Last Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report on its third Fukushima site visit since the accident. The focus of news media articles vary greatly, with perhaps the most provocative coming from outside Japan.

  • The IAEA confirms progress at F. Daiichi and commends Tepco on many achievements. The agency said the shift from operations to long-term remediation has been “profound”, even though many challenges remain. The areas of improvement include completion of used fuel removal from unit #4, upgrades in contaminated water treatment systems, expansion of waste water storage capacity, operation of the groundwater bypass system, and general clean-up of the site which has significantly reduced radiation levels. IAEA also commended the company on the creating the institution of a safety culture. The report says, “There is a robust internal process in place within TEPCO, for internal safety evaluation and approval of works.” With respect to waste management, IAEA says “the work carried out has been broadly successful.” On the issue of communication, the report says “[TEPCO] has intensified its public communication efforts. TEPCO has developed a multi-faceted communication strategy that aims to disseminate information by using understandable language and visual element such as infographics, photos and short videos.” Finally, the agency commended Tepco on all areas of waste water management, “The IAEA team reconfirms TEPCO’s success in treating large volumes of highly radioactive water.” Concerning the recent media uproar of intermittent radiation spikes in drainage ditches, IAEA encourages the company “to continue to focus on finding any other sources contaminating the [drainage] channels,” while acknowledging that belated release of the information “resulted in some criticism, by the public and the media.”
  • Much of Japan’s Press focused on IAEA advice for improvement, rather than the commendations. For example, Japan Today reported, “Management of radioactive waste and contaminated water at Japan’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant could be improved,” and that not all water treatment systems are operation at full capacity. And, NHK World focused on the IAEA’s 15 points of advice on how to make their public communication better. In both cases, the greater part of the IAEA document commending Tepco receives only passing mention.
  • Meanwhile, Bloomberg decided to focus on the IAEA telling Tepco to consider releasing waste water to the sea. The IAEA report states, “The IAEA team believes it is necessary to find a sustainable solution to the problem of managing contaminated water. This would require considering all options, including the possible resumption of controlled discharges into the sea. TEPCO is advised to perform an assessment of the potential radiological impact to the population and the environment arising from the release of water containing tritium and any other residual radionuclides to the sea in order to evaluate the radiological significance.” Bloomberg adds a misleading statement, “Tepco officials are still using water to cool molten nuclear fuel from the reactors.” All fuel that melted in March of 2011 has long-since re-solidified.

