How is Fukushima’s cleanup going five years after its meltdown? Not so well. — The Washington Post; Fukushima cleanup may take up to 40 years, plant’s operator says — CNN

Seen from the road below, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station looks much as it may have right after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple meltdown here almost five years ago.

The No. 3 reactor building, which exploded in a hydrogen fireball during the disaster, remains a tangle of broken concrete and twisted metal. A smashed crane sits exactly where it was on March 11, 2011. To the side of the reactor units, a building that once housed boilers stands open to the shore, its rusted, warped tanks exposed.

The scene is a testament to the chaos that was unleashed when the tsunami engulfed these buildings, triggering the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the one at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986. Almost 16,000 people were killed along Japan’s northeastern coast in the tsunami, and 160,000 more lost their homes and livelihoods.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the utility company that runs the Fukushima plant and drew fierce criticism for its handling of the disaster, says the situation has improved greatly.

“In the last five years, radiation levels have been reduced substantially, and we can say that the plant is stable now,” said Akira Ono, the Tepco plant superintendent.

Efforts to contain the contamination have progressed, according to Tepco, including the completion Tuesday of a subterranean “ice wall” around the plant that, once operational, is meant to freeze the ground and stop leakage. Moves to decommission the plant — a process that could take 30 or 40 years, Ono estimated — are getting underway.

People will be allowed to return to their homes in the nearby town of Naraha next month and to Tomioka, even closer to the plant, next year. For now, Tomioka and neighboring Okuma remain ghost towns, lined with convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and gambling parlors that haven’t had a customer in five years. Bicycles lean near front doors, and flowerpots sit empty on windowsills.

A sign on the road to the plant showed a radiation reading of 3.37 microsieverts per hour, at the upper end of safe. At a viewing spot overlooking the reactor buildings, it shot past 200, a level at which prolonged exposure could be dangerous. Both readings are hundreds of times lower than they were a couple of years ago.

After about 20 minutes at the viewing spot, a Tepco official bustled visiting reporters, wearing protective suits, onto a bus. “We don’t want you out here too long,” he said. Below, men continued working on the site.

But one huge question remains: What is to be done with all the radioactive material?

There’s the groundwater that is flowing into the reactor buildings, where it becomes contaminated. It has been treated — Tepco says it can remove 62 nuclides from the water, including strontium, which can burrow into bones and irradiate tissue. It cannot filter out tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that can be used to make nuclear bombs but is not considered especially harmful to humans.

The water initially was stored in huge bolted tanks in the aftermath of the disaster, but the tanks have leaked highly contaminated radioactive water into the sea on an alarming number of occasions.

Now Tepco is building more-secure welded tanks to hold the water, theoretically for up to 20 years. There are now about 1,000 tanks holding 750,000 tons of contaminated water, with space for 100,000 tons more. The company says it hopes to increase capacity to 950,000 tons within a year or two, as well as halve the amount of water that needs to be stored from the current 300 tons per day.

As part of those efforts, Tepco built the 1,500-yard-long ice wall around the four reactor buildings to freeze the soil and keep groundwater from getting in and becoming radioactive. Company officials hoped to have the wall working next month; on Wednesday, however, Japan’s nuclear watchdog blocked the plan, saying the risk of leakage was still too high.

The options for getting rid of the contaminated water include trying to remove the tritium from it before letting it run into the sea; evaporating it, as was done at Three Mile Island, the Pennsylvania plant that melted down in 1979; and injecting it deep into the ground, using technology similar to that used to extract shale gas. A government task force is considering which option to choose. ”

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by Anna Fifield

* * *

CNN:

” Tokyo (CNN) — Cleaning up Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered catastrophic meltdowns after an earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011, may take up to 40 years.

The crippled nuclear reactor is now stable but the decommissioning process is making slow progress, says the plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Co, better known as TEPCO.

“If I may put this in terms of mountain climbing, we’ve just passed the first station on a mountain of 10 stations,” said Akira Ono, head of the Fukushima plant.

