Fukushima: Four Years After

Fukushima: Four Years After

It has been four years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami battered Japan’s main island of Honshu. A roughly 45 foot-high surge of seawater engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi (Number One) nuclear station, causing a prolonged full-station blackout. Over the course of five days, three of the six unit’s suffered severe fuel core damage, three of the outer, essentially superficial reactor buildings were torn apart by hydrogen explosions, and significant uncontrolled releases of air-borne contamination spurred the forced evacuation of 75,000 Fukushima residents.

The Japanese Press has literally flooded the news with mostly negative reports, including at least one outright lie from outside Japan. The following are summations of the more-significant Fukushima 4th anniversary postings by major Press outlets, all but one of which are Japanese.

a. The Positive

Perhaps the most comprehensive report on the many positive events of the past four years comes from Japan’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The article is sub-headed provocatively, “The litany of steady progress and stubborn obstacles at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant may not claim headlines four years after the fact, but there are plenty of stories to go around.” Here’s a few highlights…

  • All of the used fuel in unit #4 has been safely removed, and for this “Tepco deserves credit”. Some critics warned of a possible apocalypse, such as Japan’s former ambassador to Switzerland, Mitsuhei Murata, who went as far as claiming that “the fate of Japan and the whole world” was at stake. But, the process progressed smoothly…literally without a hitch. American Dr. Dale Klein said, “[the fuel transfer] deserves recognition as a major technical achievement, as an advance in creating a safer environment, and as an example of how careful planning and an embrace of a safety-first culture can produce excellent results.”

  • While the situation with waste water storage has progressed slowly, much progress has actually been made. The influx of groundwater into the four turbine building basements has been reduced by 100 tons per day. The construction of a 1.4 kilometer-long underground “ice wall” is moving ahead, albeit slower than Tepco had hoped. The upgraded Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) is finally fully operational. Still, a new 1,000 ton storage tank needs to be built every 2.5 days.

  • Although radiation levels inside units #1, 2, & 3 remain too high for people to make detailed examinations, creative robot-controlled devices have given Tepco a glimpse of the internal situations. In addition, the current use of Muon-detection technology promises to provide images of the location of melted fuel in unit #1 by the end of March. Naohiro Masuda, Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer, said, “This is a great example of how the innovation and cooperation from external experts is helping us overcome challenges and make progress toward decommissioning.”

  • While on-the-job injuries make world-wide headlines, the working conditions at F. Daiichi have steadily improved. New human-factors have been introduced to insure that the thousands of contract employees are treated fairly. In addition, the FCCJ reports, “Tepco will open a new facility in March where up to 1,200 workers at a time can rest and have meals. A new venture will provide nutritious meals for about 3,000 workers a day from April.”

  • It should be noted that the FCCJ acknowledges the situation with Fukushima evacuees continues to be a negative factor. While a relative few have been allowed to return home, only a small fraction of them have actually done it. Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo says, “There are some of us for whom the situation has improved a little, but there are others who have been completely unable to resume a normal life.” The main problem seems to be the government goal of reducing radiation levels to below one millisievert per year, which is largely unrealistic. Most want this to be a firm requirement for lifting evacuation restrictions, with the most vocal being the parents who fear for the health of their children. Also, many evacuees fear that as each year passes, Fukushima is less likely to make headlines, and the plight of long-term evacuees will be forgotten. http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun/item/560-update-on-ground-zero.html

  • FCCJ has also posted an informative illustrated guide to radiation exposure. It was compiled, in part, by a Safecast volunteer. Safecast describes itself as “a global project to empower people with data, primarily by mapping radiation levels and building a sensor network, enabling people to contribute and freely use the data collected.” http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun/item/561-four-years-after-an-illustrated-guide.html

b. The Negative

Most of the articles in the Japanese Press focus on the negative. Let’s face it; fear and misery sells a lot better than the converse when dealing with the Fukushima accident and (shudder) radiation. The main topics of angst-appeal are plight of evacuees, the situation with radioactive waste waters, the storage of rural decontamination waste materials, the impending used fuel removal from units #1 through #3, the quoting of critics as experts by the Press, and (of course) fear of radiation and its impact.

  • It is estimated that 120,000 people remain as evacuees due to F. Daiichi. More than 70,000 Tokyo-mandated evacuees remain estranged. Simple math shows that 50,000 of the evacuees are “voluntary”. Further, 46,000 of the total have emigrated from Fukushima Prefecture and have little desire to go back. One evacuee in far-distant Okinawa, Emiko Fujimaki, says, “I guess more people might return to Fukushima when their rent subsidies expire.” (1) Whether or not that happens remains to be seen.

