SIX YEARS AFTER: Abandoned satchels can’t be recovered due to nuclear disaster

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School satchels remain left behind at the entrance of Futaba Minami Elementary School in the same position on Feb. 2 as they were six years ago when the earthquake struck followed by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, forcing the children to evacuate.

FUTABA, Fukushima Prefecture–An untidy pile of school satchels lies beside the doorway of an abandoned school near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Beside them the shoes of children remain in a rack. Textbooks are discarded.

When the youngsters fled, they were clearly in a rush and were perhaps wearing only indoor soft shoes.

These simple daily items give an impression of the turmoil immediately following the March 11, 2011, magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The children were evacuated and have not been allowed to return due to the nuclear disaster triggered by the quake and tsunami. The children still cannot return to pick up their belongings because of high radiation levels.

Reporters have been allowed in to examine the Futaba Minami Elementary School in an area that is still under an evacuation order.

The school itself has been relocated to Iwaki in the same prefecture. It restarted in 2014 with eight pupils, down from the predisaster number of 192.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201702280054.html

 

SIX YEARS AFTER: 4 more districts in Fukushima set to be declared safe to return to

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Evacuation orders will be lifted shortly for four more municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, but the prospect of residents returning to their old homes in huge numbers seems unlikely.

The restrictions, in place since the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, will be lifted by April 1.

About 32,000 residents will be affected, but there is no guarantee that all will soon, if ever, return.

In similar past situations, evacuated residents came back in dribs and drabs, and many never returned.

Authorities in Namie on Feb. 27 decided to accept the central government’s proposal to lift the evacuation order for the town on March 31.

This means that orders for the municipalities of Kawamata and Iitate will be lifted the same day, and for Tomioka the day after.

Naraha and Katsurao are among five municipalities that are no longer subject to evacuation orders.

However, only 11 percent of Naraha residents and 9 percent of Katsurao residents have returned.

One reason for the low rates is that evacuees have already established new domiciles elsewhere. Others are concerned about the availability of medical workers in areas where evacuation orders will be lifted.

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, the central government ordered the evacuation of 81,000 residents in 11 Fukushima municipalities.

In 2012-13, the evacuation region was redesignated into three zones: one where returning would continue to be difficult; another where residential areas would be limited; and lastly, where preparations would be made for former residents to return.

In June 2015, the government decreed that all evacuees from the two latter zones should be allowed to return by March 2017. Efforts were made to decontaminate land affected by radiation fallout and to restore social infrastructure.

The next step involves the 24,000 former residents of the zone where returning continues to be considered difficult.

The government intends to pay for the decontamination of certain areas within that zone so former residents can return.

According to one estimate, the program would only cover about 5 percent of the entire area that is designated as difficult to return.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201702280051.html

Fukushima students to go on tours of wrecked nuclear plant

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Fukushima University President Katsumi Nakai

FUKUSHIMA–A tour of the infamous crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is in store for some college students here over the coming years.

Fukushima University officials say it is crucial that future nuclear power plant decommissioning workers such as engineers are given the opportunity to examine the current state of the nuclear plant and gain experience from doing so.

The extracurricular tour of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which was wrecked by the tsunami and the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, will start within the next fiscal year starting in April.

University officials said Feb. 1 that tour participants will be recruited from the 20 or so students who are working on radiation, radioactive cleanup and other research subjects at the Faculty of Symbiotic Systems Science.

Eligibility for the tours of the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. will be expanded in and after fiscal 2018, the officials added.

The tours will be organized as part of a program that won a bidding process initiated by the science ministry for research and personnel development projects that help accelerate nuclear decommissioning processes.

The program has been designated to receive subsidies over a five-year period from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019.

TEPCO officials said the company has allowed university students to tour the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the past, most of whom were from laboratories working on nuclear decommissioning processes and radiation.

A total of about 40 executive staff members, clerical workers and other officials of Fukushima University, including President Katsumi Nakai, have toured the nuclear plant twice this fiscal year, in December and January, respectively.

With rubble and other objects cleaned up, it appeared to me that the place was tidy, but some areas were still beyond anybody’s reach and control, so I thought the situation remained difficult,” Nakai said of his impression of the Fukushima No. 1 plant during a news conference on Feb. 1.

He said he came to believe, while exchanging views with TEPCO officials, that nuclear decommissioning processes require not only personnel with scientific backgrounds but also risk communication personnel who have backgrounds in psychology and other subjects.

The end of the five-year period (of the science ministry subsidies) will not mean the end of our efforts,” Nakai said. “We have to work on the long-term development of nuclear decommissioning personnel. We will think about creating opportunities, in the future, for taking students of human and social sciences on our tours.”

