Fukushima cleanup chief urges better use of probe robot — The Seattle Times

” TOKYO (AP) — The head of decommissioning for the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant said Thursday that more creativity is needed in developing robots to locate and assess the condition of melted fuel rods.

A robot sent inside the Unit 2 containment vessel last month could not reach as close to the core area as was hoped for because it was blocked by deposits, believed to be a mixture of melted fuel and broken pieces of structures inside. Naohiro Masuda, president of Fukushima Dai-ichi Decommissioning, said he wants another probe sent in before deciding on methods to remove the reactor’s debris.

Unit 2 is one of the Fukushima reactors that melted down following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., needs to know the melted fuel’s exact location as well as structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to figure out the best and safest ways to remove the fuel. Probes must rely on remote-controlled robots because radiation levels are too high for humans to survive.

Despite the incomplete probe missions, officials have said they want to stick to their schedule to determine the removal methods this summer and start work in 2021.

Earlier probes have suggested worse-than-anticipated challenges for the plant’s cleanup, which is expected to take decades. During the Unit 2 probe in early February, the “scorpion” robot crawler stalled after its total radiation exposure reached its limit in two hours, one-fifth of what was anticipated.

“We should think out of the box so we can examine the bottom of the core and how melted fuel debris spread out,” Masuda told reporters.

Probes are also being planned for the other two reactors. A tiny waterproof robot will be sent into Unit 1 in coming weeks, while experts are still trying to figure out a way to access the badly damaged Unit 3.

TEPCO is struggling with the plant’s decommissioning. The 2011 meltdown forced tens of thousands of nearby residents to evacuate their homes, and many have still not been able to return home due to high radiation levels.

Cleanup of communities outside of the plant is also a challenge. The cost has reportedly almost doubled to 4 trillion yen ($35 billion) from an earlier estimate. On Thursday, police arrested an Environment Ministry employee for allegedly taking bribes from a local construction firm president, media reports said. ”

by Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press

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Plans to remove nuclear fuel at Fukushima delayed again — Reuters via Channel NewsAsia

” A plan to remove spent nuclear fuel from Tokyo Electric Power Co Holdings Inc’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant hit by the March 2011 tsunami has been postponed again due to delays in preparation, the Nikkei business daily reported on Thursday.

Work is now set to begin in fiscal 2018 at the earliest, the Nikkei said.

Removal of the spent fuel from the No. 3 reactor was originally scheduled in the first half of fiscal 2015, and later revised to fiscal 2017 due to high levels of radioactivity around the facilities, the Japanese business daily reported.

The timeline has been changed again as it was taking longer than expected to decontaminate buildings and clean up debris, the news agency reported.

The report comes a few months after the Japanese government said in October the cost of cleaning up the Fukushima plant may rise to several billion dollars a year, adding that it would look into a possible separation of the nuclear business from the utility. ”

Reporting by Krishna V Kurup in Bengaluru, editing by Shounak Dasgupta, REUTERS

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NRA: Ice wall effects ‘limited’ at Fukushima nuclear plant — The Asahi Shimbun

” Citing “limited, if any effects,” the Nuclear Regulation Authority said a highly touted “frozen soil wall” should be relegated to a secondary role in reducing contaminated groundwater at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The government spent 34.5 billion yen ($292 million) to build the underground ice wall to prevent groundwater from mixing with radioactive water in four reactor buildings at the crippled plant.

But the NRA, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, concluded on Dec. 26 that the wall has been ineffective in diverting the water away from the buildings. It said that despite the low rainfall over the past several months, the amount of groundwater pumped up through wells outside the frozen wall on the seaside is still well above the reduction target.

It urged the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to tackle the groundwater problem primarily with pumps, not the ice wall.

In response, TEPCO at the meeting said that by next autumn, it will double its capacity to pump up groundwater from the current 800 tons a day.

About 400 tons of groundwater enters the damaged reactor buildings each day and mixes with highly radioactive water used to cool melted nuclear fuel.

The ice wall project, compiled by the industry ministry in May 2013, was seen as a fundamental solution to this problem that has hampered TEPCO’s cleanup efforts since the triple meltdown in March 2011.

Some 1,568 frozen ducts were inserted 30 meters deep into the ground to circulate a liquid at 30 degrees below zero. The freezing process was supposed to have created a solid wall of ice that could block the groundwater.

TEPCO began freezing the wall on the seaside in March. It announced in the middle of October that the temperature at all measuring points in that area was below zero.

Before the frozen wall project, TEPCO had to pump up about 300 tons of contaminated water a day. The daily volume dropped to about 130 tons in recent weeks, but it was still well beyond the target of 70 tons.

Still, TEPCO boasted about the effectiveness of the ice wall at the meeting with the NRA on Dec. 26, saying, “We are seeing certain results.”

The NRA, however, said the results are limited at best.

Toyoshi Fuketa, an NRA commissioner, already warned TEPCO in October that it cannot expect the ice wall to be highly effective in containing the groundwater.

“Pumping up groundwater through wells should be the main player because it can reliably control the groundwater level,” Fuketa said at that time. “The ice wall will play a supporting role.”

