Updated: Fire crews finally extinguish Fukushima blaze in no-go zone as officials battle radiation rumors — The Japan Times; Sparking fears of airborne radiation, wildfire burns in Fukushima ‘no-go zone’ — Common Dreams

The Japan Times:

” A wildfire near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has finally been extinguished after a 12-day battle waged by firefighters and Self-Defense Force troops in special protective gear left 75 hectares of tainted forest scorched, and local officials scrambling to quash radiation rumors.

The wildfire, which was started by lightning, broke out in the town of Namie on April 29 and spread to the adjacent town of Futaba, which co-hosts the meltdown-hit power plant. It was declared extinguished on Wednesday.

Since the area has been a no-go zone since the March 2011 nuclear crisis, residents are basically banned from returning to large portions of the two irradiated towns.

A local task force said that no one was injured by the wildfire and that there has been no significant change in radiation readings.

Because a large swath of the area scorched hadn’t been decontaminated yet, firefighters donned protective gear in addition to goggles, masks and water tanks. They took turns battling the blaze in two-hour shifts to avoid heatstroke.

Ground Self-Defense Force troops and fire authorities mobilized close to 5,000 people while nine municipalities, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, provided helicopters.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government denied online rumors saying the fire was releasing radioactive material into the air from trees and other plant life that absorbed fallout from the power plant, which also lies partly in the town of Okuma. It published data on its website showing no significant change in radiation readings.

“We will let people not only in the prefecture, but also in other parts of Japan know about the accurate information,” a prefectural official said.

The Kii Minpo, a newspaper based in Wakayama Prefecture, said in its May 2 edition that once a fire occurs in a highly contaminated forest, “radioactive substances are said to spread the way pollen scatters,” explaining how radiation can get blown into the air.

The publisher said it received around 30 complaints, including one from a farmer in Fukushima, who criticized the evening daily for allegedly spreading an unsubstantiated rumor.

The daily issued an apology a week later in its Tuesday edition.

“We caused trouble by making a large number of people worried,” it said.

Atsushi Kawamoto, head of the news division, said that while story may have caused some people anxiety, the newspaper will continue to report on matters of interest to its readers.

“That there’s public concern about the spread of radiation is true,” Kawamoto said.

On Tuesday, reconstruction minister Masayoshi Yoshino emphasized that unspecified radiation readings have been unchanged since before the fire.

“We will provide accurate and objective information,” he said.

Commenting on the fact that there are no fire crews in the no-go zone, Yoshino said the Reconstruction Agency will consider what kind of support it can offer there the next time a major fire breaks out. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Common Dreams:

” A wildfire broke out in the highly radioactive “no-go zone” near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant over the weekend, reviving concerns over potential airborne radiation.

Japanese newspaper The Mainichi reports that lightning was likely to blame for sparking the fire Saturday on Mount Juman in Namie, which lies in the Fukushima Prefecture and was one of the areas evacuated following the 2011 meltdown. The area continues to be barred to entry as it is designated a “difficult-to-return zone” due to continually high radiation levels.

Local officials were forced to call in the Japanese military, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), to help battle the blaze, which continued to burn on Monday. At least 10 hectares of forest have burned so far.

“A total of eight helicopters from Fukushima, Miyagi and Gunma prefectures as well as the SDF discharged water on the site to combat the fire,” The Mainichi reports. “As the fire continued to spread, however, helicopters from the GSDF, Fukushima Prefecture and other parties on May 1 resumed fire extinguishing operations from around 5 am [local time].”

An official with the Ministry of the Environment said Monday that there has been “no major changes to radiation levels” in the region, according to the newspaper, but added that they will “continue to closely watch changes in radiation doses in the surrounding areas.”

In a blog post last year, Anton Beneslavsky, a member of Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting group who has been deployed to fight blazes in nuclear Chernobyl, outlined the specific dangers of wildfires in contaminated areas.

“During a fire, radionuclides like caesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium rise into the air and travel with the wind,” Beneslavsky wrote. “This is a health concern because when these unstable atoms are inhaled, people become internally exposed to radiation.”

Contaminated forests such as those outside fallout sites like Fukushima and Chernobyl “are ticking time bombs,” scientist and former regional government official Ludmila Komogortseva told Beneslavsky. “Woods and peat accumulate radiation,” she explained “and every moment, every grass burning, every dropped cigarette or camp fire can spark a new disaster.” ”

by Lauren McCauley

source with internal links and video of the wildfire in Fukushima

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Tepco mandated to create fund for scrapping Fukushima plant — The Japan Times

” The Diet passed a bill Wednesday requiring Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. to put aside extra funds to decommission its crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant, as the state seeks to gain more financial control over the utility.

