Japan still at a stalemate as Fukushima’s radioactive water grows by 150 tons a day — The Japan Times

” More than six years after a tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Japan has yet to reach consensus on what to do with a million tons of radioactive water, stored on site in around 900 large and densely packed tanks that could spill should another major earthquake or tsunami strike.

The stalemate is rooted in a fundamental conflict between science and human nature.

Experts advising the government have urged a gradual release to the Pacific Ocean. Treatment has removed all the radioactive elements except tritium, which they say is safe in small amounts. Conversely, if the tanks break, their contents could slosh out in an uncontrolled way.

Local fishermen are balking. The water, no matter how clean, has a dirty image for consumers, they say. Despite repeated tests showing most types of fish caught off Fukushima are safe to eat, diners remain hesitant. The fishermen fear any release would sound the death knell for their nascent and still fragile recovery.

“People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon as the water is released,” said Fumio Haga, a drag-net fisherman from Iwaki, a city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) down the coast from the nuclear plant.

And so the tanks remain.

Fall is high season for saury and flounder, among Fukushima’s signature fish. It was once a busy time of year when coastal fishermen were out every morning.

Then came March 11, 2011. A magnitude 9 offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people along the coast. The quake and massive flooding knocked out power for the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors had partial meltdowns. Radiation spewed into the air, and highly contaminated water ran into the Pacific.

Today, only about half of the region’s 1,000 fishermen go out, and just twice a week because of reduced demand. They participate in a fish testing program.

Lab technicians mince fish samples at Onahama port in Iwaki, pack them in a cup for inspection and record details such as who caught the fish and where. Packaged fish sold at supermarkets carry official “safe” stickers.

Only three kinds of fish passed the test when the experiment began in mid-2012, 15 months after the tsunami. Over time, that number has increased to about 100.

The fish meet what is believed to be the world’s most stringent requirement: less than half the radioactive cesium level allowed under Japan’s national standard and one-twelfth of the U.S. or EU limit, said Yoshiharu Nemoto, a senior researcher at the Onahama testing station.

That message isn’t reaching consumers. A survey by the Consumer Affairs Agency in October found that nearly half of Japanese weren’t aware of the tests, and that consumers are more likely to focus on alarming information about possible health impacts in extreme cases, rather than facts about radiation and safety standards.

Fewer Japanese consumers shun fish and other foods from Fukushima than before, but 1 in 5 still do, according to the survey. The coastal catch of 2,000 tons last year was 8 percent of pre-disaster levels. The deep-sea catch was half of what it used to be, though scientists say there is no contamination risk that far out.

Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo expert on disaster information and social psychology, said that the water from the nuclear plant shouldn’t be released until people are well-informed about the basic facts and psychologically ready.

“A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said. “A release when people are unprepared would only make things worse.”

He and consumer advocacy group representative Kikuko Tatsumi sit on a government expert panel that has been wrestling with the social impact of a release and what to do with the water for more than a year, with no sign of resolution.

Tatsumi said the stalemate may be further fueling public misconception: Many people believe the water is stored because it’s not safe to release, and they think Fukushima fish is not available because it’s not safe to eat.

The amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is still growing, by 150 tons a day.

The reactors are damaged beyond repair, but cooling water must be constantly pumped in to keep them from overheating. That water picks up radioactivity before leaking out of the damaged containment chambers and collecting in the basements.

There, the volume of contaminated water grows, because it mixes with groundwater that has seeped in through cracks in the reactor buildings. After treatment, 210 tons is reused as cooling water, and the remaining 150 tons is sent to tank storage. During heavy rains, the groundwater inflow increases significantly, adding to the volume.

The water is a costly headache for Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the utility that owns the plant. To reduce the flow, it has dug dozens of wells to pump out groundwater before it reaches the reactor buildings and built an underground “ice wall” of questionable effectiveness by partially freezing the ground around the reactors.

Another government panel recommended last year that the utility, known as Tepco, dilute the water up to about 50 times and release about 400 tons daily to the sea — a process that would take almost a decade to complete. Experts note that the release of tritiated water is allowed at other nuclear plants.

