TEPCO must regain public trust to ensure Fukushima’s steady recovery — The Yomiuri Shimbun

” To ensure the steady recovery of Fukushima, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s revised business plan must not be allowed to end up as pie in the sky.

TEPCO has compiled a new business plan. The utility has strengthened its steps to improve profitability to raise funds for costs including decommissioning reactors and compensation related to the March 2011 accident at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. This is the second time the plan has been revised.

The total cost of cleaning up the nuclear accident has ballooned from ¥11 trillion to ¥21.5 trillion. TEPCO will shoulder ¥16 trillion of this amount over about 30 years. The ¥300 billion TEPCO spent in fiscal 2016 on compensation and reactor decommissioning costs will be increased to ¥500 billion annually.

TEPCO must boost its “earning power” to secure sufficient capital to meet those costs. Restarting reactors at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture will be essential for this. Each reactor brought back online will raise TEPCO’s earnings by ¥40 billion to ¥90 billion per year.

TEPCO is working to gradually restart all seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant from fiscal 2019. However, as things stand, high hurdles remain in its way. This is because even if a reactor passes safety screenings conducted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, local government authorities also must agree to the reactors’ restart.

The recent revelation that TEPCO did not disclose data about the insufficient earthquake-resistance of the main quake-resistant building at the plant has further heightened local distrust of the utility. Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama is not budging from his cautious stance because he believes safety measures at the plant are insufficient. “At the moment, I can’t agree to the restart” of the reactors, Yoneyama said.

An expert panel of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry also had some stinging criticism for TEPCO, saying it “has not earned enough trust from the public.”

Transparency vital

On June 23, TEPCO will switch to a new leadership lineup when Hitachi, Ltd. Honorary Chairman Takashi Kawamura becomes TEPCO’s chairman. Kawamura will need to work hard to regain trust in TEPCO so restarting its reactors can become a reality.

Strengthening cooperation with other electric utilities and launching new operations, such as gas retailing, also will be effective in solidifying TEPCO’s revenue base. Another issue that needs to be addressed is the overseas development of its thermal power business, in which TEPCO is pursuing integration with Chubu Electric Power Co.

The new plan stipulates TEPCO will “prepare a basic framework for cooperation with other companies” by around fiscal 2020, keeping in mind the Higashidori nuclear plant TEPCO is constructing in Aomori Prefecture.

TEPCO is considering working with Tohoku Electric Power Co., which has a nuclear power plant in that region. If this tie-up comes to fruition, it will be useful for establishing a stable supply of electricity. TEPCO’s intentions on this issue are understandable.

Other utilities that could become partners with TEPCO during a realignment in the industry hold deep-rooted concerns that cooperating with TEPCO could result in the costs of dealing with the nuclear accident being shunted on to them. TEPCO must lay the groundwork to dispel such concerns.

TEPCO and the government will, as soon as this autumn, establish a forum at which they can listen to the opinions of other electric utilities on steps to reorganize nuclear power and electricity transmission businesses.

Profits will be distributed based on the capital contribution ratio in a joint venture. Other companies should not be forced to shoulder the costs of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Highly transparent rules such as these will need to be drawn up. ”

by The Yomiuri Shimbun

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Nuclear taxes get new lease on life after Fukushima — Nikkei Asian Review

” OSAKA — Japanese prefectures with nuclear power plants are moving to ensure that utilities continue to shoulder a tax burden on reactors even as they are being decommissioned, dramatically raising the cost of cleanup efforts that can last 30 to 40 years.

Five nuclear reactors have been approved for decommissioning since the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings’ Fukushima Daiichi plant. In each case, the host prefectural government has received approval from the ministry of internal affairs to apply a nuclear tax during decommissioning.

Ehime Prefecture in western Japan, home to Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata nuclear power plant, has decided to change its ordinances by the fall to enable it to collect taxes on the plant’s No. 1 reactor. Shikoku Electric decided last May to decommission the reactor and has applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for approval.

The continued stream of tax revenue will help the Ehime government maintain evacuation routes and other facilities and safety measures until the reactor is fully dismantled and nuclear contamination risks eliminated.

