn a fraction of their wages after a chain of subcontractors take their cuts; and most workers receive no health insurance benefits.by Melanie Pawlyszyn