It’s almost five years since the earthquake and the tsunami it triggered killed more than 15,000 people and destroyed coastal towns on March 11, 2011.

TEPCO has attracted fierce criticism for its handling of the disaster.

Biggest challenge

The biggest obstacle to closing down the plant permanently is removing all the melted nuclear fuel debris from three reactors, Ono told reporters after a press tour of the plant this week.

But TEPCO says it is in the dark about the current state of the debris.

Hydrogen gas explosions and nuclear meltdowns released lethal levels of radiation in 2011.

Though radiation levels have fallen, they still prevent workers from accessing the reactor buildings, making it hard to survey the condition of the destroyed facilities and molten fuel debris.

What to do with the large volume of contaminated water now stored at the plant is another problem.

Around 300 to 400 tons of contaminated water is generated every day as groundwater flows into the plant filled with radioactive debris.

To contain the tainted water, TEPCO pumps up the water and stores it in tanks, adding a new tank every three to four days. There are 1,000 tanks today containing 750,000 tons of contaminated water.

However, decontamination elsewhere on the premises is making headway. Workers now only need dust masks for a large part of the plant.

For outsiders, this appears to be only small progress. But it makes a huge difference for workers who used to wear full masks for outside clean-up and construction work.

Last year in October, Japan confirmed the first case of cancer in a Fukushima worker.

While agreeing to cover the worker’s treatment costs, the government stopped short of recognizing the scientific link between the cancer and his work. “

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Fukushima fishermen to expand operations off crippled nuclear plant — The Japan Times

Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture said Wednesday they plan to scale down their self-imposed fishing ban in waters off the damaged nuclear power plant due mainly to a substantial decline in radioactive cesium levels.

The Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations is considering narrowing the area subject to the ban to a 10-kilometer radius from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant from the current 20-kilometer radius.

The move comes as plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. last autumn completed the construction of a shielding wall to prevent leaks of contaminated groundwater into the sea. Since the completion, radiation levels in sea waters at the plant’s port have been declining.

In addition, prefectural research shows the radioactive cesium levels of marine products caught in coastal areas have dropped substantially.

The proportion of marine products with cesium levels exceeding the state standards of 100 becquerels per kilogram fell to less than 0.1 percent last year from some 40 percent between April and December 2011, soon after the nuclear accident at the plant in March that year. No products have surpassed the level in checks since last April.

The federation is scheduled to make a final decision late next month. “The environment of the seas of Fukushima has improved, and conditions for reviving fisheries are being laid out,” federation leader Tetsu Nozaki told reporters.

After the tsunami-triggered triple meltdown at the nuclear plant, the federation voluntarily halted all of its coastal fishing. In June 2012, it started trial operations in a limited area, which has since expanded in steps. ”

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AP interview: Fukushima chief says ‘no textbook’ for cleanup — ABC News

” The man leading the daunting task of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear plant that sank into meltdowns in northeastern Japan warns with surprising candor: Nothing can be promised.

How long will it take to decommission the three breached reactors, and how will it be accomplished, when not even robots have been able to enter the main fuel-debris areas so far? How much will it ultimately cost? Naohiro Masuda, tapped last year as chief of decontamination and decommissioning for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co., acknowledges he is a long way from answering those questions definitively.

“This is something that has never been experienced. A textbook doesn’t exist for something like this,” Masuda told The Associated Press in an interview at TEPCO’s Tokyo headquarters Monday.

It’s only recently the daily situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi has even started to approach “normal,” he said. Since the March 2011 meltdowns, TEPCO has had to face one huge challenge after another, including storing masses of leaking radioactive water, clearing up rubble and removing fuel rods from a crumbled building.

“Before, it was a war zone,” Masuda said quietly.

Masuda’s approach contrasts with the sometimes ambitious, sometimes wishful announcements by the Japanese government, which pronounced the disaster “under control” as early as late 2011, just months after a devastating tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, setting off the meltdowns.

