All fouled up - Fukushima four years after the catastrophe

The damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station as seen during a sea-water sampling boat journey, 7 November 2013. Photo: David Osborn / IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station as seen during a sea-water sampling boat journey, 7 November 2013. Photo: David Osborn / IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Four years ago today the world's biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl took place at Fukushima, Japan. Total clean-up costs are estimated around $0.5 trillion, writes Jim Green - but work to defuse the dangers has barely begun, the site is flooded with radioactive water making its way to the sea, and underpaid and illegally contracted workers are suffering a rising toll of death and injury.
The number of serious work-related accidents at Fukushima Daiichi doubled in 2014. Nine serious accidents occurred between March 2014 and January 2015, resulting in two deaths and eight serious injuries.

Four years have passed since the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. Around 160,000 people were relocated because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and very few have returned to their homes. Apart from the radioactive contamination, there is little for them to return to.

The clean-up and decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi site will take decades to complete - but no-one knows how many decades. There is little precedent for some of the challenges TEPCO faces, such as the robotic extraction of damaged nuclear fuel from stricken reactors and its storage or disposal ... somewhere.

Last October, TEPCO pushed back the timeline for the start of the damaged fuel removal work by five years, to 2025. Dale Klein, a member of TEPCO's Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, said the decommissioning schedule is pure supposition until engineers figure out how to remove the damaged fuel.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report

The IAEA completed its third review of the Fukushima clean-up operations in mid-February. The 15-member IAEA team released a preliminary report and the final report will be released by the end of March. The report does not consider contamination and clean-up operations outside the Fukushima Daiichi site.

"Japan has made significant progress since our previous missions," said IAEA team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo. "The situation, however, remains very complex, with the increasing amount of contaminated water posing a short-term challenge that must be resolved in a sustainable manner. The need to remove highly radioactive spent fuel, including damaged fuel and fuel debris, from the reactors that suffered meltdowns poses a huge long-term challenge."

The preliminary report notes that the safe decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi "is a very challenging task that requires the allocation of enormous resources, as well as the development and use of innovative technologies to deal with the most difficult activities."

Achievements since the last IAEA mission in 2013 include the complete removal of nuclear fuel from reactor #4 (1,533 new and spent fuel assemblies); progress with the clean-up of the site; and some progress with water management.

Challenges include persistent underground water ingress and the accumulation of contaminated water; the long-term management of radioactive waste; and issues related to the removal of spent nuclear fuel, damaged fuel and fuel debris.

The number of serious work-related accidents at Fukushima Daiichi doubled in 2014. Nine serious accidents occurred between March 2014 and January 2015, resulting in two deaths and eight serious injuries.

Water management along will cost $16.7 billion

A large majority of the 7,000 workers at Fukushima Daiichi are working on problems associated with contaminated water - groundwater that becomes contaminated, and cooling water that becomes contaminated.

An estimated US$16.7 billion (€14.8b) will be spent on water management alone, which is 20% of the estimated cost of decommissioning the entire site. In 2012, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers provided a "rough estimate" of US$500 billion (€447b) for on-site decommissioning costs, clean-up of contaminated lands outside the Fukushima plant boundary, replacement power costs, and compensation payments.

The IAEA report states that achievements since the last IAEA mission in 2013 include:

  • Improved and expanded systems to clean contaminated water;
  • The installation of new, improved tanks to store contaminated water (fully welded tanks replacing bolted flange type tanks), construction of dykes around the tanks with enhanced water holding capacity, and provision of covers to deflect rainwater from the dykes; and
  • The installation and operation of a set of pumping wells to reduce the flow of groundwater towards the reactor buildings, sealing of sea-side trenches and shafts, and the rehabilitation of the subdrain system. Groundwater ingress has been reduced by about 25% or 100,000 litres per day.

The installation of additional measures to reduce groundwater ingress, such as a frozen ice wall, is ongoing. The partially-built ice wall will enclose the area around reactors #1-4 on both the sea-side and the land-side. Whether the ice wall will effectively prevent the ingress and contamination of groundwater has been the subject of debate and scepticism.