Revenue generator

Of the 13 prefectures that host reactors, only Fukushima does not levy a nuclear fuel tax. Prior to the disaster, most prefectures did not collect these taxes during periods when reactors were shut down for periodic inspections or other reasons. The handful of reactors marked for decommissioning before the disaster have not had their taxes extended.

However, prolonged nuclear power plant shutdowns since Fukushima have prompted local governments to tax reactors based on output capacity even when they are idle to try to wring revenue out of idle units. The moves to extend taxes into decommissioning mark a further step.

Ehime Prefecture’s nuclear fuel tax generated 1.46 billion yen ($13.1 million) in revenues to the government in fiscal 2016, 264 million yen of which came from the inactive No. 1 unit at the Ikata power plant. The government seeks to collect at least half of the full amount during decommissioning.

Fukui Prefecture, home to three reactors approved for decommissioning, expects to collect an annual 370 million yen in revenues from its revised nuclear tax, which comes to half of the standard level.

With the country’s nuclear regulator imposing an in-principle 40-year operating limit on reactors, decommissionings are expected to continue at a pace of one to two units a year. The costs of taking a reactor out of service and rendering the site safe are generally estimated at tens of billions of yen. The tax burden could add up to billions of yen per reactor over the course of decommissioning.

“While the taxes may have benefits for communities, if electric rates go up as utilities’ costs rise, residents will also feel the burden,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, an authority on nuclear energy policy at Nagasaki University. ”

by Nikkei Asian Review

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In Fukushima, a land where few return — The Japan Times

” A cherry tree is blooming in the spring sunshine outside the home of Masaaki Sakai but there is nobody to see it. The house is empty and boarded up. Weeds poke through the ground. All around are telltale signs of wild boar, which descend from the mountains to root and forage in the fields. Soon, the 60-year-old farmhouse Sakai shared with his mother and grandmother will be demolished.

“I don’t feel especially sad,” Sakai says. “We have rebuilt our lives elsewhere. I can come back and look around — just not live here.”

A few hundred meters away the road is blocked and a beeping dosimeter begins nagging at the bucolic peace. The reading here is a shade over 1 microsievert per hour — a fraction of what it was when Sakai’s family fled in 2011.

The radiation goes up and down, depending on the weather, Sakai says. In gullies and cracks in the road, and up in the trees, it soars. With almost everyone gone, the monkeys who live in the forests have grown bolder, stopping to stare at the odd car that appears instead of fleeing, as they used to.

A cluster of 20 small hamlets spread over 230 square kilometers, Iitate was undone by a quirk of the weather in the days that followed the nuclear accident in March 2011. Wind carried radioactive particles from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is located about 45 kilometers away, that fell in rain and snow on the night of March 15, 2011. After more than a month of indecision, during which the villagers lived with some of the highest radiation recorded in the disaster (the reading outside the village office on the evening of March 15 was a startling 44.7 microsieverts per hour), the government ordered them to leave.

Now, the government says it is safe to go back. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate, Nagadoro, was reopened on March 31.

The reopening fulfills a pledge made by Mayor Norio Kanno: Iitate was the first local authority in Fukushima Prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation in 2012, when the mayor promised to reboot the village in five years. The village has a new sports ground, convenience store and udon restaurant. A clinic sees patients twice a week. All that’s missing is people.

Waiting to meet Kanno in the government offices of Iitate, the eye falls on a book displayed in the reception: “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” Listed at No. 12 is the beloved rolling patchwork of forests, hills and fields the mayor has governed for more than two decades — population 6,300, famous for its neat terraces of rice and vegetables, its industrious organic farmers, its wild mushrooms and the black wagyu cow that has taken the name of the area.

The description in the book is mocked by reality outside. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Promethean attempt to decontaminate it of the radiation that fell six years ago. There is not a cow or a farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty. As for the population, the only part of the village that looks busy is the home for the elderly across the road from Kanno’s office.

“The village will never return to how it used to be before the disaster,” Kanno says, “but it may develop in a different way.”

