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Three Years After: The Status of Fukushima and the World Nuclear Industry

By Mycle Schneider [1] Commissioned by Rebecca Harms, President of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, Brussels, Paris, March, 2014, Source link.

Three years after the Fukushima disaster was triggered, the situation at the site remains worrying. High levels of radiation lead to difficult working conditions and still render the access to the reactor buildings impossible. Huge, constantly increasing quantities of highly radioactive water and contaminated wastes need to be stored, treated and disposed of. However, their management appears to be improvised, following short-term considerations without long-term concepts. Radioactivity continues to be released into the environment, mainly into the groundwater and into the ocean. Over 150,000 people remain evacuated, many of them in provisional housing, most of them without any prospects to go back to their homes. Dose limits have been increased in order to suit the environmental conditions rather than determined to protect peoples’ health. And the dramatic increase in radiation releases is still a credible scenario until the radioactive materials in the cores, in the spent fuel pools, in water and in waste have been stabilized and disposed of. This is expected to take decades.

Fading Memory 

Three years after the beginning of the Fukushima disaster, 77 percent of Fukushima residents in asurvey by Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, released on 4 March 2014, said they believe that “memories of the nuclear accident have been fading and Japanese citizens have grown less interested in the victims, compared with 19 percent who feel that concerns remain high in the rest of the nation”. What would the result of an international survey? The trust in the central government and operator TEPCO is eroding continuously. 74 percent of Fukushima residents are disappointed with the government’s overall measures to deal with the accident and 83 percent are disenchanted with the handling of the contaminated water leaks. 

Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called the Fukushima catastrophe “a bump in the road” of nuclear development. The statement illustrates not only a remarkable level of arrogance, frequent amongst nuclear industry officials, and a rather exceptional cynicism towards the victims of the disaster that lost everything, but a startling loss of reality. The Fukushima events hit an industry that was already struggling to maintain the status quo prior to 2011. The difficulties have since lead to the acceleration of its decline, with an unprecedented 7-percent drop in nuclear electricity generation in 2012, new projects delayed, abandoned or heavily over budget, with huge backfitting and upgrading investments ahead and all Japanese nuclear power plants still stranded. While the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly passed a resolution in favor of a nuclear free prefecture already six months after the disaster started unfolding, it took operator TEPCO until December 2013 to officially abandon Fukushima Daiichi units five and six.

The Status of Fukushima

The triple disaster earthquake-tsunami-nuclear accident on 11 March 2011, frequently referred to as 3/11, triggered a chain of events of unprecedented proportions. Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi site 60 km from the city of Fukushima experienced core melt-downs. Units one, three and four, which was not operating at the time of the earthquake, were also severely damaged by hydrogen explosions. If over 150,000 people were evacuated, an unknown number of people self-evacuated and 2,000 km2 were turned into an exclusion zone. Recent announcements of the first lifting of evacuation orders for a few hundred people that could return to an area at the edge of the 20 km evacuation zone cannot cover up the fact that most of the evacuees will likely never be able to return home, if not under hazardous conditions. The lifting of evacuation orders comes at the same time as the announcement by TEPCO to end compensation for people who suffered loss of or reduced income. Obviously, both measures are aiming to limit soaring costs of the disaster. The most far reaching measure in this context is the post-3/11 decision to increase the admissible radiation dose from external sources—thus not including internal exposure through contaminated food and inhalation—by a factor of 20 from 1mSv [2] to 20mSv per year. This brings the dose limit for the public, including pregnant women [3] and small children, to the level of selected, trained nuclear workers.

Some aspects of the situation on-site are getting better, but many issues remain critical or are actually getting worse. The good news is that the unloading of the spent fuel from the pool of unit four has started in November 2013 and as of 10 February 2014 a total of 308 fuel assemblies (including 22 fresh ones) of a total of 1,533 (incl. 202 fresh ones) had been removed and transferred to the common spent fuel pool on site. The spent fuel pool of unit four was and remains of particular concern as it contained about as much fuel as the other three reactor pools together and less cooled fuel, as the entire core was in the pool during the 3/11 events, while the reactor vessel was undergoing maintenance and inspection. A major leak of the pool or its collapse with a subsequent spent fuel fire was seen as the “worst case scenario” already two weeks after 3/11. The Japan Atomic Energy Commission had calculated that up to 10 million people potentially would have to be evacuated, including from Tokyo area, under such a scenario with unfavorable wind conditions. The fuel unloading from unit four is expected to continue for the entire year 2014. The same work remains to be done on the other three units.

Meanwhile, thousands of tons of debris and rubble have been removed from the reactors and their immediate environment. Covers have been installed on the units whose roofs were blown off by hydrogen explosions and provide some protection against weather impact.

On the other hand, many aspects are worsening. Likely amongst the biggest challenges is the task to maintain the integrity of the infrastructures, whether buildings and storage tanks or several kilometers of pipes and tubing, etc. which are permanently exposed to seawater atmosphere, typhoons and heavy rain. Surface vinyl tubes are exposed to frost in the winter and have experienced numerous leaks.