But in June, the government and TEPCO acknowledged the target dates in the official “roadmap” for decommissioning had to be pushed back by about two years. Now even the most optimistic projections estimate the work will take about half a century.

Masuda said without hesitation that more delays could be in order. No one knows exactly where the melted nuclear debris is sitting in the reactors, let alone how exactly the debris might be taken out. Computer simulation and speculative images are all he has so far.

New science will have to be invented for the plant to be cleaned up. Each step of the way, safety and consequences must be weighed, for workers and for the environment alike, Masuda added.

Under the latest plan, the removal of the fuel debris is expected to start within a decade. Still, Masuda likened such goals to reminders not to slack off, rather than hard deadlines based on real-life assessments.

The March 2011 catastrophe is unprecedented. Unlike the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S., the containment, where the morass of fuel lies, has been breached at Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Radioactive water is piling up: 300 tons a day by the latest count. And as devastating as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was in what is now Ukraine, that involved one reactor, not three.

When asked about what he wanted to tell the people worried about contaminated fish, such as on the West Coast of North and South America, Masuda said the radiation leak into the Pacific Ocean has been reduced to a level one-millionth of what it was in 2011.

That’s equivalent to what is deemed safe for drinking water, he said. Some radiation will continue to leak through rainfall, because rainwater will pick up radiation from the plant grounds, and some of it will eventually fall into the ocean.

“They don’t need to worry, and, if there is anything to worry about, we will be out with that information,” he said.

Masuda, who has worked for TEPCO for more than 30 years, won praise for preventing meltdowns or explosions at Fukushima Dai-ni, a sister plant that also lost electricity after the 2011 tsunami. As then head of Dai-ni, Masuda acted quickly and decisively, leading his team, despite the chaos unfolding, to connect the reactors to surviving power sources.

His company’s image is much different. TEPCO’s reputation in the Japanese public eye was badly tarnished because of its bumbling response in the early days of the disaster.

The utility has undergone a public bailout and has readied 2 trillion yen ($17 billion) for decommissioning. The Japanese government has earmarked 54 billion yen ($446 million) of public funds for researching decommissioning technology through this fiscal year.

Such money doesn’t include compensation or damage lawsuits. The Fukushima catastrophe spewed radiation into the air, ocean and surrounding areas through hydrogen explosions, and displaced some 100,000 people.

The way TEPCO is spending money has drawn some criticism from experts abroad. Unlike the U.S. system, there is no open bid or escrow fund in Japan to dole out the massive decommissioning funds.

Much of the work is going to the Japanese manufacturers that constructed the plants, such as Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Inc., under long-term contracts. Some outside international consultants are involved, and some foreign companies have gotten water-decontamination and other contracts.

Akira Tokuhiro, an American and nuclear expert who teaches at the University of Idaho, supports an open bidding process that invites more international expertise. He noted that Japan has no, or very little, decommissioning experience, compared to the Americans, the French and the Russians.

“An international effort has the potential to reduce both time and cost, while maintaining safety, transparency and cost,” he said.

Douglas Chapin, of MPR, a U.S. nuclear engineering organization that has advised the American and Japanese nuclear industries, was less critical, defending the Japanese method as simply different.

Masuda said awarding contracts without opening bidding is what’s best for Fukushima, and that TEPCO needs to take primary responsibility.

“We don’t think competition is beneficial as that will mean people doing the work will keep changing,” he said. “The system we have is better.”

But Masuda also acknowledged that Japan has not done as good a job as it should have on relaying the harsh realities at the plant. He said it’s his mission to relay all information, the good and the bad.

“When I took this job, I promised to work as an interpreter, to relay our work in a way that’s understandable to regular people, and to communicate within the company what people are interested in and worried about,” he said.