Recovery has started, Kanno says, wondering whether returnees will be able to start building a village they like.

“Who knows? Maybe one day that may help bring back evacuees or newcomers,” Kanno says. “Life doesn’t improve if you remain pessimistic.”

Even for those who have permanently left, he adds, “it doesn’t mean that their furusato can just disappear.”

The pull of the furusato (hometown) is exceptionally strong in Japan, says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about Iitate.

Yearning for it “is expressed in countless sentimental ballads,” Gill says. “One particular song, simply titled ‘Furusato,’ has been sung by children attending state schools in Japan since 1914.”

The appeal has persisted despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the rural/urban imbalance in Japan is more skewed than in any other developed nation, Gill says; just 10 percent of the nation’s population live in the country.

This may partly explain the extraordinary efforts to bring east Fukushima back to life. By one study, more than ¥2.34 trillion has been spent decontaminating an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

There has been no official talk of abandoning it. Indeed, any suggestion otherwise could be controversial: When industry minister Yoshio Hachiro called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, the subsequent outrage forced him to quit a week later.

Instead, the area was divided into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: Communities with annual radiation measuring 20 millisieverts or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order,” districts of 20-50 millisieverts per year are “no-residence zones” and the most heavily contaminated areas of 50 millisieverts or more per year, such as Nagadoro, are “difficult-to-return.”

In September 2015, Naraha, which is located 15 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, became the first town in the prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. Naraha has a publicly built shopping street, a new factory making lithium batteries, a kindergarten and a secondary school.

A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house — in some cases several times. Of the pre-disaster 7,400 residents, about 1,500 mainly elderly people have returned, the local government says, although that figure is likely inflated.

In Iitate, the cost of decontamination works out at about ¥200 million per household. That, and the passage of time, has dramatically reduced radiation in many areas to below 20 millisieverts a year. However, Kanno says, the cleanup extends to only 20 meters around each house, and three-quarters of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive elements are blown back onto the fields and homes.

“All that money, and for what?” asks Nobuyoshi Itoh, a farmer and critic of the mayor. “Would you bring children here and let them roam in the fields and forests?”

Itoh opted to stay in one of the more heavily toxic parts of the village after everyone fled, with little apparent ill effect, although he says his immune system has weakened.

One of the reasons why Iitate was such a pleasant place to live before the nuclear crisis, he recalls, was its unofficial barter system. “Most people here never bought vegetables; they grew them,” he says. “I would bring someone potatoes and they would give me eggs. That’s gone now.”

At most, he says, a few hundred people are back — but they’re invariably older or retired.

“They alone will not sustain the village,” Itoh says. “Who will drive them around or look after them when they are sick?”

As the depth of the disaster facing Iitate became clear, local people began to squabble among themselves. Some were barely scraping a living and wanted to leave, although saying so out loud — abandoning the furusato — was often difficult. Many joined lawsuits against the government.

Even before disaster struck, the village had lost a third of its population since 1970 as its young folk relocated to the cities, mirroring the hollowing-out of rural areas across the country. Some wanted to shift the entire village elsewhere, but Kanno wouldn’t hear of it.

Compensation could be a considerable incentive. In addition to ¥100,000 a month to cover the “mental anguish” of being torn from their old lives, there was extra money for people with houses or farms. A five-year lump sum was worth ¥6 million per person — twice that for Nagadoro. One researcher estimates a rough figure of ¥50 million for the average household, sufficient to leave behind the uncertainties and worries of Iitate and buy a house a few dozen miles away, close enough to return for work or to the village’s cool, tranquil summers.

Many have already done so. Though nobody knows the true figure, the local talk is that perhaps half of the villagers have permanently left. Surveys suggest fewer than 30 percent want to return, and even less in the case of Nagadoro.

Yoshitomo Shigihara, head of the Nagadoro hamlet, says many families made their decision some time ago. His grandchildren, he says, should not have to live in such a place.

“It’s our job to protect them,” Shigihara says. He lives in the city of Fukushima but returns roughly every 10 days to inspect his house and weed the land.