  • Most residents have not returned to towns where evacuation orders have been lifted. The mandates were rescinded for the eastern part of Kawauchi last October, and the Miyakoji district of Tamura in April. Only 10.5% (29 of 275) of the Kawauchi residents have returned and about 40% (133 of 340) of Miyakoji have repopulated. The main reasons given by dissidents have been concerns about still-detectible levels of radiation and employment potential. The highest percentage of returnees is elderly. Hideo Akimoto, Kawauchi recovery policy chief, says there had been a steady trend of depopulation and aging of the community before 3/11/11, but “this surged after the earthquake disaster. It feels like time has advanced 20 years.” A Tamura official says the low rate of return is because people have moved their lives, found new jobs, new schools, and places to shop. (2)

  • With the contaminated water issue, the waste waters continue to build up at a rate of hundreds of thousands of tons per day, but none of the more than 300,000 tons that are fully purified can be released. Tepco says they can finish off the remaining 200,000 tons that are highly contaminated by 2016. Even the fully processed waters have tiny, detectible amounts of Strontium in them, so they are being run through a high-efficiency strontium-removal system…and returned to storage. Naohiro Masuda, Tepco’s decommissioning head, says he "hopes to report that there is almost no risk from the contaminated water" by summer, 2016. (3)

  • Tokyo has planned to build a 16 square kilometer interim rural decontamination waste storage facility in host communities Okuma and Futaba. But, most of the 2,400 residents who own the land refuse to part with their property. Only 0.4% of the property has been secured by the government. Regardless, transportation of the accumulated materials will begin on March 13, so long as nothing unexpected happens. Currently, the materials are stored at about 75,000 locations throughout the prefecture. One evacuee’s abandoned rice paddies are being used… and he’s getting rent for it. He says, “As long as this [polluted soil] does not disappear, we cannot expect reconstruction of my town [Nahara].” When asked how much longer he intends to rent his hectare-sized paddy, he said, “For another year for the present. But I believe that we will need your land after that for a while.” Meanwhile, many of the landowners are stubbornly refusing to budge. One who now lives in Saitama says, “We were forced to leave our home due to the nuclear crisis, and then we have to become victimized again. For the present, I still have yet to decide if I will sell or not, but the day will eventually come someday when I make the difficult choice.” Regardless, the problem will not end when all the presently-stored materials get moved. Only 45% of the planned rural decontaminations have been finished. (4)  

  • The used fuel bundles in the spent fuel pools (SFP) of units #1 through #3 remain to be handled and are becoming an issue in the Press. Unit #2 did not experience a hydrogen explosion, but the radiation levels inside the building remain prohibitive. How to lower the radiation levels and how the used fuel will be removed, are essentially open questions. Unit #1 has been encased in a temporary outer structure, but it will be removed and fuel transfer will begin as soon as fuel handling technology is installed, perhaps similar to what was the case with unit #4. Radiation levels inside the enclosure do not seem to be the prospective problem, just the same as with unit #4. However, unit #3 poses some additional problems. The SPF holds 514 used fuel bundles and 52 unused. However, it will be a slow process to prepare for the fuel transfer. A considerable amount of debris remains in the pool, including the 35-ton fuel handling bridge/crane that used to be installed above the water. (5)  

  • One news outlet outside Japan has posted a complete fabrication about Fukushima deaths. It is to be found on James Corbett’s (of Corbett Report fame) “Fukushima Updates” page. It copies a news posting out of Iran which openly states “A fresh report in Japan shows the number of deaths by radiation from the country’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 increased by 18 percent last year.” (bold-face added for emphasis) The report actually refers to a Tokyo Shimbun piece that says that disaster-related deaths increased by 18% last year. Disaster-related in no way means “death by radiation”. There have been exactly zero deaths in Japan as a result of the radiation from F. Daiichi! A retraction by Corbett’s Fukushima Update page and Iran’s Press TV seems to be an ethical imperative, but it is unlikely to occur. Regardless, here’s the link… http://fukushimaupdate.com/about/ 