“If the interpreter is good, the conversation will be lively. If the interpreter is good, dialogue will follow.” ”

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Fukushima water: The Fictitious energy drink goes on sale — The Guardian

” A high energy drink sourced straight from the Fukushima site. It sounds absurd and it is. But for the three Berlin art directors behind a new digital campaign this fictitious drink also raises an important issue: Four years on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, contaminated water – being used to cool the plant – is still leaking into the Pacific Ocean.

“We were blown away by how weird it was that contaminated water is still being poured into the Pacific Ocean and that people have no idea,” says Kenzi Benabdallah, one of the trio of friends behind the campaign.

“The water needs to be stored because it’s highly contaminated,” says fellow collaborator Stefan Wittemann, “but [the tanks used to store the water] are leaking and water is running into the ocean. The exact numbers are very hard to get because the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) will not tell you anything and Greenpeace will tell you a super-high number. ”

In a bid to raise awareness of the ongoing contamination crisis, the three friends Stefan, Kenzi and Florian Tscharf have created a fictitious website and commercial about a glow-in-the-dark mineral water sourced from the site: Fukushima Water.

“We are accessing something that has slipped from the primary consciousness of the media and are repackaging it so when you watch the parody documentary, the gravity of the Fukushima catastrophe comes straight back to mind,” says Kenzi.

The ambition is to pressure those involved into making more information, such as about the leaking contaminated water, publicly available, says Kenzi. “The best way to force change is through social media. Expose the company and force them to share with the public what is going on.”

Despite the sensitive nature of the issue and the fine line everyone walks when using satire to communicate a delicate situation, the pair say the Japanese response has been very positive.
“Everyone wants to start a discussion, mainly about the companies’ lack of transparency. This is something that concerns everyone, especially in Japan,” says Kenzi.

The water hub is funded by Grundfos. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled ‘brought to you by’. Find out more here

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Test fishing in Fukushima reels in a clean catch fit for a king — The Asahi Shimbun

” IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture–An aquarium’s veterinarian and a team of local volunteers are monitoring radioactive contamination of fish in waters near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to see if the marine life is fit to be served for dinner.

The group, called “Iwaki Kaiyo Shirabetai-Umi Labo” (Iwaki marine unit and sea lab), organizes a monthly fishing excursion to check radioactive pollution of the sea near the plant.

Junichi Yagi, a 39-year-old company employee in Iwaki, and his peers began the project in autumn 2013 to log radiation figures that are independent of surveys conducted by the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear plant.

“I had been frustrated over my inability to counter an argument with data we took on our own that the sea we loved has been contaminated,” Yagi said of why the group embarked on the project.

A large amount of highly contaminated water leaked into the sea shortly after the nuclear catastrophe unfolded at the plant on March 11, 2011, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Local fishermen’s cooperatives resumed operations in June 2012 on a trial basis, but species that tend to accumulate higher levels of radiation are prohibited from being shipped to markets.

Leaks of radioactive water from the plant, however, have continued on and off although the pollution has not been as severe as that which took place in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster.

During a trip in August, a boat left a fishing port in Iwaki to head to waters in the vicinity of the plant. It carried 21 people on board.

An hour later, the boat stopped 1.5 kilometers from the plant. From there, a red crane could be seen working on the decommissioning process there, and the No. 1 reactor was standing there stripped of its canopy.

Local residents are banned from catching fish in waters within 1.5 km from the plant in accordance with a 1966 pact concluded between TEPCO and local fishermen’s cooperatives.

Using a special container, Seiichi Tomihara, a veterinarian at the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki and a member of the group who was aboard the boat, scooped sea-bed soil samples at a depth of 15 meters.

The radiation dose in the air stood at 0.014 microsieverts per hour, a figure lower than a monitoring spot used as a comparison in Tokyo.

According to Tomihara and other radiation experts, radiation levels above the sea are relatively low despite being only 1.5 km from the plant because the water effectively serves as a lid.

Airborne radioactive substances eventually fall into the sea and drop to the seabed, so radioactivity in the air above the sea is more diminished than that on land.