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201702280005.html

The hidden costs households must pay for nuclear disaster in 2011

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There’s more to monthly electricity charges than meets the eye. For one thing, there’s a hidden cost.

This is charged to help Tokyo Electric Power Co. and other utilities meet costs for damages arising from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Annual amounts range from an estimated 587 yen ($5.25) to 1,484 yen, and although paltry, may raise eyebrows as the utilities offer no breakdown in their monthly charges.

The utilities are obliged by the government to pitch in on grounds that a kitty is needed in case of future nuclear accidents. But in reality, the money is being swallowed up to help TEPCO pay compensation.

Of the 7.9 trillion yen in estimated compensation costs for the triple meltdown at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011, as calculated by the government, 5.5 trillion yen is being borne by the company and six other utilities across the nation as “general contribution” costs.

The other utilities are those based in Hokkaido; the Tohoku region; the Chubu region; the Kansai region; Shikoku; and Kyushu.

The amount of compensation each utility bears depends on the overall capacity of the nuclear power plants they operate, and other factors.

The Asahi Shimbun estimated that these general contributions, which are included in regular household electricity bills, range between 0.11 yen and 0.26 yen per kilowatt-hour, depending on the utility. These figures were then multiplied with the average amount of annual household electricity consumption, as based on a national survey, to ascertain how much each household was paying into the compensation program in a given year.

Households supplied by Shikoku Electric Power Co. bear the heaviest annual burden at 1,484 yen. They were followed by residents supplied by Kansai Electric Power Co. at 1,212 yen and TEPCO at 1,159 yen. Users of Kyushu Electric Power Co. pay 1,127 yen per household, while those using Hokkaido Electric Power Co. pay 1,034 yen. The smallest amounts were charged by Tohoku Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co., at 774 yen and 587 yen per household, respectively.

The majority of household residents may be unaware of the hidden fee, or at least how much is being charged, as electricity bills basically just state the amount to be paid each month by a given date.

Utilities generally calculate electricity rates via what is known as the fully-distributed cost method, which means that all expenses necessary in generating and delivering power to households are implemented in the price.

Household electricity payments proved to be a direct source of funding for Fukushima compensation payouts when expenses toward the general contribution program were included in basic cost for calculating electricity rates after the seven utilities increased their charges in fiscal 2012-2014.

The Asahi Shimbun calculated annual general contributions paid by households by figuring out how much of the overall generation cost of utilities was covered by regular households. In the case of TEPCO, ordinary households were responsible for paying 26.9 billion yen, or 47.25 percent of the overall 56.74 billion yen.

Dividing this figure by the estimated amount of electricity that will be consumed by these households in a year reveals how much it costs to generate 1 kWh of electricity.

Representatives of the Kansai and Chubu utilities told The Asahi Shimbun that they make estimates on how much it costs to do this.

Applying the approach used by the two companies, The Asahi Shimbun estimated the costs for the five remaining utilities, all of which confirmed that the methodology was correct.

In the case with TEPCO, the cost was 0.25 yen, after the 26.9 billion yen that households paid was divided by 105.7 billion kWh.

The figure was then multiplied by the amount of electricity annually used by each household with two or more people, information that was obtained through the government’s household financial survey. With Tokyo residents consuming an average of 4,568 kWh in 2016, the amount of compensation paid by each household supplied by TEPCO was calculated to be 1,159 yen.

Hokuriku Electric Power Co. and Chugoku Electric Power Co. are also paying for the general contributions, meaning that all nine utilities in mainland Japan are participating in the compensation effort. However, the two companies have neither raised their rates following the nuclear crisis nor included compensation costs in their monthly bills to households.

Utilities will soon be scrambling to find more money, as the government plans to include an additional 2.4 trillion yen worth of compensation costs in fees to use power lines starting in 2020.

The government estimates expenses in dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster six years ago, which include compensation, as well as costs to decommission reactors and decontaminate vast areas of land, at 21.5 trillion yen. These costs will be covered not only by TEPCO, which had paid a “special contribution” fee of up to 180 billion yen by the end of fiscal 2015, but taxes as well.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201702270056.html

Robots’ limitations exposed in search for melted nuclear fuel in Fukushima

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OKUMA, Fukushima — In an attempt to minimize the risk to humans during the search for melted nuclear fuel at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, robots have also been deployed to help out with the task.
However, the robots have also encountered some problems. For instance, a Toshiba Corp. robot that was sent in to clear away deposited material inside the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor failed to clear away much material, and within approximately two hours, its camera had broken.

According to Takahiro Kimoto of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), “The radiation inside the containment vessel was so intense that the images transmitted back from a camera attached to the robot were pitch black.” This was somewhat disappointing for the team working at the No. 2 reactor because by losing their robotic “eye” inside the containment vessel, they were unable to make the progress they were hoping for.