That sentiment was echoed at the Dec. 26 meeting.

However, the NRA approved the utility’s plan to begin freezing dirt for a wall on the mountain side of the nuclear plant.

The NRA was previously concerned about risks posed by the new ice wall. If it totally blocked groundwater from the mountain side, the water level within the frozen soil near the reactors could become too low, allowing highly contaminated water inside the reactor buildings to flow out more rapidly.

The NRA urged TEPCO to delay work on the mountain side until the ice wall on the seaside portion proved effective.

But it reversed its stance, saying a sharp drop in the groundwater level is unlikely based on the ineffectiveness of the existing ice wall.

“The frozen wall on the mountain side will not be able to block groundwater because the wall on the seaside was also unable to do so,” Fuketa said. “It will not be very dangerous to freeze the wall on the mountain side as long as the work is carried out carefully.”

TEPCO will start the work to freeze the ducts at five sections as early as next year.

Masashi Kamon, professor emeritus of geotechniques at Kyoto University, expressed skepticism about continuing the ice wall project without a full scrutiny of the underground conditions.

“Soil around the tunnels for underground pipes must be hard to freeze,” he said. “TEPCO should find out the conditions of the very bottom of the ice wall by drilling at least one section. It is questionable to continue with the project without a review.” ”

by Kohei Tomida

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Fuel removal at Fukushima reactor again faces delay — The Asahi Shimbun

” Work to retrieve spent nuclear fuel in the No. 3 reactor building storage pool of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will again be postponed due to a delay in clearing radioactive debris at the site.

TEPCO planned to begin removing 566 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in the storage pool in January 2018. However, the government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., decided on the postponement, sources said on Dec. 22. They will decide on a new timetable in a few weeks.

The work was initially scheduled for fiscal 2015, but had been pushed back because of high radiation readings in and around the No. 3 reactor building. The building was heavily damaged by a hydrogen explosion in the days following the disaster, triggered by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

TEPCO had attempted to lower radiation levels by clearing the radioactive debris remaining at the site.

But the clearing work took longer than expected due to contamination being more widespread than previously thought, forcing TEPCO and the government to again put off the retrieval.

Radiation levels have now dropped as almost all of wreckage at the site has been cleared, TEPCO said. The government and TEPCO have said fuel retrieval at the No. 1 and No. 2 reactor buildings will start in fiscal 2020 or later. ”

by The Asahi Shimbun

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Fukushima’s ¥8 trillion cleanup leaves foreign firms in the cold — The Japan Times

” Cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear plant — a task predicted to cost 86 times the amount earmarked for decommissioning Japan’s first commercial reactor — is the mother of all salvage jobs. Still, foreign firms with decades of experience are seeing little of the spoils.

Safely dismantling the Japanese power plant, wrecked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, will cost about ¥8 trillion ($70 billion), the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said on Dec. 9, quadrupling the previous estimate. While a contract to help clean up the facility would be a windfall for any firm with specialized technology, the lion’s share of the work has gone to local companies that designed and built most of Japan’s atomic infrastructure.

The bidding process for Fukushima contracts should be more open to foreigners, as Japan has never finished decommissioning a commercial nuclear plant, let alone one that experienced a triple meltdown, according to Lake Barrett, an independent adviser at Japan’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. While the Fukushima cleanup is unlike any nuclear disaster in history, foreign firms that have experience decommissioning regular facilities could provide much-needed support, according to Barrett, and even the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.

‘Cultural Resistance’

“Internationally, there is a lot more decontamination and decommissioning knowledge than you have in Japan,” Barrett, a former official at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo. “I hope the Japanese contracting system improves to get this job done safely. There is this cultural resistance — it is almost like there is an isolated nuclear village still.”

An opaque bidding process plays to the heart of criticisms put forward by independent investigators, who said in a 2012 report that collusion between the government, regulators and the plant’s operator contributed to the scale of the disaster.

Of 44 subsidized projects publicly awarded by the trade and economy ministry since 2014, about 80 percent went to the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. The group, known as IRID, was established in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and is comprised entirely of Japanese corporations, according to the ministry’s website.

Japan’s trade and industry ministry awarded funds directly to only two foreign firms during the same period. Many of the contracts had only one or two bidders.

Of about 70 contracts awarded since the March 2011 disaster, nine have gone to foreign companies, according to an official in the ministry’s Agency of Natural Resources and Energy who asked not be named, citing internal policy.

To provide opportunities for foreign companies, the ministry has created an English website for bids and also provides English information sessions to explain the contracts, the official said.

Toshiba, Hitachi

IRID’s contracts are given to its members, including Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which have partnerships and joint ventures with foreign firms, spokesman Yoshio Haruyama said by phone. While it doesn’t directly contract work to companies overseas, IRID taps foreign experts as advisers and participates in international collaborative projects, he said.

Mitsubishi Heavy has about five or six contracts through IRID, but can’t share how many partnerships it has with foreign firms, spokesman Shimon Ikeya said by phone. Hitachi has sub-contracts with foreign suppliers related to the Fukushima cleanup, but can’t provide details about these agreements because they aren’t public, a spokesperson said by email.