Tritiated water from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was evaporated, but the amount was much smaller, and still required 10 years of preparation and three more years to complete.

A new chairman at Tepco, Takashi Kawamura, caused an uproar in the fishing community in April when he expressed support for moving ahead with the release of the water.

The company quickly backpedaled, and now says it has no plans for an immediate release and can keep storing water through 2020. Tepco says the decision should be made by the government, because the public doesn’t trust the utility.

“Our recovery effort up until now would immediately collapse to zero if the water is released,” Iwaki abalone farmer Yuichi Manome said.

Some experts have proposed moving the tanks to an intermediate storage area, or delaying the release until at least 2023, when half the tritium that was present at the time of the disaster will have disappeared naturally. ”

by Mari Yamaguchi, The Japan Times

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Japan approves first reactor life extension since Fukushima disaster — Reuters via The Business Times

” [TOKYO] Japan’s nuclear regulator on Monday approved an application from Kansai Electric Power Co to extend the life of two ageing reactors beyond 40 years, the first such approval under new safety requirements imposed since the Fukushima disaster.

The move means Kansai Electric, Japan’s most nuclear reliant utility before Fukushima led to the almost complete shutdown of Japan’s atomic industry, can keep reactors No 1 and 2 at its Takahama plant operating until they are 60-years-old.

Both reactors have been shutdown since 2011 and any restart will not take place immediately as Kansai Electric needs to carry out safety upgrades at a cost of about 200 billion yen (S$2.57 billion).

A company spokesman told Reuters the upgrades involve fire proofing cabling and other measures and will not be completed until October 2019 at the earliest.

Takahama No 1 reactor is 41-years-old and the No 2 unit is 40-years-old. Located west of Tokyo, both have a capacity of 826 megawatts and are pressurised water reactors, which uses a different technology than the boiling water reactors that melted down at Fukushima in 2011.

Kansai’s No 3 and 4 units at the Takahama plant are under court-ordered shutdown after they were restarted earlier this year, a ruling that was upheld last Friday.

Opinion polls consistently show opposition to nuclear power following Fukushima. Critics say regulators have failed to take into account lessons learned after a massive earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Only two other reactors have restarted under the new regulatory regime, those at the Sendai plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power in southwestern Japan, Shikoku Electric Power expects to begin operations of its Ikata No 3 reactor in late July after receiving approval from the regulator, a spokesman has told Reuters.

Osaka-based Kansai Electric, which used to get about half of power supplies from nuclear plants before the 2011 disaster, says it needs to get reactors running to cut costs and improve its financial position.

It is facing competition from other suppliers after the government in April opened up the retail power market to full competition. ”

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40-year-old Japanese reactors poised for new lease on life — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO/OSAKA — Japan’s nuclear power regulators will likely clear reactors to remain in operation beyond 40 years for the first time, an exception that may become a factor in pending reviews of similar cases.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority is expected to approve units 1 and 2 at Osaka-based Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant for extensions, press officer Katsumi Matsuura said Monday.

As a general rule, reactors’ operating lives are supposed to end at 40. But extensions of up to 20 years are possible for those that pass three sets of assessments evaluating their compliance with new safety standards, their designs, and the effects of aging on their components.

The two Takahama reactors, in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, passed the safety assessments this April. The NRA will compile a report serving as de facto approval for the extensions in June.

The approval process is expected to finish up before a July 7 deadline. But even if they pass, the reactors would not resume operation until at least the autumn of 2019, because Kansai Electric is planning extensive safety upgrades.

Profit recharge

For Kansai Electric, restarting the pair of reactors would improve monthly earnings by an estimated 9 billion yen ($81.3 million). President Makoto Yagi has argued that the units still have “economic potential.”

The utility logged a net profit for the year ended March 31 but has no guarantee that fossil-fuel costs will remain low in fiscal 2016. A medium-term business plan compiled in April aims for a pretax profit of at least 300 billion yen a decade from now, assuming that most of its nuclear capacity resumes operation.

