Down by the seaside
See the boats go sailin’
Can the people hear
What the little fish are sayin’
– Led Zeppelin
What follows is an update on the situation at the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster site regarding the accident that took place during the week of March 11, 2011. There’s been a lot of radioactive water under the bridge since then, much of which has flowed out gently to sea.
One of the best documentary films on the topic which was produced in 2015 is Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (1). It is an Italian production narrated in English: the story of journalist Pio d’Emlia who lived in Japan at the time of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster and spans the first few years afterward.
In addition, NHK, the Japanese state run TV station has produced a newer documentary, Meltdown-Cooling Water Crisis which highlights the astonishing incompetence of the Japanese nuclear industry (2). Both films are highly recommended.
Today the main issue remains whether the melted radioactive fuel (fuel debris) can be retrieved from below the three reactors that had meltdowns, reactors #1, #2, #3. The nature of the fuel is that it overheated and then escaped the normal confines of the reactor, spreading laterally and vertically to some extent below each reactor. Due to the extreme level of radiation it is impossible for humans to enter the area; therefore, robotics and other high-tech machinery are indispensable for fuel removal.
According to the website, Simply Info – http://www.simplyinfo.org – Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the utility in charge of the disaster site plans to begin removing the fuel debris in 2021 (3). There are many complex technical procedures that will precede the important work of fuel debris retrieval and removal.
If indeed these plans are carried out successfully, this will be a great step forward toward securing and decommissioning the triple meltdown site which has garnered so much negative attention over the last years.
However, this is dangerous work and human beings must do much of the onsite coordination. The workers face high levels of ambient radiation in their daily tasks. For example, even though machinery will demolish the highly radioactive ventilation towers that still remain at the site, “TEPCO provided no details how this work would be done in such an open location without causing the distribution of radioactive dust or exposure to workers” (4).
When speaking of nuclear fuel there are two types to consider: the spent fuel rods which are used to fuel the reactors, which are stored in pools of water until they are removed into dry cask storage; and the fuel debris (melted fuel at the bottom of the reactors). Even if all the used fuel rods can safely be removed there is a lack of storage space:
Dry cask storage can be used for long term storage but this is not a permanent solution. Most dry casks have a life span of 20 years before the cask gaskets are no longer considered viable. This requires fuel to be moved to permanent storage or the fuel would need to be transferred to a new cask. A fuel transfer can only take place in a spent fuel pool or similar facility to provide the needed shielding and radiation control for the work. Japan currently has no permanent nuclear repository (5).
A much greater challenge is posed by the retrieval of fuel debris:
This more invasive investigation work presents new challenges. The equipment and work will need to be able to prevent initiating a criticality event while disturbing fuel debris. Radiation leaks will need to be prevented while sufficient shielding to protect workers remains a priority due to the high radiation levels in and near containment (6).
Of course, all of these operations cost money, with projected costs reaching 180 billion US dollars, that is in taxpayer money (7). In the meantime, all of Japan’s idling reactors costs millions to maintain.
In addition, the 850,000 tons of radioactively contaminated water remains in large tanks on the site. According to the article, while on the one hand nuclear specialists seem convinced the water is perfectly safe to release into the wide ocean, the general public is presented as being irrationally wary of such claims, or perhaps simply uneducated about the complexities of nuclear physics (8).
News reports on controversial topics are not always what they seem to be; in this day of “fake news” some reports which claim to be objective may simply be biased propaganda, as when in 2016 “experts” who claimed that evacuation of residents from Fukushima was a wasteful policy. The report, however, was based on the work of a longtime nuclear industry insider, not an uninterested third party, as the article intimated. Originally comments posted in the comment section exposed this bias, but those comments were later deleted (9).
Nancy Foust of the amazing website Simply Info has provided us with a summary of current issues facing Fukushima. Much progress toward securing the plant has been made thanks to the heroic work of engineers and on-site workers who risk their health to save Japan.
Still it seems that the Japanese government is not being entirely forthright in terms of dealing with the potential dangers that remain at the plant. According to Foust in a personal email communication:
There are already plans to pause most work during the Olympics to avoid causing a problem while all of that is going on. At the same time the govt is trying to prod people to move back to areas near the plant.
TEPCO has also built a ‘museum’ about the disaster at Daiichi [the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant]. They also plan to increase the amount of tour visitors to Daiichi including students, press members and the curious.