Under the revised law, the state-backed Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. will also be involved in the decommissioning process.

Currently, Tepco has been using profits to pay for scrapping the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which was destroyed after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown.

The revised law is expected to take effect later this year. With the estimated cost of the decommissioning work already surging to ¥8 trillion from the previously forecast ¥2 trillion, a government panel has called for setting up a funding system that is not dependent on the company’s financial health.

The government projects the total cost to deal with the Fukushima nuclear disaster will reach ¥21.5 trillion, including decommissioning costs, compensation and decontamination work.

Under the new program, the state-backed organization will decide on the amount Tepco should store away each business year and the industry minister must approve it.

The utility must also formulate a financial plan and obtain the minister’s approval when it uses the reserve fund for its decommissioning work.

The new law will strengthen the monitoring power of authorities as well, enabling the industry ministry and the organization to conduct on-site inspections to check whether Tepco is putting aside the money.

The government has a major say in the utility’s operations after acquiring 50.1 percent of the company’s voting rights. Tepco faces huge compensation payments and decommissioning costs among other problems due to the 2011 disaster.

The industry ministry has projected roughly ¥300 billion will be needed annually for the next 30 years to complete the scrapping of the power plant, which involves the difficult procedure of extracting nuclear debris.

The costs could grow further. A study by a Tokyo-based private think tank has shown the bill for the decommissioning could balloon to between ¥11 trillion and ¥32 trillion assuming materials from the No. 1 to 3 reactors, which suffered core meltdowns, need to be specially treated for radioactive waste.

The Japan Center for Economic Research estimated the total cost of managing the disaster could reach ¥70 trillion, more than three times the government calculation. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Japan seeks final resting place for highly radioactive nuclear waste — Deutsche Welle

” With communities refusing to come forward to host the by-product of Japan’s nuclear energy industry, the Japanese government is drawing up a map of the most suitable locations for underground repositories.

The Japanese government is putting the finishing touches to a map of the country identifying what its experts consider to be the safest location for a repository for 18,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years. The map is expected to be released next month and will coincide with the government holding a series of symposiums across the country designed to explain why the repository is needed and to win support for the project.

Given that the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in March 2011 is still fresh in the memory of the Japanese public, the government’s plan is not expected to win much understanding or support.

The original proposal for a repository for the waste from the nation’s nuclear energy sector was first put forward in 2002, but even then there were few communities that were willing to be associated with the dump. Fifteen years later, and with a number of Japan’s nuclear reactors closed down for good in the wake of the Fukushima accident, the need for a permanent storage site is more pressing than ever.

Radioactivity release

The disaster, in which a 13-meter tsunami triggered by an off-shore earthquake crippled four reactors at the plant and caused massive amounts of radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere, also underlined just how seismically unstable the Japanese archipelago is and the need for the repository to be completely safe for 100,000 years.

Aileen Mioko-Smith, an anti-nuclear campaigner with Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, does not believe the government can deliver that guarantee.

“You only have to look at what happened in 2011 to realize that nowhere in Japan is safe from this sort of natural disaster and it is crazy to think otherwise,” she told DW.

Given the degree of public hostility, Mioko-Smith believes that the government will fall back on the tried-and-trusted tactic of offering ever-increasing amounts of money until a community gives in.

Government funds

“They have been trying to get this plan of the ground for years and one thing they tried was to offer money to any town or village that agreed to even undergo a survey to see if their location was suitable,” she said.

“There were a number of mayors who accepted the proposal because they wanted the money – even though they had no intention of ever agreeing to host the storage site – but the backlash from their constituents was fast and it was furious,” Smith added.

“In every case, those mayors reversed their decisions and the government has got nowhere,” she said. “But I fear that means that sooner or later they are just going to make a decision on a site and order the community to accept it.”

The security requirements of the facility will be exacting, the government has stated, and the site will need to be at least 300 meters beneath the surface in a part of the country that is not subject to seismic activity from active faults or volcanoes. It must also be safe from the effects of erosion and away from oil and coal fields. Another consideration is access and sites within 20 km of the coast are preferred.

High-level waste

The facility will need to be able to hold 25,000 canisters of vitrified high-level waste, while more waste will be produced as the nation’s nuclear reactors are slowly brought back online after being mothballed since 2011 for extensive assessments of their safety and ability to withstand a natural disaster on the same scale as the magnitude-9 earthquake that struck Fukushima.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, agrees that the government will have to pay to convince any community to host the facility.

“They will probably peddle it as subsidies for rural revitalization, which is a tactic that all governments use, but there are going to be some significant protests because Fukushima has created a nuclear allergy in most people in Japan,” he said.

“I expect that the government would also very much like to be able to phase out nuclear energy, but that is simply not realistic at the moment,” he said.