Approving the two reactors for extensions would likely set a precedent. Kansai Electric has also applied for an extension for the No. 3 reactor at its Mihama power plant in Fukui, aiming to complete the necessary procedures by the end of November. That reactor is expected to pass the NRA’s safety assessment as soon as this summer.

Other regional utilities are also weighing the benefits of keeping 40-year-old reactors in operation against the immense costs needed to make the grade. In May, smaller Shikoku Electric Power decided to decommission unit 1 at its Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture rather than seek an extension.

Such decision-making will affect Japanese energy policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has identified the atom as an important baseload energy source. Nuclear accounts for 20-22% of the government’s desired energy mix as of fiscal 2030.

This would entail having about 30 of the country’s 40-odd reactors in operation. But applying the 40-year rule on reactor operation without exception would leave only around 20 units. If most reactors end up qualifying for extensions, people may start questioning the purpose of the limit. ”

by Nikkei

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30 groups show radioactive soil levels to address Fukushima fears — The Asahi Shimbun

” A coalition of 30 private groups is digging deeper into radiation contamination from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to address persistent concerns from the public around Japan.

The coalition’s website, titled the East Japan Soil Measurement Project, shows radiation levels in soil samples taken from more than 1,900 sites in Tokyo and 16 prefectures, from northeastern Japan to the Pacific side of the central Japan.

The project was started partly because parents were concerned that local governments were using only airborne radiation levels to determine if outdoor areas were safe for children.

While radioactive contamination in the air decreases as time passes, that is not necessarily the case with radioactive substances in the ground.

The group’s survey of land contamination has found “hot spots,” where levels are significantly higher than in the surrounding neighborhoods, five years after the disaster unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The radiation levels in some of those areas are comparable to those at nuclear reactor buildings and medical institutions that provide radiation therapy, where public access is restricted because annual radiation doses can exceed 5 millisieverts.

Three citizens groups, including the nonprofit organization Fukushima 30-Year Project, created the website after forming an extensive network of private entities in October last year.

The groups conduct the measurements in a unified manner. About 1,000 cubic centimeters of soil samples are taken by digging 5 cm deep in the ground in the shape of a 10-cm-by-20-cm block in residential areas and districts that ordinary citizens are allowed to enter.

Extreme anomalies in the radiation measurements are not posted on the site because the purpose of the project is to show average contamination in local communities.

“We want to prevent viewers from misunderstanding the pollution level of a given community just because of isolated cases of high numbers,” said Hidetake Ishimaru, head of the coalition’s secretariat. “Viewers can get tips on how to avoid risks in daily life by comparing figures that were measured in a standardized manner.”

The highest reading so far was 135,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium detected in a forest near a home in the Hiso district of Iitate village, northwest of the embattled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The soil sample showed 111,028 becquerels of cesium-137 and 23,920 becquerels of cesium-134.

Radioactivity readings at many observation spots in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is far from the nuclear plant, were below the lowest detectable level.

But the survey this year still found sites in the Kanto region, south of the Tohoku region where the Fukushima plant is located, with readings exceeding 10,000 becquerels.

Save Child Iwate, a group in Iwate Prefecture, was the first of the 30 collaborating private organizations to take measurements in the soil.

Save Child Iwate started measuring radiation doses in the atmosphere and radioactivity in the soil throughout the prefecture in spring 2012. Many of the sites were at schools and parks. It has measured doses at 316 spots and publicized the results.

Kazuhiro Sugawara, a 39-year-old staff member of Save Child Iwate’s secretariat, said the group began measuring radioactivity in soil after local governments had insisted that it was safe to let children play outdoors.

Local officials cited low radiation doses in the air in their safety assurances.

But the group remained skeptical because the evacuation order for residents from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was issued in part based on the extent of ground contamination.

Sugawara’s daughter was 10 years old and attending an elementary school in Iwate Prefecture when the disaster started at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Like other parents in the area, Sugawara was most concerned about the safety of the children.

“We cannot feel safe without data on soil contamination because children play with earth, wipe the mouths with their dirty hands and inhale dirt blown up by wind, exposing themselves to the risk of internal radiation exposure,” Sugawara said about why he undertook the project. “If local officials would not bother to measure soil contamination, we decided to do so on our own.”

