Japan’s ‘ice wall’ a problematic sticking plaster at Fukushima — The Nation

” Three years ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped Tokyo win its bid to host the 2020 Olympics by declaring that the situation at the crisis-wracked Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was under control.

That has turned out to be not quite true.

Japan has yet to resolve a crisis at the plant that has lingered since its 2011 nuclear disaster: Groundwater has continued to flow into the basement of the highly contaminated facility. Even worse, some of that has then flown back into the Pacific Ocean.

The problem has hindered a decommission process that was already set to take decades.

In order to reduce the flow, Tokyo has built a huge underground ice wall around reactor buildings. But the 1.5-kilometre-long and 30-metre-deep barrier has not fully frozen, even though it was supposed to become operational around July. The unprecedented project cost taxpayers about 35 billion yen (Bt11.9 billion).

“They have kept saying they can. But they can’t,” former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi told a recent news conference.

Abe’s “under control” remark was “a lie”, Koizumi said. “I’m just wondering how he can say such a thing.”

The phrase “ice wall” is a bit of a misnomer. Officially called the Land-side Impermeable Wall, the coolant-filled barrier will consist of a layer of soil kept frozen by underground pipes, surrounding reactors 1 to 4.

The ice wall project “has stayed on track”, said Tasuhiro Yamagishi, a spokesman for operator Tokyo Electric Power. He added 99 per cent of the wall closest to the sea has been frozen.

The operator, however, acknowledged this month that rainfall from recent typhoons caused melting at two sections of the ice wall in mid-August, leading toxic water to leak from around the plant.

Nonetheless, no contaminated water flowed into the sea, the operator said.

Such statements have not convinced Hisataka Yamazaki, a member of the Tokyo-based Depleted Uranium Centre Japan.

He says he believed there was some leakage, saying the incident was “very serious”.

“As the Fukushima area was not hard-hit by the storms, the incident gave rise to fears that even heavier rain could cause more melting, allowing more toxic water to flow into the nearby Pacific Ocean,” Yamazaki said.

“At this moment, we are looking into the matter and considering what is the best way” to avoid a recurrence, Yamagishi said.

“We know that temporary measures would not work,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director at Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo.

“I believe we can say the project has failed.”

In June 2014, the operator started to install equipment for the wall at the plant and completed the work in February. It started to freeze the dirt at the end of March.

“From the beginning, there was doubt whether the wall could be fully frozen,” Ban said.

The water crisis could prolong the decommissioning period, he added.

The Fukushima plant suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors after a tsunami swept through the complex in March 2011. The operator continues to inject water into the three reactors to keep them cool.

About 100,000 residents have yet to return to their homes near the plant due to radiation contamination.

Koizumi said Japan’s worst nuclear accident led him to revisit nuclear energy issues and came to realise that what experts said about nuclear energy being safe, cheap and clean was “all lies”.

I was ashamed of having believed such lies,” said Koizumi, who served as premier between 2001 and 2006.

Koizumi, who is now an anti-nuclear campaigner, said: “While Tokyo Electric and other power companies are saying they give the highest priority to safety, they actually place priority on profits and put safety on the back-burner.” “

by Takehiko Kambayashi



Problems with prototype reactor threaten Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling plan — The Japan Times

” Japan’s energy policy is facing major obstacles this year, as problems surrounding an experimental reactor threaten to foil long-laid plans to recycle nuclear fuel.

The government is trying to develop a commercial fast-breeder nuclear reactor to recycle nuclear fuel and raise the energy self-sufficiency rate, currently at about 6 percent, of the world’s fifth-largest energy consuming country.

Resource-poor Japan imports all of its uranium for nuclear power generation — one of its core power sources — from Canada and other countries, but it seeks to make fuel on its own using an advanced fast-breeder reactor capable of producing more plutonium than it consumes.

Plutonium can be used as nuclear fuel for conventional and fast-breeder reactors by mixing it with uranium. Japan currently uses overseas companies to reprocess its spent fuel into uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, with a view to homegrown reprocessing in the future.

The fast-breeder reactor development project recently hit a major stumbling block, however, that put the entire project at risk of shutting down.

The regulator instructed the government in November to consider steps to guarantee the safety of the trouble-prone Monju reactor, including an option to close it down if a new operator cannot be found within six months.

The government has spent more than ¥1 trillion ($8.27 billion) on Monju, a prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor that remains under development.

But ongoing safety problems have left the reactor idled for much of the time since it first achieved criticality in 1994.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has criticized the current operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency, for having made little progress in enhancing safety management even after a slew of safety problems led to a protracted halt in operations.