When it is released, the government’s list is likely to include places in Tohoku and Hokkaido as among the most suitable sites, because both are relatively less populated than central areas of the country and are in need of revitalization efforts. Parts of Tohoku close to the Fukushima plant may eventually be chosen because they are still heavily contaminated with radiation from the accident. ”

by Deutsche Welle

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‘Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe’: But for him, Fukushima could have been much worse — The Japan Times

” Disaster response, even at its most heroic, can fall to people who would rather be somewhere else.

So it was for Masao Yoshida, who, while helming the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant during the disaster in 2011, gave the groan, “Why does this happen on my shift?”

But in some ways Yoshida, an industry veteran of 32 years, was the right man to handle the crisis. His leadership during those days on the edge, at times in defiance of orders from the top of the utility that employed him, is at the center of Rob Gilhooly’s new book “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Gilhooly writes from the eye of the storm, putting the reader in the plant’s control room with almost claustrophobic immediacy. One of his challenges was to render the emergency in real-time. How much can prose, moving forward in measured steps, convey a lethal technology unraveling in extremis? How do you convey the breakdown of machinery without getting mired in technical detail?

“It was difficult,” says Gilhooly, who spent almost four years researching and writing the book. “What struck me about the plant workers — it sounded like complete chaos. My decision was not to make it sound orderly. I wanted it to appear chaotic, without the writing becoming chaotic itself. I tore my hair out over the technical details, because I wanted the book to be readable.”

In the end, the book is a cumulative experience — an intense ride that rewards endurance. Gilhooly weaves in the history of nuclear energy in Japan, interviews with experts and re-created conversations among the plant workers.

“Yoshida was a straight talker from Osaka — a larger-than-life personality,” says Gilhooly, who interviewed the superintendent off the record. “He was different from the other superintendents, more prepared to stick his neck out. He was sharper, more bloody-minded. When tipping his hat to authority, he may have done so with a quietly raised middle finger.”

This attitude might have saved lives, when, after a hydrogen blast at the No. 1 plant, Tepco HQ in Tokyo ordered staff to evacuate. Yoshida knew that the executives had little idea of what was actually happening at the plant. Going behind the backs of his superiors, he contacted then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, insisting that leaving the plant would be reckless. The utility also ordered that seawater not be pumped through the reactor as coolant, since that would render it useless for energy generation in the future. Exposed to life-threatening levels of radiation, Yoshida and his team defied the order, scrambling to cool the overheating reactor with seawater.

The desperate move worked. The team managed to cool the reactor, and later the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which was authorized by the Diet, concluded in its report that “(Yoshida’s) disregard for corporate instructions was possibly the only reason that the reactor cores didn’t explode.”

In Western media coverage of the Fukushima disaster, much was made of Japanese groupthink. A culturally ingrained obedience and a reluctance to question authority was blamed in part for the disaster. Still, the responses vary, and some staff put safety concerns over company loyalty.

“I didn’t want to editorialize,” says Gilhooly, who writes with a calm, thoughtful voice, avoiding the temptation of melodrama. “But yes, Yoshida — and others — refuted the stereotype that was used to explain parts of the disaster.”

Gilhooly is talking to a Japanese publisher, but thinks a translated version may prove difficult: His sources spoke freely about the events at the plant assuming the interviews wouldn’t be published in Japanese. Still, Gilhooly, who takes a stand in the book against using nuclear energy, hopes to fuel the ongoing debate in his adopted home.

“I just wanted to know the truth,” he says. “There is a discussion that needs to happen about nuclear power — about disaster un-preparedness in Japan. I wanted to contribute to that argument. It’s six years on and already we are airbrushing some things out.”

The book points out the gulf between rural Fukushima and the large cities consuming the energy it produced. Gilhooly talked to Atsufumi Yoshizawa, Yoshida’s deputy at the plant, who recalled the first home leave with his boss, a month after the disaster:

“Tokyo was … as though nothing had happened. They were selling things as usual, women were walking around with high heels and makeup as usual, while we didn’t even have our own clothes (which had been contaminated). I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is this? How can it be so different?’ I realized just how useless it would be to try and explain the situation at the plant to these people, what we had been through and the fear we had faced.”

It is a punch in the gut, then, to read about Yoshida’s death from esophageal cancer at age 58, just two years after his exposure to radiation. It’s one of the many elements of the Fukushima crisis that stirs anger, demanding a change that honors the lessons and sacrifice.

Gilhooly points out that, unlike Yoshida in the stricken plant, Japan has the chance to make positive choices about the future, choices that should be informed by the suffering in Fukushima.

“We should think more about how we use energy,” he concludes. “There are things we can do better, with small changes in lifestyle.” ”

by Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

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