They are also apparently allowing people on foot down by the reactors now rather than only by bus. TEPCO wants to bring around 20,000 people through the plant on tours. While the situation at the plant is much more stable, this is an unreasonable risk. Bringing more and more people into the vicinity of the plant either by living nearby or into the plant for tours is rather irresponsible. Should there be any sort of event on site, now all of these bystanders are would be involved. Dust releases could include find building debris dusts or microparticles of fuel debris still left around the plant site. TEPCO and the govt. seems to be back to the pre-disaster mentality of pretending there is no risk as a PR tactic.
This behavior on behalf of the government and Tepco is reminiscent of their cavalier attitude both before, during and after the accident. Recently “TEPCO Admitted Tsunami Risk To Govt. 4 Days Before Disaster” (10). Previous to the accident an engineer that was commissioned to write a report recommended increasing the height of the tsunami wall at Fukushima, but both Tepco and the government ignored the report.
What about ongoing radiations risks in the environment in the Fukushima region?
A Japanese NGO posted these photos to social media showing signs installed on the newly opened highway 114 near Fukushima Daiichi. The signs tell people to ‘pass through as quickly as possible’ and are in English. This stretch of highway borders the zone of highest radiation from the disaster and runs just north of Fukushima Daiichi towards Fukushima City (11).
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Progress At The Plant
On the positive side, Foust notes the following:
*Unit 3 will have the spent fuel removed starting later in 2018 as long as everything continues to progress as expected.
TEPCO has the defueling building installed. They are working out minor problems with the equipment that will be used to remove the fuel.
* Unit 2 will begin having the roof and upper walls removed at some point. They are currently doing remote inspections in the refueling floor. The next step they plan to start clearing out equipment on the refueling floor with smaller sized remote controlled heavy equipment. When you add up all of the things that would need to be cut, removed to a storage container then removed through the new air lock entry they have installed on the refueling floor, this could take longer than assumed. Unit 2 is unlikely to be ready for building demo work before 2020.
* Unit 1, they are still working on removing the refueling floor rubble. This is taking longer than assumed. They are currently working on how to remove the roof sheet that fell onto the floor. Once they have all the rubble removed they will put up a defueling building over unit 1. This work has dragging on as they have needed to start and stop to deal with what they find. This work could still be in progress by 2020.
* The Unit 1-2 exhaust vent stack will be cut down and capped. The sections will be cut in pieces and then cut down into smaller parts to be stored as controlled waste. This is expected to be done by end of 2019.
This work all has some level of risk involved. Contaminated dusts can be released. There is always the potential of damage to spent fuel or a criticality while they do spent fuel removal work. When they eventually get to the work of removing fuel debris from the reactor buildings the risks will go up.
Planning for fuel debris removal is the next phase. There are a few more containment inspections that will take place before more detailed plans can be established.
A remaining question is to what extent has the radioactive pollution released from Fukushima, affected not only the environment but the living organisms and humans in the region. A recent article notes that childhood thyroid cancer, normally a rarity among children, has occurred in some disturbing cases (12). What does this portend for the future health of the region’s children?
Researchers have also uncovered new aspects of the nature of radioactive pollution:
New evidence of nuclear fuel releases found at Fukushima – Uranium and other radioactive materials, such as caesium and technetium, have been found in tiny particles released from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. This could mean the environmental impact from the fallout may last much longer than previously expected according to a new study by a team of international researchers, including scientists from The University of Manchester. The team says that, for the first time, the fallout of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor fuel debris into the surrounding environment has been ‘explicitly revealed’ by the study….” (13). “The abundance of these micro-particles in Japanese soils and sediments, and their environmental impact is poorly understood. But the particles are very small and do not dissolve easily, meaning they could pose long-term health risks to humans if inhaled (14).
(1) Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015)
(2) NHK Documentary: Meltdown-Cooling Water Crisis (2018)
(3) The Plans For Fukushima Fuel Removal 2018
(4) TEPCO Has A Plan For Some Of The More Dangerous Work At Daiichi
(5) Fukushima Spent Fuel Has Nowhere To Go
(6) Fukushima Fuel Debris Research Update
(7) Japan Fukushima nuclear plant ‘clean-up costs double’
(8) About that tritiated water: Who will decide and when?
(9) Fukushima evacuations were not worth the money, study says
(10) TEPCO Admitted Tsunami Risk To Govt. 4 Days Before Disaster
(11) The Fukushima High Radiation Motor Speedway?
(12) Boy’s thyroid cancer casts doubt on Fukushima’s denials
(13) New evidence of nuclear fuel releases found at Fukushima
(14) Fukushima radioactive particle release was significant says new research