As of March, IRID had about ¥30 billion worth of ongoing contracts primarily related to research and development of fuel removal and waste treatment. IRID, which aims to “gather knowledge and ideas from around the world” for the purpose of nuclear decommissioning, doesn’t disclose how much of their money ultimately goes to foreign businesses, according to its spokesman. Barrett, its adviser, said he thinks it’s “very low,” but should ideally be 5 percent to 10 percent.

‘Nuclear Village’

Japan’s biggest nuclear disaster isn’t void of foreign technology. Toshiba, which owns Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Co., and Hitachi, which has a joint venture with General Electric Co., are tapping American expertise. A giant crane and pulley system supplied by Toshiba to remove spent fuel from the wrecked reactors employs technology developed by Westinghouse.

“We bring in knowledge from foreign companies, organizations and specialists in order to safely decommission the reactors,” Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, spokesman for Tepco, said by email. While the company can’t say the exact number of foreign firms involved in the Fukushima cleanup, companies including Paris-based Areva SA, California-based Kurion Inc. and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics are engaged in work at the site, according to Yamagishi.

For foreign firms, however, independently securing contracts is still a tall order.

“When it comes to Japan’s nuclear industry, the bidding system is completely unclear,” Hiroaki Koide, a former assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, said in an email. “The system is designed to strengthen the profits of Japan’s nuclear village,” he added, referring to the alliance of pro-nuclear politicians, bureaucrats and power companies that promote reactors.

Tepco’s annual cost to decommission its Fukushima plant may blow out to several hundred billion yen a year, up from the current estimate of ¥80 billion, the trade and industry ministry said in October. As of June, almost ¥1 trillion has been allocated for decommissioning and treating water at Fukushima, according to Tepco’s Yamagishi.

‘Ripe for Corruption’

With that much money at stake, Japan has become ground zero for a plethora of companies looking to benefit from the cleanup work. The structure of Japan’s nuclear industry and the closed procurement preferred by the utilities that operate atomic plants means that the most lucrative opportunities for foreign companies are in the area of subcontracting, according to a report by the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation released in March.

“Foreign firms have long argued that the Japanese bidding process is one that is ripe for corruption due to a lack of openness and transparency,” Daniel Aldrich, professor and director of the security and resilience studies program at Northeastern University in Boston, said in an email. For nuclear decommissioning “there is even less clarity and transparency due to security and proliferation concerns,” he said.

Rigging Bids

The Japan Fair Trade Commission raided the offices of five companies last year in relation to rigged bids for maintenance contracts from Tepco, according to Jiji Press. Eleven road-paving companies were fined in September on projects to repair roads following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Jiji reported.

Andrew DeWit, a political economy professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, agrees that the contract-awarding process isn’t transparent. A lot of foreign companies seek Japanese partners to better their chances, he said.

Purolite Corp., a closely held water purifying company, spent millions of dollars developing and testing a system that could be used to treat radioactive water at Fukushima. Pennsylvania-based Purolite partnered with Hitachi to help win a contract to use its technology at the wrecked facility.

Those plans didn’t pan out. Purolite is suing Hitachi in New York and Tokyo, alleging that Hitachi is using its technology at Fukushima in breach of agreements made in 2011, shutting it out of more than $1 billion in contracts, according to court documents filed in September.

Hitachi doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters, a spokesperson said by email.

“With a smaller pool of competitors, firms can expand their profit margins,” said Northeastern University’s Aldrich. “There are French and Russian firms that have the technical expertise to participate in nuclear decommissioning processes, but it is unclear if they will be able to compete on a level playing field with Japanese firms, which have far more experience with Japanese regulations and expectations.” ”

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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Japan nearly doubles Fukushima disaster-related cost to $188 billion — Reuters

” Japan’s government on Friday nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to 21.5 trillion yen ($188 billion), increasing pressure on Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) (9501.T) to step up reform and improve its performance.

The new estimates could mean a heavier burden for Tepco and other utilities that are helping to pay the costs, and could result in higher power bills for consumers in the long run.

In 2013, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) had calculated the costs of the Fukushima meltdowns at 11 trillion yen. METI boosted its estimate as industry experts now see decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima reactors at 8 trillion yen, quadruple an earlier estimate of 2 trillion yen.

The new projection, part of a recommendation from a government panel considering the future of Tepco and Fukushima Daiichi, also calls for 7.9 trillion yen in reparations, up from 5.4 trillion yen, and 5.6 trillion yen for the treatment and storage of contaminated soil, up from 3.6 trillion yen.

“For now, we don’t expect the costs to increase further, but new developments and unforeseen factors mean there is a chance they could go higher,” METI Minister Hiroshige Seko told a press conference.

“Decommissioning technological innovation and a speedier clean up could help reduce costs and it is important that we put effort into that,” he said.

Tepco’s portion of the burden has more than doubled to 15.9 trillion yen from 7.2 trillion yen, while other major utilities will need to pay 3.7 trillion. New electric companies will have to shoulder 240 billion yen.

A METI official said the new projections of the decommissioning costs are an estimate based on certain assumptions and the costs of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and does not represent a loss Tepco needs to book. ”

by Yuka Obayashi and Kentaro Hamada

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