Significant amounts of water, about 350 m3 per day, have still to be injected into the three reactor buildings in order to cool the molten cores. This water is contaminated by the damaged fuel and, since the containment buildings are fractured, leaks into the basements. Under the nuclear site runs an underground river that originally had been deviated from the building infrastructure. However, that engineered deviation was destroyed by the earthquake and since then an estimated 400 m3 per day push into the basements and mix with the highly radioactive water from the core cooling. While the cooling water is taken out of the basements, decontaminated to some extent and re-injected for cooling, in order to avoid massive, permanent overflow, an amount at least equivalent to the quantity that of groundwater pushing in has to be taken out. In other words, an additional 400 m3 have to be pumped out of the basements, decontaminated to some degree and stored every day, that means one 1,000 m3 tank is filled up every two and a half days. The decontamination system had its own multiple problems ever since it was put into operation.

As a result, highly contaminated water is increasing steadily, to 440,000m3 by end of 2013, four times more than in September 2011, of which about 350,000 m3 in over one thousand tanks and the rest in basements. The amount of cesium-137 in the basements alone is estimated at about 1.5 times the quantity released into the environment at Chernobyl in 1986 or ten times more than released at Fukushima during the first weeks of the event in 2011.

The storage tanks are sitting on poor, non-earthquake proofed concrete foundations that have already shown substantial cracks. More than 300 tanks, each of them containing about 1,000 m3 of highly radioactive water, are bolted rather than welded together. In the fall of 2013, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) requested replacement of the bolted by welded tanks, but this will take a long time. Many of these tanks do not have volume gauges, so leaks are difficult or impossible to detect. Leaks are however frequent. In several occasions, TEPCO admitted that highly contaminated water has reached the ocean. In the future, it is planned to color the contaminated water as to simplify the visual identification of leaks and avoid confusion with rainwater puddles. Increased numbers of “patrol” staff should also allow for the more rapid leak detection. The lack of well-designed, automated supervision comes at the price of increased radiation risks to workers.

Another complex area is the storage and disposal of the huge quantities of sludges and filters from decontamination activities as well as other solid contaminated wastes. Especially the management, transport, storage and disposal of the high activity filters and sludges can be expected to be part of major future challenges.

All these activities require human intervention. Tens of thousands of workers have gone through the site. In an overview dated 30 August 2013, the Japanese Health Ministry indicated a total of almost 29,000 people that have been employed at the nuclear site. Less than 4,000 have been TEPCO employees, while 25,000 were contractors and countless levels of sub-contractors. TEPCO has increasing difficulties to find new workers that can replace the ones that are leaving, either because they are demoralized or because they exceeded the official dose limit.

The press agency Reuters has identified 733 companies performing work under environment ministry contracts and 56 subcontractors “listed on environment ministry contracts worth a total of $2.5 billion” in the most contaminated areas of the Fukushima exclusion zone. In a staggering investigation [4] Reuters illustrates how homeless people have become the target of headhunters for work in the contaminated areas.

Asia specialist and labor expert Paul Jobin, Associate Professor at the University of Paris Diderot sums up:

• Public bids are now almost entirely controlled by the construction companies at the top (moto uke) and the yakuza [Japanese mafia] at the bottom;

• Though the Ministry of the Environment only authorizes two levels of subcontracting, in practice, the levels of subcontracting are even more numerous than at F1 [Fukushima Daiichi] and other nuclear plants. Between his own employer and Shimizu Construction, the moto uke, Masato [a pseudonym for a labor activist] has counted 24 levels;

• Wage skimming is the norm and many workers only get a tiny portion—if any—of the 10,000 Yen hazard allowance;

• The majority of workers receive no health insurance benefits from their employer and for many reasons they do not register for the national health insurance system on an individual basis. [5]

Many illnesses that might develop amongst Fukushima workers are unlikely to ever be reported.

The extraordinary complexity and the unprecedented scope of the challenges that the long-term stabilization of the Fukushima site represents have early-on led to the proposal of the establishment of an International Task Force Fukushima [6] . A permanent group of top-level experts in the key fields at stake would elaborate strategic recommendations for short-, medium- and long-term measures. Conceived as a concerted international initiative, the group would have access to a large network of additional experts. In December 2013, Rebecca Harms, President of the Greens-EFA Group in the European Parliament, organized a meeting of experts and activists at the parliament in order to discuss possible ways to bring the initiative forward. It was reported that many people around the world support the basic idea but that an institutional partner or initiator in Japan was the essential missing piece.