Even with so much money spent, Shigihara doubts whether it will bring many of his friends or relatives back. At 70 years of age, he is not sure that he even wants to return, he says.

“I sometimes get upset thinking about it, but I can’t talk with anyone in Fukushima, even my family, because we often end up quarreling,” he says. “People try to feel out whether the others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate. I’m starting to hate myself because I end up treating others badly out of frustration.”

Kanno has won six elections since 1996 and has overseen every step of Iitate’s painful rehabilitation, navigating between the anger and despair of his constituents and the official response to the disaster from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), operator of the crippled nuclear plant.

He wants more money to complete decontamination work (the government claims it is finished), repair roads and infrastructure. Returnees need financial support, he says. However, it is time, he believes, to end the monthly compensation, which, in his view, induces dependency.

“If people keep saying that life is hard, they will not be able to recover,” he says. “What we need is support for livelihoods.”

A new system gives seed money to people who voluntarily come back to start businesses or farms.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we are influencing people’s decisions or forcing them to return,” the mayor says, using the phrase “kokoro ni fumikomu,” which literally means “to step into hearts.”

Yet, next year, thousands of Iitate evacuees will face a choice: Go back or lose the money that has helped sustain them elsewhere for six years. Evacuation from areas exposed to less than 20 millisieverts per year will be regarded as “voluntary” under the official compensation scheme.

This dilemma was expressed with unusual starkness last month by Masahiro Imamura, the now sacked minister in charge of reconstructing Tohoku. Pressed by a freelance reporter, Imamura tetchily said it was up to the evacuees themselves — their “own responsibility, their own choice” — whether or not to return.

The comment touched a nerve. The government is forcing people to go back, some argued, employing a form of economic blackmail, or worse, kimin seisaku — abandoning them to their fate.

Itoh is angry at the resettlement. For him, politics drives the haste to put the disaster behind.

“It’s inhuman to make people go back to this,” he says. Like the physical damage of radiation, he says, the psychological damage is also invisible: “A lot of people are suffering in silence.”

Itoh believes the government wants to show that the problems of nuclear power can be overcome so it can switch the nation’s idling nuclear reactors back on. Just four are in operation while the fate of 42 others remains in political and legal limbo. Public opinion remains opposed to their restart.

Many people began with high hopes in Iitate but have gradually grown distrustful of the village government, says Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer who wrote a book titled “Genpatsu ni Furusato o Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”) in 2012. Right from the start, he says, the mayor desperately tried to hide the shocking radiation outside his office.

“Villagers have started losing interest,” Hasegawa says.

Meetings called by the mayor are poorly attended.

“But they hold meetings anyway,” Hasegawa says, “just to say they did.”

Kanno rejects talk of defeatism. A tourist shop is expected to open in August that will attract people to the area, he says. Some villagers are paving entrances to their houses, using money from the reconstruction budget. As for radiation, everyone “has their own idea” about its effects. The lifting of the evacuation is only the start.

Itoh says he once trusted public officials but those days are long gone. By trying to save the village, he says, the mayor may in fact be killing it. ”

by David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto, The Japan Times

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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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Finding and removing melted fuel rods at Fukushima No. 1 — Nikkei Asian Review, The Japan Times

Nikkei Asian Review, “Survey fails to find melted rods at Fukushima reactors”:

” TOKYO — A remote survey of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s No. 1 reactor was unable to locate and photograph melted nuclear fuel, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings said Thursday, complicating efforts to remove that material as part of an extensive cleanup.

Tepco on Saturday sent a robot equipped with a camera into the containment vessel for the No. 1 unit. The majority of fuel rods have melted through the unit’s pressure vessel since the plant was struck by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. The prevailing view has been that those melted fuel rods are now sitting under 2.5m of water at the bottom of the containment vessel.

The plan was to explore the bottom section by dipping a camera into the pool of water for the first time. But unexpected barriers such as pipes kept the camera around 1 meter from the bottom in most of the 10 positions surveyed instead of the intended depth of about 40cm from the bottom. While the camera was able to capture sand-like sediment, there was no trace of the melted fuel rods. Adding a fifth day to the investigation turned up no further evidence.