According to the IAEA report, the rehabilitation of subdrains (wells built around reactor buildings) and the construction of a treatment system for pumped subdrain water, are nearly complete. As the subdrains are placed in operation, they are expected to further reduce the groundwater ingress by about 150,000 litres per day, and to near zero following the installation of the land-side ice wall (if it works as hoped).

As of February 2015, around 600 million litres of contaminated water were stored on-site, of which more than half has already been treated to remove some radionuclides (including most caesium and strontium, but not tritium) and TEPCO expects to complete the treatment of the remaining water in the next few months.

Leaks and spills continue as grounwater pours through the site

Nevertheless the situation remains "complex", the IAEA report states, due to the ingress of about 300,000 litres of groundwater into the Fukushima Daiichi site each day, and the ongoing use (and contamination) of water to cool stricken reactors.

The IAEA report states that not all of the large number of water treatment systems deployed by TEPCO are operating to their full design capacity and performance. One of the many remaining challenges for TEPCO will be to seal leakages in reactor and turbine building walls, which it plans to tackle after controlling groundwater ingress.

Leaks and spills are still occurring. On February 22, sensors detected a fresh leak of radioactive water to the ocean. The sensors, rigged to a gutter that directs rain and groundwater to a nearby bay, detected contamination levels 50-70 times greater than normal, falling to 10-20 times the normal level later that day.

On February 24, TEPCO acknowledged that it had failed to disclose leaks to the ocean of highly contaminated rainwater from a drainage ditch even though it was aware of the problem 10 months ago. The ditch receives run-off from the roof of the #2 reactor building.

TEPCO said it recorded 29,400 becquerels of caesium per litre in water pooled on the rooftop, and 52,000 becquerels per litre of beta-emitting radionuclides such as strontium-90.

The governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Masao Uchibori, said the incident was "extremely regrettable". Masakazu Yabuki, head of the Iwaki fisheries cooperative, said he had been "betrayed" by TEPCO. "I don't understand why [TEPCO] kept silent even though they knew about it. Fishery operators are absolutely shocked," Yabuki said.

The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations said: "The anger among local fishermen who have been waiting to resume their business is immeasurable."

Fishing industry and ocean dumping

A Fisheries Agency survey released in February revealed that the fishing industry has been slow to recover in coastal prefectures affected by the 3/11 triple-disaster. Only 50% of the surveyed companies in five prefectures said their production capacities have recovered to 80% or more of the levels before the disaster, with Fukushima Prefecture recording the lowest figure of 25%.

Selling the catch has also been problematic. In the Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, only 28% of the fish processing businesses have seen their sales rise to 80% or more of the pre-disaster levels.

In January, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations called on the government not to allow the release of contaminated water into the sea. Yet the IAEA report reiterates earlier advice to do just that.

According to the IAEA, TEPCO's present plan to continue storing contaminated water in tanks, with a capacity of 800 million litres, is "at best a temporary measure while a more sustainable solution is needed."

Meanwhile, subsidiaries of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom are working on plans to build a demonstration plant to test technology for tritium removal from contaminated water. However the demonstration plant would not be operational until early 2016 and it is doubtful whether it could be deployed before the existing tank storage capacity is full.

William, Prince of nuclear PR

The IAEA's latest report is one part substance, one part public relations. It is silent about the miserable situation faced by evacuees, sub-standard working conditions at Fukushima, the government's disgraceful secrecy law, and much else besides.

Prince William's visit to Japan in late February was used for more pro-nuclear PR by the Japanese government. Escorted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Prince William visited Fukushima prefecture, ate local produce and went to a children's playground.

However they drove straight past a village where some of the Fukushima evacuees are still living as refugees. Tokuo Hayakawa, a Buddhist priest who lives near the Fukushima plant, said:

"I think Abe is using him. It's true that you can find children playing outside, and you can eat some Fukushima food. But to take that as the overall reality here is totally wrong. If I could, I would take him to these abandoned ghost towns, and to the temporary houses where people still live, so he could see the reality that we are facing."