Now for some other Fukushima news…

  • The first test of Fukushima’s “ice wall” is encouraging. Tepco is in the slow process of creating a wall of frozen soils around F. Daiichi units #1 through #4 to stop groundwater influx to the basements and greatly lessen possible out-flow of groundwater to the inner harbor. The 1.5 kilometer-long barrier is designed to freeze the soils to minus -30oC, down to a depth of 30 meters. Initial tests on the first section to are promising. Of the 18 points of monitoring, one shows the soil solidified at -15oC, which is a drop of 25 degrees from when the testing began on April 30. Many points, however, have not shown such significant changes. Yet, temperatures are dropping throughout the 18 points of monitoring. Tepco says, “The equipment was confirmed to be working properly, so we want to evaluate how the ground is freezing based on measurement data over a longer period.”
  • The procedure for removal of the enclosure around unit #1 has started. On Friday, the company started spraying a chemical agent through holes in the enclosure’s roof to prevent dust release. The material will be injected through 48 of these holes. After spraying, Tepco plans the take the roof off, beginning on May 25th. The dust suppression chemical was tested last year before taking the roof off for the first time. The use of a suppressant is due to public fears in 2013 that particulate from initial clean-up of the debris atop unit #3 was contaminating distant nonetheless. The company says they will immediately suspend unit #1 work and inform local governments within 30 minutes if radioactive dust is detected in the air. The company says full enclosure removal will take about a year.
  • Japan’s ruling political party wants most of the no-go zone repopulated by March, 2017. The Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may give ~55,000 of the current evacuees the option of returning home by the end of fiscal 2016. Areas with radiation levels below 20 millisieverts per year will be opened first, allowing as many as 32,000 to repopulate. Those areas between 20 and 50 mSv will be opened next, affecting another 23,000 evacuees. Locations with exposures greater than 50 mSv/yr will remain closed. By setting a deadline for repopulation, the LDP hopes it will spur current evacuees to return home. The proposal calls for accelerated infrastructure recovery and decontamination in the areas to be reopened. They plan to ask Tepco to consider continued financial compensation for psychological pain where evacuation orders are lifted before March, 2017.  —
  • Fukushima Prefecture considers ending free housing for voluntary evacuees. The prefecture says that about 36,000 persons who fled from outside the exclusion zone would be affected. Officials hope this will encourage voluntary evacuees to go home. Municipalities such as Kawauchi and Minamisoma have asked the prefecture to end the housing stipends because they are an incentive to remain estranged. The only thing that keeps these people from returning home is fear of very low-level radiation exposure. The Disaster Relief Act allows free temporary housing for a two year period. It has been extended to four years, and another one year allowance is expected. However, the prefecture hopes to end free housing for voluntary evacuees by March, 2017. This will not affect evacuees from the Tokyo-mandated exclusion zone.
  • Another nuke has cleared the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s initial screening for restart. Unit #3 at the Ikata station in Ehime Prefecture should have an NRA draft assessment by May 20th. At that point, a 30 day period begins for public comments. A formal approval of the agency’s assessment cannot be issued before the public comment period has passed and submittals reviewed. The next steps will be evaluation of safety equipment designs and the NRA’s on-site inspection. In any case, it seems unlikely that Ikata #3 will restart by the end of 2015.
  • An antinuclear group began a 311 kilometer march to protest the restart of the two Sendai station nukes. Roughly 20 people will take turns during the trek from Kagoshima City to the headquarters of Kyushu Electric Company in Fukuoka. The distance was chosen to reflect the date of the tsunami of 3/11/11, which caused the Fukushima accident. Once they reach the utility offices in Fukuoka, protestors will present a petition to not restart the Sendai nukes, signed by perhaps 100,000 people. The Sendai units are expected to be the first nukes to restart, marking the end of Japan’s nuclear moratorium.
  • Japan’s Farm Minister objects to Taiwan’s tightened Japanese food import limits. Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi says Taiwan’s restrictions are “a one-sided act without scientific basis.” Under the new regulations to take effect on May 15, all imports of Japanese food products into Taiwan will be required to have valid certificates proving the prefecture from which the products came. Radiation inspection certificates will be required for imports of “products from high risk areas,” effecting more than 800 items including marine products, tea, and baby food. Currently, all Japanese food imports into Taiwan are halted until the new regulations go into effect and Japan complies. Japan has resisted Taiwan’s new regulations, insisting that there is no scientific basis for it. Out of 69,000 food items that Taiwanese authorities inspected between March and April 2011, none was found to exceed limits set by either Japan or Taiwan.
  • Tochigi Prefecture witnessed concurrent symposiums on Low Level Waste disposal; one by the government and the other antinuclear. Last Thursday, the Environment Ministry held a forum concerning plans to locate a permanent repository in the prefecture. 180 people attended the forum, the second in a series that began last month in Sendai. Officials briefed the participants on the disposal scheme and its construction. Some of the participants made snide remarks such as, “If it’s so safe, build it in Tokyo,” and, “We can’t trust the central government because it covers up bad data.” At the same time, another forum was held in Shioya by groups who are against the plan. About 1,800 people met in a high school gym. The participants agreed to try and stop construction of the repository under the guise of protecting the environment. One man said, “The Environment Ministry’s forum is an event only for convenient explanations. If we participate [there] we will be counted as supporters.”