The highest land contamination figure Save Child Iwate recorded came from samples from private property in Kanegasaki in the prefecture in June 2012.

At that spot, the radiation level in the air was 0.24 microsieverts per hour, while radioactivity in the soil sample exceeded 4,500 becquerels.

The coalition accepts sample soils sent by concerned citizens for free measurements using funds provided by businesses and donations from the public.

It currently lacks sufficient data from Niigata, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures.

“Part of the reason we cannot enlist cooperation from groups in the three prefectures, where agriculture is thriving, is that they fear possible negative publicity,” Ishimaru said.

The coalition plans to hold workshops for citizens around the nation on how to gather samples to broaden support for the endeavor.

Tetsuji Imanaka, a researcher with Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute who has been monitoring land contamination in Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere, stressed the importance of gaining data from soil.

“Since numbers on land contamination are basic data needed to study the scope of pollution in a given region, detailed surveys are necessary,” he said. “Ideally, local officials should do the task. I am hoping that the coalition will play a significant role.” ”

by Masakazu Honda

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*Editorial: 40-year rule for nuclear reactors on verge of being a dead letter — The Asahi Shimbun

” The 40-year lifespan for nuclear reactors, established after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, is now in danger of being watered down to irrelevance.

The rule requires the decommissioning of aging reactors, starting with the oldest, for a gradual, carefully controlled process of phasing out nuclear power generation in this country.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on April 20 formally decided that the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which have been in service for over 40 years, meet new nuclear safety standards introduced after the devastating 2011 accident.

This is the first license renewal for a reactor that has been in operation for more than four decades under the new standards.

If they pass the remaining regulatory inspections concerning technical details by the July deadline, the reactors will likely continue to generate electricity for two more decades.

The 40-year lifespan provision was introduced through a revision to the law after the Fukushima disaster.

Just one service life extension of up to 20 years is allowed, but only as an “extremely exceptional” measure.

This exception was made to avoid a shortage of electricity. But concerns about any serious power crunch have virtually dissipated thanks to a marked rise in levels of power and energy conservation in society.

The NRA’s formal decision to extend the life of the two aging reactors came amid a series of earthquakes rocking central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture which have been described by the Japan Meteorological Agency as “a deviation from the rules extracted from past experiences.”

Many Japanese are concerned that the quakes could affect Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear plant in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture. The NRA’s decision to grant an exception to the rule so quickly could have the effect of relaxing the safety standards and deepening public distrust of the government’s nuclear regulation.

The Abe administration is leaving all licensing decisions on individual reactors entirely to the NRA. But it has mapped out a long-term energy supply plan based on the assumption that the service life of reactors will be extended.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who repeatedly pledged to lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power as much as possible, has been changing his stance little by little without announcing any clear policy shift.

The NRA’s mission is to enhance the safety of nuclear plants from a scientific viewpoint.

But the way the nuclear watchdog assessed the safety of the reactors at the Takahama plant has raised questions about its appropriateness. The NRA has, for instance, allowed Kansai Electric Power to delay required quake resistance tests.

If it has scheduled its assessment work in a way to ensure that the July deadline will be met, the agency has got its priorities completely wrong.

A troubling situation is now emerging where decisions on whether to decommission specific reactors are effectively left to the utilities that operate them. As a result, these decisions are being based primarily on whether extending the life of the reactors will pay.

Operating many nuclear reactors in Japan, a small country with a large population that is highly prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, inevitably entails a large risk.

This grim reality was the starting point for the reform of the nuclear power policy prompted by the Fukushima accident.

If the government sticks to the policy of maintaining nuclear power generation, the burden on society, including the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, could increase over the long term.

There is a clear global trend toward raising energy self-sufficiency through efforts to develop renewable energy sources.

A transition period may be necessary. But the only policy that makes sense is to shut down reactors steadily over a period of years.

The 40-year rule is one of the key principles of this policy. The government should remember this fact.

–The Asahi Shimbun, April 21 ”

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