  • Japan Times tries to “prove” the F. Daiichi ice wall will be a failure. In the process, Tepco’s struggles with the waste water buildup may never end. The Times appeals to two collegiate professors, neither of which have an engineering background, First we have an education and research special adviser at the University of Aizu and advisor to Fukushima Prefecture, Shigeaki Tsunoyama. Tsunoyama says, “[One] problem will be how long it will take to freeze soil evenly (to make an ice wall without holes), and we have already seen this problem when Tepco attempted to make ice walls inside the underground trench (connected to the reactor turbine buildings). I’m worried that the same thing might happen with the ice wall.” The second is a political advisor in nuclear issues to the Fukushima Prefectural government, Kiyoshi Takasaka. He says there are many unknowns with the ice wall project, which he says is unprecedented in the world. He is not optimistic. The article also touches on the recent formal protest by Fukushima Fisheries for mildly contaminated rainwater runoff from F. Daiichi. Tsunoyama says “[The fisheries] do not want Tepco to dump the water into the sea. The most troubling thing is . . . harmful rumors. You can’t really persuade people to ignore harmful rumors.” Takasaka and Tsunoyama said Tepco’s measures have tended to be ad hoc, so it has always had to come up with extra measures. (6)

  • NHK World also reports on the wastewater issue, and provides some interesting facts. There are now a total of 600,000 tons stored in the myriad of large tanks at the station. Although measures to stem the inflow of groundwater into the turbine buildings has reduced the flow by 100 tons per day, the buildup rate is still about 350 tons per day. A plan to pump up groundwater from a monitoring well near the buildings, filter it and release it into the sea has been fiercely opposed by local fisheries. Further, the three-stage purification system has been installed, but NHK says the “processing rate remains below an initial estimate.” Thus, even one of the least antinuclear news outlets resorts to negativity on this 4th anniversary. (7)

  • Finally we get to the ubiquitous issue of fear of harmless levels of radiation and its far-reaching impact. The usually-objective Yomiuri Shimbun jumps on the contaminated water buildup bandwagon, before it segues into the complaints from the local fishermen. Soma-Futaba fisheries Chief Hiroyuki Sato explains the public fear of radiation, “Ordinary people cannot understand it no matter how much [TEPCO] says there are ‘no adverse effects’ [from contaminated rainwater]. Damage due to harmful rumors is the result of such a thing.” (8) Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time blog shows how bad the situation is. Tokyo’s Consumer Affairs Agency runs a survey on marketplace radiophobia at least twice a year. Last summer, a full 20% of the marketing public refused to buy any foods coming from Fukushima Prefecture due to radiation fears, but the latest survey shows it is now down to 17%. A year ago, the percentage of dissidence was about 15%. 67% say they care about where their food comes from, and 34% said they wanted food free of detectible Fukushima contamination. Again, 17% said they were reluctant to purchase anything from Fukushima, abut to make matters worse, another 13% were cautious about other Tohoku region prefecture’s foods. Many local farmers are forced to sell at below-market prices in order to make a profit. The agency says it can’t identify a specific reason for the increase in Fukushima-shunning between February and August last year, but suggests that an increased number of media reports on radiation and health may have been a factor. (9)

References –

1 - Path to Restoration / Evacuees' homecoming prospects remain uncertain; Yomiuri Shimbun; http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001982214  

2 – Few residents back in areas reopened after Fukushima disaster; Mainichi Shimbun;http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20150307p2a00m0na009000c.html  

3 – 4 Years On: TEPCO Hopes to Contain Water Crisis before Summer 2016; Jiji Press; http://jen.jiji.com/jc/eng?g=eco&k=2015030400739

4 - Path to Restoration / Only 0.4% of land secured for interim storage facility; Yomiuri Shimbun; http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001978747

5 - 4 Years On: Fuel Removal from Fukushima Storage Pool Remains Tough; Jiji Press; http://jen.jiji.com/jc/eng?g=eco&k=2015030300490

6 – Fukushima No. 1’s never-ending battle with radioactive water; Japan Times; http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/03/11/national/fukushima-1s-never-ending-battle-radioactive-water/#.VQBEu6McQdU

7 – Contaminated wastewater yet to be controlled; NHK World; http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/20150311_26.html  

8 - Path to Restoration / Contaminated water plagues Fukushima decommissioning; Yomiuri Shimbun; http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001984815  

9 – Nearly One in Five Japanese Reluctant to Buy Fukushima Food; Japan Real time; http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/03/11/nearly-one-in-five-japanese-reluctant-to-buy-fukushima-food/