A rising toll of worker accidents and deaths

Shortly after the third anniversary of the triple-disaster, Fukushima workers rallied outside the Tokyo headquarters of TEPCO, complaining that they were forced to work in dangerous conditions for meagre pay. Little has changed over the past year.

The number of serious work-related accidents at Fukushima Daiichi doubled in 2014. Nine serious accidents occurred between March 2014 and January 2015, resulting in two deaths and eight serious injuries. The total number of accidents at Fukushima Daiichi, including heatstrokes, has almost doubled to 55 this fiscal year (which ends on March 31).

"It's not just the number of accidents that has been on the rise," said labour inspector Katsuyoshi Ito. "It's the serious cases, including deaths and serious injuries that have risen."

On January 19, a worker died at Fukushima Daiichi after falling into an empty rainwater tank, and the following day a worker at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant died after being hit on the head by a piece of heavy equipment in a waste treatment facility. In March 2014, a worker died at Fukushima Daiichi after being buried by gravel while digging a ditch.

Just one week before the two deaths in January, labour inspectors warned TEPCO about the rising frequency of accidents and ordered it to take measures to deal with the problem. The rising accident rate is partly due to the increased number of workers involved in the clean-up of Fukushima Daiichi - now around 7,000, more than double the 3,000 or so that worked there in April 2013.

But other factors are at work. TEPCO acknowledged after the deaths in January that there has been a "lack of continuous safety enhancement activity, such as listing up danger zones and eliminating them." The company also noted that "because of strong pressure to comply with the schedule, accident recurrence prevention activity was not thorough, and the range of inspection and measures was restricted."

Illegal labour practices - workers abused, under-paid

TEPCO President Naomi Hirose announced in late 2013 that the daily hazard payment for Fukushima Daiichi clean-up workers would be doubled to about US$180 (€161). But many workers are not receiving the promised pay increase. TEPCO has declined to disclose details of its legal agreements with the 800 contractors and subcontractors who employ almost all of the Fukushima workforce.

Only one of the 37 workers interviewed by Reuters from July-September 2014 said he received the full hazard pay increase promised by TEPCO. Some got no increase. In cases where payslips detailed a hazard payment, the amounts ranged from US$36-90 (€32-80) per day.

Two former and two current workers have initiated legal action against TEPCO to reclaim unpaid wages, in particular unpaid hazard payments. The four workers are seeking a total of US$543,000 (€485,000).

In November 2014, TEPCO acknowledged that that the number of workers on false contracts has increased in the past year. Survey results released by TEPCO showed that around 30% of those workers polled said that they were paid by a different company from the contractor that normally directs them at the worksite, which is illegal under Japan's labour laws. A similar survey in 2013 found that about 20% of workers were on false contracts.

Yet another controversy emerged on February 18 when a construction firm executive was arrested for sending a 15-year-old boy to help clean up radioactive waste outside the Fukushima plant. Japan's labour laws prohibit people under 18 from working in radioactive areas. The boy was ordered to lie about his age. He said he was paid just US$25.1 (€22.4) per day and was hit when he did not work hard enough.

As a New York Times editorial in March 2014 stated: "A pattern of shirking responsibility permeates the decommissioning work at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. ... It was the Japanese government, which had been leading the promotion of nuclear power, that made the Fukushima cleanup TEPCO's responsibility.

"The government kept TEPCO afloat to protect shareholders and bank lenders. It then used taxpayer money to set up the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, which provided loans to TEPCO to deal with Fukushima. This arrangement has conveniently allowed the government to avoid taking responsibility for the nuclear cleanup."

The government passes responsibility to TEPCO, and TEPCO passes responsibility to a labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors. The government and TEPCO shirk responsibility for the Fukushima clean-up, just as they shirked responsibility for the March 2011 nuclear disaster.



Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where this article was originally published (March 5, 2015 | No. 799).

Event tonight: Eminent US nuclear engineer and whistle-blower Arnia Gunderson and Dr Ian Fairlie, international expert on radiation and health, are both speaking in Keswick, Cumbria, at the Skiddaw Hotel - 7:30 - 9.30pm. Event organised by Radiation-Free Lakelands.

Nuclear Monitor is published 20 times a year. It has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!

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