The boat then traveled to a spot 2 km from the plant to fish with a rod and line.

The participants caught 20 flounder, rock trout and other species, a large enough catch to conduct a meaningful radiation check.

The fish and soil samples are taken to Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki, where their radioactivity is measured in front of visitors to the facility as part of the monthly event.

At a session in July, Tomihara adeptly separated bones from fish meat before parents and children who were attending the session.

“Meat is where radioactive cesium accumulates the most,” he explained.

He gauged the radioactivity of a rock trout with a radiation dosimeter and then explained the results to his audience.

A rock trout is one of the species prohibited from distribution by local fishermen.

But its radiation levels were not high enough to be detected by a dosimeter used during the session.

The finding came as a surprise to some people.

“Even a fish caught in waters near the plant had such a low radiation level,” said one of the participants of the session.

But a reading of white rockfish was 58.7 becquerels per kilo, below the national standards of 100 becquerels per kilo, but in excess of the limit of 50 becquerels set by the local fishermen’s cooperatives for circulation.

Tomihara said fish born before the nuclear disaster tend to show higher levels of contamination, compared with ones born over the past few years.

The two-hour session proved to be an eye-opener for many.

“Fukushima’s image before this session was something terrifying,” said Satsuki Yanagisawa, a 38-year-old mother from Saku, Nagano Prefecture, who visited the aquarium with three other family members. “But I now know that its sea is gradually recovering. Seeing with my own eyes the contamination level of the fish checked convinced me of this.”

Local fishermen operate on a trial basis in waters outside the 20-km zone from the plant, catching 64 varieties of fish.

Fish whose radioactivity is found below the fisheries cooperative standards are sold to local shops or Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.

According to the prefectural government, none of the fish that have been caught since April for its radiation survey showed levels above the national limit.

Twenty-nine kinds of fish are currently restricted from distribution, but the ban is expected to be lifted for them step by step.

Participants in the lab session can taste dishes cooked using the fish local fishermen bring in during the trial operations, such as deep-fried Pacific cod and pasta with blue crab cream sauce.

Many families stop by and sample a free dish.

Yagi hopes the program on fish and pollution at the aquarium will help visitors gain a better understanding of the actual situation of the sea off Fukushima Prefecture.

“We don’t mean to push the view that Fukushima products are safe,” he said. “I hope that more and more people will pay attention to the condition of waters off Fukushima through conversations such as, ‘I have tried fish caught off Iwaki” and, ‘Oh, is it safe to eat?’ ” ”

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Risk of hydrogen explosion from leaking containers at Fukushima plant — The Asahi Shimbun

” Inspections of containers holding contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant found that at least 10 percent have leaks, which could trigger a hydrogen explosion.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, reported its findings at a meeting with a study group from the Nuclear Regulation Authority on May 22. It said no radioactive water was found to have escaped outside the concrete structures that encase the containers.

According to TEPCO, there were about 1,300 such containers at the plant as of May 20.

They store waste water from the ALPS (advanced liquid processing system) equipment that removes radioactive substances from contaminated water.

The containers, which are made of polyethylene, are 1.8 meters high and have diameters of 1.5 meters.

The first leak was discovered in a lid on April 2.

TEPCO began inspecting others to see if they had similar problems. Of the 278 it had examined by May 20, it found 26 had some sort of leak or were bleeding from their lids.

The operator said the leaks and bleeding were likely caused by hydrogen and other types of gases that resulted from the water’s exposure to high levels of radiation.

Such gases appear to have accumulated in sediment at the bottom of the containers, expanding the volume of the liquid.

An NRA official said the accumulating hydrogen poses a potential danger.

“If the concentration level is high, a spark caused by static electricity could cause a container to explode,” the official said.

Although all the lids of the containers were supposed to be fitted with pressure-release valves to allow gasses to escape, TEPCO’s survey found that one did not have the mechanism.

Further review of the delivery records for the containers showed there may be as many as 333 that are also defective, a TEPCO official said. ”

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