Hiroshi Hase, the science minister in charge of the project, set up a panel to discuss a possible successor to operate the reactor.

But the regulator’s warning sparked concerns over the fate of the project, as many industry observers think it would be tough to find a replacement.

Establishing yet another government body is no longer a solution after the government’s repeated attempts to create new entities to run Monju failed to realize safe operation, an NRA official said.

The JAEA, established in 2005 by the government through a merger of two former national nuclear research institutions, is already the Monju plant’s third operator.

It would be too risky to let a private company take charge of the prototype reactor, which generates electricity in a more complex way than light-water reactors that many utilities run at present, experts said.

“A (private) power company doesn’t have the technical expertise” to run a fast-breeder nuclear reactor, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), told reporters when asked about replacements for the JAEA.

The Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a pro-nuclear activist group, criticized the NRA’s decision as a move that could lead to the closure of Monju and a drastic overhaul of the country’s nuclear energy policy.

The government should “correct the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s excessive” behavior, the institute said in a newspaper advertisement in December, arguing that the NRA has no jurisdiction over the nation’s energy policy.

Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the NRA, has repeatedly said his body wants the science minister, who is in charge of the Monju project, to ensure the experimental reactor’s safety and has no intention to push the ministry to discontinue it.

“It is up to the ministry to decide” whether to close it, Tanaka said at a news conference.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an independent anti-nuclear advocacy group, said no power companies and government bodies have the ability to carry out the project safely.

“I think (closing it) is really what the government should do,” he said.

Monju has a long track record of problems, starting with a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995 that resulted in the project being suspended until May 2010.

It was halted again in August of the same year after a fuel replacement device for the reactor was accidentally dropped, leaving it inoperable until now.

Shutting down the reactor due to safety issues would be tantamount to Japan giving up on development of a commercial fast-breeder reactor, Ban said.

However, terminating the project could create a new headache: the stockpiling of plutonium with no fast-breeder reactor running on MOX fuel to use it. Such a decision would reinforce international fears that the nuclear fuel could be put to military use.

Chinese envoy Fu Cong said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee in October that Japan’s fissile materials inventory is already large enough to make more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.

The FEPC had planned to use such MOX fuel at 15 conventional reactors by the end of March 2016. That plan, however, has been stalled since the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 left most reactors in Japan suspended for safety reviews under newly tightened regulations.

If abandoning the fast-breeder reactor project derails Japan’s plan to launch its own reprocessing of spent fuel, concerns are likely to grow over what to do with spent fuel.

“If the Monju project falls through, there is no doubt that calls for reviewing the energy policy will grow louder,” Ban said. ”


Nuclear restart highlights government dilemma over lack of waste disposal sites — The Japan Times

” With an unpopular return to nuclear power generation, Japan can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: where is the country’s highly radioactive nuclear waste going?

The reboot Tuesday of a reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture comes as the government struggles to find a final disposal site for high-level nuclear waste.

Currently, around 17,000 tons is sitting in temporary storage pools across the country, and the restart means the generation of even more.

Spent fuel pools at some nuclear plants will reach their capacity in as soon as three years.

A spokeswoman at Kyushu Electric said the Sendai plant’s storage pools “still have enough room,” suggesting the utility is not planning to immediately take further measures. But they are expected to become full in roughly 11 years, according to official data.

International concerns are also growing over the increase in Japan’s possession of plutonium due to its potential for falling into the wrong hands and being used to make nuclear weapons. As of the end of 2014, Japan had 47.8 tons of plutonium, up 0.7 tons from a year earlier.

Under Japan’s nuclear fuel recycle policy, plutonium extracted by reprocessing conventional uranium fuel is consumed by reactors in the form of plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX. But its feasibility remains uncertain, given public concerns after the Fukushima disaster.

Currently, the government plans to store nuclear waste at a final repository more than 300 meters underground. It would sit there for up to 100,000 years until radiation levels fall low enough and there is no harm to the environment.

In 2002, the government-backed Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan began soliciting local governments to host a disposal site, touting economic benefits such as subsidies and jobs.

The process faced a setback in 2007, though, when the town of Toyo, Kochi Prefecture, withdrew after applying for screening as a candidate site. The mayor left office after losing the election he had called to let people judge his plan to host a disposal facility. His successor called it off.

Having waited in vain for volunteers to emerge, the government changed its basic policy. In May, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a scheme allowing the government to choose candidate sites based on scientific grounds, including resistance to earthquakes.

The move also indicates the pro-nuclear government wants to show it is more actively engaged in addressing the issue, as public criticism has increased over the rush to restart reactors idled following the Fukushima disaster without a solution to the waste problem.