Yuichi Okamura, acting general manager of Tepco’s onsite nuclear power division, offered few comments at the utility’s Thursday news conference, saying only that “photographs and radiation data will need to be evaluated in conjunction with one another.”

The timeline set by Tepco and the government for decommissioning the Fukushima plant aims to begin extraction of melted-down material from the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 reactor in 2021 or earlier. An extraction plan is to be decided this summer. But the fact that the status of the melted rods still remains unknown underscores the seriousness of the accident.

The results of the robot survey were “limited,” according to Masanori Naitoh, director of nuclear safety analysis at the Institute of Applied Energy’s Nuclear Power Engineering Center. “It would be difficult to set a plan for extraction based on the information from this survey alone.”

An investigation of the No. 2 reactor also fell short, with the survey robot unable to reach the targeted spot right under the unit’s pressure vessel. ”

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The Japan Times, “Tepco’s biggest hurdle: How to remove melted fuel from crippled Fukushima reactors”:

” Six years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, recent investigations underneath the damaged reactor 2 using cameras and robots came close to identifying melted fuel rods for the first time.

Experts say getting a peek inside the containment vessel of reactor 2 was an accomplishment. But it also highlighted how tough it will be to further pinpoint the exact location of the melted fuel, let alone remove it some time in the future.

The biggest hurdle is the extremely lethal levels of radiation inside the containment vessel that not only prevent humans from getting near but have also crippled robots and other mechanical devices.

Safely removing the melted fuel would be a best-case scenario but the risks and costs should be weighed against the option of leaving the melted fuel in the crippled reactors, some experts said.

“The work to probe inside the containment vessels and remove the fuel debris will be extremely tough because of the high radiation levels,” said Hiroshi Miyano, who heads a panel of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, which is discussing ways to decommission the Fukushima plant and making recommendations to the government.

The government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. are trying to find a way to remedy the situation but existing methods and technologies may not be sufficient, Miyano said.

In search of melted fuel

The world’s attention turned to the melted fuel rods in late January when Tepco inserted a 10-meter-plus tube equipped with a camera into the containment vessel of reactor 2 to capture images under the pressure vessel that housed the fuel rods.

The images showed black lumps scattered beneath the pressure vessel.

When the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and monstrous tsunami hit, the plant suffered a blackout and lost its key cooling system, triggering meltdowns in reactors 1, 2 and 3. The melted nuclear fuel rods penetrated the pressure vessels and fell into the containment vessels.

Tepco had put cameras inside the containment vessels several times in the past six years but January’s probe was the first to apparently find melted fuel debris.

“We understand that this is a big milestone. We could finally get to see what it was like underneath the pressure vessel,” said Yuichi Okamura, general manager of Tepco’s nuclear power and plant siting division.

“This is critical information in order to remove the fuel debris.”

Radiation barrier

But Tepco hasn’t confirmed that the black lumps are melted fuel, saying they could be paint or cable wrappings, and further investigation is needed.

Capturing the images may be progress but the robot and camera forays have not provided enough information about how to deal with the melted fuel.

Last month, Tepco sent a remote-controlled, scorpion-shaped robot in to further probe inside the reactor 2 containment vessel. But the robot failed before it reached under the pressure vessel after a tire became stuck.

The robot’s dosimeter measured radiation levels of 210 sieverts per hour — enough to kill humans instantly.

While 210 sieverts per hour indicate the melted fuel was nearby, the radiation crippled the robot’s electronics, including its semiconductors and cameras, indicating that the further use of robots to pinpoint the melted fuel will be difficult, robotics experts said.

There are computer chips “designed to withstand a certain level of radiation, but the level inside the containment vessel is totally different,” said Satoshi Tadokoro, a professor at Tohoku University who is an expert on disasters and rescue robots.

The radiation can damage a robot’s chips that serve as their brains, causing the devices to lose control, said Tadokoro, whose robots have also been used at the Fukushima plant.

“On top of the high level of radiation, the entrance (to the containment vessel) for the robot is very small,” restricting what types of robots can be used to hunt for the melted fuel, he said.

