Wednesday 28 August 2013

Japanese government to take over from Tepco

Japanese government to take over Fukushima nuclear reactor
The Japanese government has finally lost patience with the bungling efforts of Tokyo Electric Power Company to get the crippled reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant under control.

27 August, 2013

Toshimitsu Motegi, the minister of trade and industry visited the plant on Monday to determine progress to date on decommissioning the three damaged reactors at the plant.

Speaking after being shown around the site, Mr Motegi said, “The urgency of the situation is very high. From here on, the government will take charge.”

One week ago, TECPO admitted that hundreds of tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from a steel tank at the plant and that as much as 300 tons of contaminated water has been escaping into the sea every day since the plant was devastated by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The minister said poor maintenance by TEPCO was to blame for the ongoing problems at the site.

As well as leaks of water contaminated with radiation, work to bring the damaged reactors under control has been making painfully slow progress. Radiation levels in three of the reactor buildings are so high that it is impossible for workers to spend more than a couple of minutes inside at one time.

(Emphasis - ENE News)

The true state of the reactor chambers remains unclear and there are suggestions that the tons of water that are being sprayed on the reactor vessels to keep them at a stable temperature has compromised the foundations of the structures.

Experts have also warned that the effort to gain control of the reactors – which is likely to take an estimated three decades – could be for naught if another major earthquake or tsunami strikes north-east Japan.

TEPCO has previously been reluctant to accept outside help as it battles to gain control of the situation and start the complicated process of decommissioning the reactors, but its failed efforts to date have triggered renewed criticism in public and the media of the handling of the crisis by both the company and the government.

On Monday, an editorial in the Yomiuri newspaper said, “The utility’s capability to cope with the crisis, however, is nearing its limits in terms of both financial and personnel resources. Under the circumstances, a wider range of assistance and cooperation from the government will certainly become more and more important to address the problem.”

Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, Rosenergoatom, has also repeated an offer first made two years ago to help Japan clear up the aftermath of the world’s second-worst nuclear accident.

In our globalised industry, we don’t have national accidents, they are all international,” said Vladimir Asmolov, the deputy director general of the company.

Japan’s environment ministry on Monday also announced a plan to step up decontamination efforts in the 18-mile exclusion zone around the plant.

How everything went so wrong at Fukushima
The makings of a two-and-a-half-year nuclear disaster

27 August, 2013

This week, alarming news has been pouring out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, two and a half years after it was first damaged in a natural disaster. As we’re now learning, more problems have been building beneath Fukushima’s surface, to a far greater extent than officials have been willing to acknowledge until now, when the severity of the situation has become impossible to ignore.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck offshore Japan. More than 19,000 people died as the tsunami it caused engulfed Japan’s largest island, a little more than 100 miles north of Tokyo.

Amid concern for the massive death and destruction, reports emerged of a second unfolding catastrophe in the tsunami’s wake. Electricity had been knocked out at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and the backup diesel generators meant to cool the plant’s nuclear reactors had flooded. Over the first three days following the tsunami, all three nuclear cores melted. On days 4 to 6, they began to release unknown amounts of radiation. The main task became containing it, and evacuating more than 160,000 residents from the vicinity. Many have yet to return home.

The nuclear disaster — the largest since Chernobyl in 1986 — was classified as a “major accident,” the highest score possible on The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). At first its effects paled in comparison to the immediate death toll and damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Within two weeks, the three reactors were stable. By July, they were being cooled with recycled water from a new treatment plant. In mid-December, they officially reached “cold shutdown,” meaning active cooling was no longer necessary to keep the reactors safe. A World Health Organization report released earlier this year concluded that the predicted health risks for the general population were low.

Beneath the surface, however, the situation was far from contained. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, had “rigged a makeshift system of pipes and hoses” to continue cooling the reactors. From the beginning, that contaminated water has been leaking. As much as possible was contained in the plant’s storage tanks, but some made its way into the sea. For the past two and a half years, a “massive underground reservoir” of contaminated water has been building up underneath the plant. Tepco iswidely alleged to have not done enough to contain it.

The slow, seeping buildup of a second catastrophe came to a head this summer. On July 10, Japan’s nuclear watchdog announced it “highly suspected” that the plant was leaking contaminated water into the ocean. Tepco didn’t acknowledge what was happening until July 22; a full month after initial suspicions were raised. A month later, the watchdog againannounced that the contaminated groundwater had breached a barrier meant to contain it. The Japanese government officially stepped in to help.

Since then, a new, acute disaster has complicated the situation further. Earlier this week, a new leak erupted from one of the plant’s storage tanks, releasing 300 tons of contaminated water into the soil and potentially, through storm drains, into the Pacific. For the first time since 2011, Fukushima again scored on the INES scale, although this time it was only Level 1, an anomaly. The Nuclear Regulation Authority is considering an upgrade to Level 3, a serious incident. (Seven is the highest score possible.) As an advisory panel revealed yesterday, Tepco was warned this was coming back in June.

The underground reservoir has been climbing above barriers set to contain it, and experts now fear that it’s about to reach the Pacific Ocean. Amid frustration that Tepco could have done more to prevent this from happening are fears that it’s unprepared to handle the coming fallout.

The company has created chemical blockades and has finally begun construction on an offshore steel wall to contain the water. Its more ambitious plans include surrounding the plant with a mile-long, 90-foot deep wall of ice. Even if that last option works, it won’t be ready until 2015. There’s also a chance that other steel tanks  – built in a rush and containing nearly 300,000 tons of partially treated contaminated water — could also spring leaks. Tepco says it plans to build newer ones with tighter seals. In the meantime, they may be running out of space for the estimated 400 tons of water pumped daily, and contaminated groundwater seeps toward the sea at a rate of 4 meters per month; the plant is only 150 meters from the ocean.

We don’t really know if the contaminated water has reached the ocean yet, or what the health and environmental implications might be once it does. And the water issue aside, the plant still needs to be decommissioned. The next step, the removal of 400 tons of spent fuel by hand from a damaged reactor building, provides a fresh opportunity for things to go wrong. In the worst case scenario, the accidental release of radioactive material would mean a bigger crisis than in 2011. The entire decommissioning process is anticipated to take 40 more years — and from the way it’s been handled so far, the world may be holding its breath for the duration.

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

Radioactive water leakage continues

26 August, 2013

Contaminated water continues to accumulate at the crippled nuclear power plant nearly 2 and half years after the accident in Fukushima Prefecture. Workers are still unable to say when they will be able to stop the water from seeping into the ocean.

In May, highly radioactive groundwater was detected in an observation well on the sea side of one of the reactor buildings. Levels of radioactive materials in nearby waters have since risen.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company has been trying to contain tainted groundwater from leaking into the ocean since the accident.

Measures include solidifying the ground facing the coastal area by using chemicals and pumping out groundwater near the embankments.

But all the attempts have been unsuccessful. In addition, the utility has yet to pinpoint the cause of the contaminated groundwater.

TEPCO workers are struggling to remove the existing contaminated water from under the ground. There is also a need to monitor the arrival of large amounts of groundwater to prevent it from being contaminated. But there is a lack of funds and technology.

Earlier this month, more than 300 tons of contaminated water in a storage tank leaked and some of it is believed to have seeped into the ocean through a ditch.

TEPCO has come under fire for failing to detect the problem quickly and minimizing the leakage. The plant operator has also been criticized for not confirming the soundness of the tanks.

A government expert panel and other groups are demanding that speedy measures be taken to deal with the crisis.

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