Industry observers say, however, the issue is unlikely to be resolved smoothly, especially amid heightened safety concerns among the public.

“In a situation where trust between the public and the nuclear industry has collapsed, it will be extremely difficult to gain support from people” for the government’s plan to nominate suitable sites, the Science Council of Japan, a representative body of scientists, said in its policy proposals released in April.

Finland is constructing the world’s first permanent disposal site for high-level radioactive waste in Olkiluoto with plans to operating it around 2020.

Many other countries with nuclear plants are still searching for potential locations. In the United States, a plan to build a disposal site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was canceled in 2009 due to local opposition.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, said finding a location to build a disposal site in Japan is even more difficult than in other countries due to the public’s sensitivity to nuclear power given the Fukushima crisis.

“For now, there is no national consensus at all on what to do with nuclear power generation down the road,” Ban said. “As the majority of people oppose nuclear power, surely there will be a backlash” against the government’s plan.

Since May, the government has been briefing municipalities on how it selects candidate sites.

Such meetings have been held in all 47 prefectures except Fukushima, but officials from some communities refused to take part out of fear their attendance might be considered a sign of their intention to accept a disposal site.

Questions have also arisen over the transparency of the process.

The central government held all of those briefings behind closed doors — without informing local residents of when and where they were held. That prompted some towns to boycott the meetings.

The government tried to justify the move by saying it was necessary to promote honest discussions.

“We were concerned that municipalities might not attend the meetings if we made it open to everyone, fearing that they might be mistaken for being interested in (hosting a final disposal site),” said Takuya Watanabe, deputy director at the industry ministry’s radioactive waste management policy division. “We will consider making them open next time.”

Ban, however, said it was “an extremely lame handling” by the government, adding that “transparency and fairness are the essential conditions if the government wants to achieve some sort of consensus.”

The government has said resolving the issue of where to locate a disposal facility is “the current generation’s responsibility.”

Nevertheless, it has so far failed to indicate any specific time frame, leaving the outlook for the project unclear. ”


Government withheld 1984 report of a simulated attack on a nuclear power plant — The Japan Times

” The Foreign Ministry secretly conducted a simulation in 1984 to assess damage from a hypothetical attack on a nuclear power plant in a war and concluded that up to 18,000 people would be killed with acute symptoms from radiation exposure, it emerged Wednesday.

The previously secret report also mentioned the possibility of a hydrogen explosion that could follow the meltdown of fuel rods in a nuclear power plant, the exact phenomenon that happened during the 2011 Fukushima crisis.

Anti-nuclear activists slammed the ministry for not publicizing the report earlier, allegedly out of fear that the warnings could fan anti-nuclear sentiment among the public.

“The report should have not been held secret. (The government) should publicize it and consider how it can protect” nuclear power plants, said Hideyuki Ban of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

The content of the document was first reported Wednesday by the Tokyo Shimbun, which obtained a copy of the 63-page report through the information disclosure law.

The Japan Times confirmed the outline and key conclusions of the report with a senior Foreign Ministry official.

According to Yasushi Noguchi, head of the ministry’s arms control and disarmament division, the ministry asked the Japan Institute of International Affairs, an affiliate of the ministry, to draw up the report after Israel staged an airstrike and destroyed a reactor under construction in Iraq in 1981.

Noguchi said the report concluded that up to 18,000 people would die in the worst-case scenario if the primary containment vessel of a 1 million kilowatt-class reactor in Japan was severely damaged and local residents did not evacuate immediately.

In another scenario, the report also warned that if all power supplies were cut and critical cooling functions lost, fuel rods would melt down. The hydrogen generated from metals used for fuel assembly cladding could then potentially cause an explosion.

This type of hydrogen explosion actually happened and aggravated the meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant after the massive tsunami of March 11, 2011, knocked out the power supply, killing the critical cooling operation.

Few plant workers and nuclear experts anticipated a hydrogen explosion until one actually ripped through the No. 3 reactor building.

The Tokyo Shimbun alleged the Foreign Ministry did not publish the report because it feared it would fan anti-nuclear sentiment while the government was trying to build more nuclear power plants in the 1980s.

Noguchi said it was not published because it was intended as an internal reference for Foreign Ministry officials.

Ban claimed nuclear plants in Japan are not designed to be robust enough to withstand missile attacks or a suicide airplane crash such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority now requires that reactor buildings be robust enough to withstand the “intentional crash of a large aircraft” and other terrorist attacks.

But the NRA declines to disclose any more details of the safety regulations, saying they should be kept secret for security reasons. ”