Tepco said the opening it created on the side of the reactor 2 containment vessel is about 11 cm in diameter.

Fuel removal strategy

Tepco is set to conduct internal probes of the reactor 1 containment vessel this month and is preparing similar missions for reactor 3.

The government and utility then plan to adopt a basic fuel removal strategy this summer and fine-tune the plan next year, with the actual fuel removal taking place in or after 2021.

There are essentially three options for the strategy, according to the Tokyo-based International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), which is developing technologies for the Fukushima plant decommission.

One option is to flood the containment vessels with water and use a crane above the reactors to hoist up the melted fuel. The second option is to carry out the same process but without water. The third is to install removal equipment through the side of the containment vessel.

There are merits and drawbacks to each option, said Shoji Yamamoto, who heads the team developing technologies to create the fuel removal devices at IRID.

The flooding option can block radiation using water, but if the fuel melts into the water, it could pose a risk of recriticality. The debris may need to be cut into pieces for removal, but this process would enable water to get between multiple pieces, creating the condition for recriticality. For nuclear chain reactions to happen there needs to be a certain distance between nuclear fuel and water.

If there is no water, the recriticality risk is minimal but the massive radiation levels cannot be blocked, Yamamoto said.

Tepco’s Okamura said being able to block radiation with water is a huge plus, but noted the reactor 2 containment vessel had cracks and holes that could let injected coolant water escape.

With the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the U.S., the flooding option was used to retrieve the melted fuel in the 1980s. But the key difference was that all of the melted fuel stayed inside the pressure vessel, so it was easier to flood the reactor.

Because the melted fuel in reactors 1, 2 and 3 at the Fukushima plant all penetrated the pressure vessels and fell into the containment vessels, extracting it from the top or the side was a tough call, Yamamoto said, noting it was important to know the exact location of the melted fuel.

The distance between the top of the pressure vessel and the bottom of the containment vessel is about 45 meters and some parts inside the pressure vessels will need to be removed if Tepco tries to remove the debris inside the containment vessels from the top.

“If we know that the melted fuel is concentrated in the containment vessels, it will be more efficient to remove it from the side” because the entry point is closer, Yamamoto said.

Whatever option is decided, Yamamoto stressed that maintaining the fuel removal device will be difficult because the radiation will probably cripple it.

“The fuel removal device will be controlled remotely … it will be broken somewhere down the line and the parts will have to be replaced, considering its (ability to withstand) radiation,” he said.

“Given that, maintenance will have to be done remotely, too, and that will be a big challenge.”

To remove or not

Another option altogether is for Tepco to leave the melted fuel where it is.

During a media tour of the Fukushima No. 1 plant last month, Okamura of Tepco said the utility intended to collect the melted fuel because leaving it was “not an appropriate way” to manage nuclear fuel.

Miyano of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan said the debris must be removed because radioactive materials, including nuclear fuel, must be strictly controlled under international rules requiring strict monitoring.

Domestic nuclear power plant operators have to report the amount of nuclear fuel they have to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which then reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“There is the question of whether the government and Tepco decide not to remove the fuel debris. That would be an international issue,” said Miyano, adding that a consensus from the international community would be needed.

At the same time, Miyano said debate and analysis will be required to decide which choice would be best by looking at various factors, including how much it will cost to pick up all the melted fuel and where to store it. ”

by Kazuaki Nagata

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Fukushima moms don lab coats to measure radiation in food, sand and soil — The Japan Times

At a laboratory an hour’s drive from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, a woman wearing a white mask over her mouth presses bright red strawberries into a pot, ready to be measured for radiation contamination.

Six years after a massive earthquake off the Tohoku coast triggered tsunami that knocked out the plant’s cooling system, causing three reactor-core meltdowns, local mothers with no scientific background staff a laboratory that keeps track of radiation levels in food, water and soil.

As some women divide the samples between different bowls and handmade paper containers, others are logging onto computers to keep an eye on data — findings that will be published for the public to access.

The women on duty, wearing pastel-colored overalls, are paid a small salary to come in for a few hours each day, leaving them free to care for their children after school.