The Status of the World Nuclear Industry

As of 1 January 2014, there were 430 nuclear reactors considered “in operation” in the world [7], preliminary analysis indicates. The number is identical to the situation one year ago. The main changes in world nuclear statistics during the year 2013 include four new units connected to the grid—three in China (Hongyanhe-1 & -2) and Yangjiang-1, and one in India (Kudankulam-1)—while four units were announced as shutdown definitely. Thus, in 2013, the number of units considered “operational” remained stable, while in 2012 retirements outweighed the number of startups. An entirely new development lies in the fact that all four shutdown reactors (Crystal River-3,Kewaunee and San Onofre-2 and -3) are located in the US and are the first retirements of nuclear units in the country in 15 years. An additional unit in the US, Vermont Yankee, is scheduled to be disconnected from the grid in 2014, although it had obtained a license renewal for operation up to 2032.

The number of reactors in the world considered as “in operation” is increasingly misleading because of the situation in Japan, resulting from the Fukushima events in March 2011. In 2013, only two of the officially 50 “operating” reactors have generated electricity and no unit in Japan has produced any power since September 2013. The global number of 430 units does not include the ten Fukushima reactors, but incorporates the remaining 44 Japanese units most of which have not generated electricity for two years and more.

Unprecedented developments can also be reported on reactor construction. For the first time in three and a half decades concrete was poured for new build projects in the US (Virgil C. Summer-2 and-3Vogtle-3 and -4). Construction on Belarusian-1 started in Belarus, the first nuclear plant in a country heavily impacted by fallout from the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Three more units got underway in China (Tianwan-4Yangjiang-5 and -6), while the UAE started work on Barakah-2and South Korea on Shin-Hanul-2. This brings the total of nuclear reactors “under construction” to 69 as of 1 January 2014 [8] , compared to 64 a year earlier and nine more than two years ago. As illustrated in subsequent World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, most of the building projects are subject to considerable delays. This is no doubt one of the explanations why the increase in numbers of construction sites does not automatically translate into increasing numbers of operating nuclear power plants.

A continuous example of the troubled nuclear building sites are the so-called European Pressurized water Reactor (EPR) that are under construction in Finland and France. The French public company AREVA, managing architect of the Finnish plant at Olkiluoto, announced on 26 February 2014 a loss of almost €500 million, essentially due to provisions for further losses expected on the Finnish EPR.

The stock value plunged by 14 percent. The plant is already five years behind schedule and might not come on-line for another four years. The last official cost estimate stood at €8.5 billion, a cost increase of a factor of four over a ten-year period. Meanwhile, the French public power company and largest nuclear operator in the world admitted that it will be confronting an extremely difficult period with a “forecasted doubling of expenditures between 2010 and 2020 (operation and investment)” and with “a peak of departures for retirement coinciding with a peak in activities”. [9] The current estimate for the upgrading of the 58 French nuclear reactors would be around €75 billion, €20 billion more than stated so far. A comprehensive 170-page independent assessment [10] of conditions and costs of the potential lifetime extension beyond 40 years demonstrates that the upgrading costs per reactor might be still by a factor of three higher. These perspectives come into a situation where EDF records a very high debt burden of over €35 billion and the national energy regulator calculated that the electrician lost about €1.5 billion because the average electricity tariff did not cover the costs. As a consequence the regulator asked for large power price increases—not a very popular measure—which are expected to reach around 30 percent between 2013 and 2017. At that point, Enercoop—a 100-percent renewable power provider that used to be the most expensive distributer in France but never increased its tariffs—will sell power at a lower price than nuclear EDF.


[1] Mycle Schneider is an independent international energy and nuclear policy consultant. He is the convening lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

[2] millisievert

[3] A fetus is about two orders of magnitude more radio-sensitive than an adult.

[4] Reuters, “Special Report: Japan’s homeless recruited for murky Fukushima clean-up”, 30 December 2013; See http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/30/us-fukushima-workers-idUSBRE9BT00520131230

[5] Paul Jobin, “The Roadmap for Fukushima Daiichi and the Sacrifice of Japan’s Clean-up Workers,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 28, No. 2, July 15, 2013; See http://japanfocus.org/-Paul-Jobin/3967#sthash.70G5wSRF.dpuf

[6] For a more detailed description of the concept, see Mycle Schneider, “Why Fukushima is worse than you think”, Special to CNN, 30 August 2013.

[7] One additional Chinese reactor, Ningde-2, started up in January 2014.

[8] One additional plant started construction in February 2014, a small 25 MW reactor in Argentina. However, since the reactor that started up in January 2014 is not under construction anymore, the total number of units under construction as of early 2014 remains at 70.

[9] EDF, “Les grands chantiers du nucléaire civil – Le ‘grand carénage’ du parc nucléaire de production d’EDF”, 14 January 2014.

[10] Yves Marignac, “L’échéance des 40 ans pour le parc nucléaire français”, WISE-Paris, commissioned by Greenpeace France, 22 February 2014; Seewww.greenpeace.org/france/…/greenpeace-rapport-echeance-40-ans.pdf

03/07/2014 – 00:00


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