Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has formally raised the severity assessment of the most recent radioactive water leak at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to Level 3 (“severe incident”) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The agency first discussed doing so last week, but said that it needed to confer with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before making the decision official. TEPCO still has not pinpointed the cause or location of the leak, which occurred in a tank containing highly radioactive water. Officials believe that approximately 300 tons of the water leaked into surrounding soil, and some of it probably poured into the nearby Pacific Ocean. The tank has a capacity of 1,000 tons; when workers checked it, they realized that only 700 tons were remaining. However, because TEPCO had not equipped it with a water gauge, no one is sure exactly how much water was inside before the leak began—or even when it began.
The incident prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare that the government will finally take over dealing with the leak and the growing surfeit of radioactive water, nearly two and a half years after the nuclear disaster first began to unfold. “The government will deal with the situation responsibly, and will keep both domestic and foreign audiences well informed,” he said. TEPCO and the government hope to release a joint action plan in September. Last week, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which promotes nuclear power in Japan, said that the government may use reserve budget funds from this fiscal year to help underwrite costs related to the water crisis, including to repair TEPCO’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS). That system filters most radioactive materials (but not tritium) from water used to cool the crippled reactor. ALPS was shut down last month after the very water it was supposed to filter began to corrode one of its tanks. Workers are now trying to line it with resin, but do not expect that the system will be available for test runs until at least some time next month.
Meanwhile, the NRA is urging TEPCO to increase monitoring of seawater at the utility’s port, in order to better assess the effects on ocean water, as well as fish and other sea life. Shunichi Tanaka, the NRA’s Chair, pointed out that because the cause and location of the leaks are still unknown, they cannot immediately be stopped. In addition, Tanaka criticized TEPCO for its current efforts to monitor oceanic radiation levels, calling them insufficient.
New analysis of radiation exposure levels of workers who were stationed at a radio relay station located just 20 meters from the tank shows that water may have begun to seep out as early as mid-July, although TEPCO did not discover the leak until August 19. TEPCO is basing the assumption on a study of rising beta-ray levels in the workers, who spent approximately two and a half hours per day at the station. However, because the company has not yet examined data gathered before July, officials admitted that they cannot confirm that the leak didn’t begin even before that. TEPCO believes that the leak originally started as just a trickle, but because no one caught it, it eventually grew until 300 tons had leaked out. Rainfall in July probably spread it further.
Although the utility has 1,000 tanks containing radioactive water on the premises, it assigned only two workers to perform twice-a-day visual checks to look for leaks. They generally did not carry radiation detectors, which might have alerted them to the fact that radioactive water was escaping. The NRA reportedly advised or ordered TEPCO on approximately 10 different occasions beginning in July 2012 to increase the amount of patrols at the tanks and the number of staff performing them, but the company barely complied: it upped inspections from once a day to twice, but did not increase the number of staff performing them. TEPCO now says that it will employ 50 staff to perform four inspections per day.
Fishermen from Fukushima Prefecture, whose livelihoods have been decimated by the nuclear disaster, are stepping up their efforts to urge the government to intervene. Yesterday, Hiroshi Kishi, head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, hand delivered a formal request to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, asking him to address the current leak and prevent further ones. Kishi also called TEPCO President Naomi Hirose to his offices. Fishermen had planned to resume test fishing in September, in the hopes that radiation levels would be low enough for them to begin sales soon after. However, they cancelled those plans when the most recent leaks were announced, with the knowledge that consumers were unlikely to set aside their fears about the safety of seafood from northeastern Japan. “The operators of the plant are reacting too late every time in whatever they do,” said one fisherman from Yotsukura, Fumio Suzuki. “We say, ‘Don’t spill contaminated water,’ and they spill contaminated water. They are always a step behind, so that is why we can’t trust them.”Nobuyuki Hatta, Director of the Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Research Center noted, “People in the fishing business have no choice but to give up. Many have mostly given up already.”
Their fears about the long-term prospects of fishing off the northeastern coast of Japan may be justified. Tanaka has said more than once that he believes that releasing lower-level radioactive water into the ocean is inevitable, because the plant is running out of places to store it. “We cannot keep making tanks endlessly,” said TEPCO President Naomi Hirose. And this week, researchers from the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ), a pro-nuclear organization, said that the water should be diluted and dumped into the ocean, rather than being stored. “It would be realistic to dilute the contaminated water to levels found in the natural world and release it into the ocean after removing radioactive materials other than tritium,” their statement said. However, doing so would violate the 1972 London Convention, which prevents Japan or any other country from dumping radioactive materials into international waters. Experts have cautioned that radioactive materials could accumulate in fish and enter the food chain.
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