“In universities, data (are) handled by students, who have taken exams qualifying them to measure radiation. Here, it’s done by mothers working part time. It’s a crazy situation,” laughed Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, the nonprofit organization that houses the mothers’ radiation lab.

“If (university professors) saw this I think they would be completely shocked by what they see.”

Tarachine was set up 60 km down the coast from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. After the magnitude-9 quake struck on March 11, 2011, triggering mountainous tsunami, authorities declared a no-go zone around the plant.

Iwaki lay outside its 30 km radius, with lower radiation levels compared to the rest of Fukushima Prefecture.

But with public announcements advising locals to stay indoors in the aftermath of the worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl, the “invisible enemy” of radiation has continued to worry the mothers working at the lab.

“As ordinary citizens we had no knowledge about radiation. All we knew was that it is frightening,” said Suzuki.

“We can’t see, smell or feel radiation levels. Given this invisibility, it was extremely difficult for us. How do we fight it? The only way is to measure it.”

To supplement readings by the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., which manages the nuclear plant, Tarachine publishes its own findings every month.

With donations from the public that helped them buy equipment designed to measure food contamination, the mothers measure radioactive isotopes cesium-134 and-137, and collect data on gamma radiation, strontium-90 and tritium, all of which were released during the Fukushima disaster.

Strontium-90 gravitates toward the bones when absorbed by breathing it, drinking it in water, or eating it in food. It can remain for years, potentially causing bone cancer or leukemia.

Tritium goes directly into the soft tissues and organs of the human body. Although it is less harmful to humans who are exposed to small amounts every day, it could still be a hazard for children, scientists say.

The mothers say other parents trust the lab’s radioactivity readings in local food more than those from the government.

“This issue is part of everyday life for these mothers, so they have the capability to spot certain trends and various problems rather than just accumulating expert knowledge,” said Suzuki.

To handle potentially dangerous materials, the mothers have had to study for exams related to radiation and organic chemistry.

“At the beginning I was just completely clueless. It gave me so much of a headache, it was a completely different world to me,” said Fumiko Funemoto, a mother of two who measures strontium-90 at the lab.

“But you start to get the hang of it as you’re in this environment every day.”

As the lab only accepts items for testing from outside the exclusion zone, most results show comparatively low radiation levels.

But Suzuki said it was an important process and especially reassuring for the parents of young children. The women also measure radiation levels in sand from the beach, which has been out of bounds to their children.

“If the base is zero becquerels, and there is, say, 15 or 16 becquerels of cesium, that’s still higher than zero. That means there is slightly more risk,” Suzuki said.

“There are also times when you’re like, ‘Oh, I thought levels were going to be high there — but it’s actually OK.’ The importance lies in knowing what’s accurate, whether it’s high or low. Unless you know the levels, you can’t implement the appropriate measures.”

Since official screenings began following the meltdowns, 174 children in Fukushima Prefecture have been diagnosed with — or are suspected of having — thyroid cancer, according to figures from the prefecture.

Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting in 2015 that an increase in thyroid cancer is unlikely, the mothers insist there is value in their work.

The first pictures from inside the nuclear plant were released by Tepco in January, announcing it may have found melted nuclear fuel below the damaged reactor 2 — one of three affected by the 2011 disaster.

“In general, the issue of nuclear power is not really talked about much these days,” Funemoto said. “It was talked about after the (meltdowns) for about a year or so, but today, conversations mentioning words like ‘radiation’ don’t happen anymore.”

However, she said “the reality is different.”

“The radiation isn’t going to go away. That’s why I’m doing this. So many places are still damaged. This idea that it’s safe and that we shouldn’t be anxious doesn’t really add up,” she said.

Ai Kimura, another mother, agreed. “My parents think I’m a bit paranoid. They keep saying, ‘It’s OK isn’t it?’ ” she said.

“But what if there’s a chance that in 10 or 20 years’ time, my own child gets thyroid cancer? And I could have done my bit to minimize the risks. My children are mine and I want to do whatever I can to protect them.” ”

by Mari Shibata, The Japan Times

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