On Feb. 16, a “scorpion robot” was sent into the containment vessel. The intention of the mission was to locate melted nuclear fuel. However, deposited materials inside the vessel meant that the robot became stuck and was unable to move any further.

In the end, images from directly underneath the nuclear reactor were obtained not from the robot, but by “human means,” on Jan. 30. By using a pipe and a camera, the team was able to confirm the presence of holes in the platform. They also discovered brown and black deposited material, which appeared to be melted nuclear fuel. Therefore, some might say that “human methods” are more effective than robots in a mission of this nature.

According to TEPCO, “This was the first probe of its kind in the world. We were able to collect sufficient data.” However, critics would argue that six years have passed since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, and yet the exact situation regarding melted nuclear fuel at the site is still unclear.

Looking ahead, further difficulties are anticipated at both the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, where in the past, there have been hydrogen explosions. This is mainly because there are several meters of contaminated water underneath the containment vessels, and the radiation levels are stronger than at the No. 2 reactor.

There are plans to insert a robot inside the No. 1 reactor in March, but a date has not yet been set for the No. 3 reactor. Satoshi Okada of the nuclear power plant maker Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, which oversees the search at the No. 1 reactor, states, “In order to deal with the problem of melted nuclear fuel, we must first ascertain exactly how and where the melted fuel has been scattered inside the reactors.”

In summer 2017, TEPCO and the government will look into ways of withdrawing the melted nuclear fuel from the site, with the aim of commencing extraction work in 2021 — exactly 10 years after the initial disaster.

The Three Mile Island Disaster in the U.S. in 1979 will provide some kind of reference for TEPCO and the government, because in that particular case, the removal of melted nuclear fuel started 11 years after the initial accident. However, the situation at Fukushima appears to be more complicated than at Three Mile Island, because in the case of the latter accident, melted nuclear fuel was retained within pressure containers. Conversely, in the case of Fukushima, some of the material has seeped through the pressure containers.

With regard to the government and TEPCO’s decommissioning work, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka states, “It is still early to talk in such an optimistic way. At the moment, we are still feeling around in the dark.”

Time will tell as to whether the current plan for removing melted nuclear fuel from the No. 1 power plant is a realistic possibility or just a pipe dream.

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170227/p2a/00m/0na/016000c

Time to transform Japan’s nuclear plant inspection system

Japan lies at the middle of 4 tectonic plates. The pressure of the plates has produced 113 active fault lines in Japan’s crust. It has also 118 active volcanoes. 10% of the world earthquakes occur in Japan.

To talk about nuclear safety there is like taking bets with people lives, is like talking about a death wish.

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The government has submitted to the Diet a bill to revise the Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors. The bill includes the introduction of surprise inspections at nuclear plants by inspectors from the Secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which would allow them to enter any part of a nuclear plant at any time, as well as a system where the state gives an overall evaluation to each plant based on the results of the inspections and other factors and release the data. These new systems are expected to come into operation in fiscal 2020.
With surprise inspections, it will be difficult for power companies to hide problems at their nuclear plants. And since evaluation results will be published and comparison among nuclear plants will be possible, the principle of competition comes into play, which is expected to encourage utilities to voluntarily develop safety measures at their own plants.

In the meantime, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) should work on boosting the number of nuclear plant inspectors and training such officials so that the revisions will lead to the improvement of nuclear plant safety.

The NRA was established in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant and new safety standards subsequently came into effect. Restarts of idled nuclear reactors based on the new standards are underway. At the same time, reviews on nuclear plant inspection systems had been put on the back burner.

The pillars of nuclear plant inspections conducted by the government and power companies are regular checkups, which are carried out about once every 13 months, and security examinations done four times a year. With regular inspections, facilities with higher levels of importance are screened, while security examinations mainly judge whether a nuclear plant is operated safely.

The dates and contents of these checks are set prior to the actual inspections, however, and the system lacks flexibility, preventing the government from acting on a case-by-case basis to check problems at each plant.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said that there is corporate culture within power companies where they think their nuclear plants are fine as long as they pass safety checks by government regulators. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also pointed out that this way of thinking is problematic and the agency recommended Japanese authorities improve nuclear plant inspection systems in the pre-disaster year of 2007 and again in January 2016.

Under the proposed bill, the division of roles shared by the government and power companies will be clarified. Utilities would be solely responsible for making sure that facilities at their nuclear plants meet safety standards, while the government would take the role of a watchdog, monitoring power companies’ safety measures and how inspections are being carried out to give an overall evaluation for each plant. The results of surprise inspections will be included in a nuclear plant’s overall grade, which will be reflected in the next inspection.

The new inspection system was inspired by those employed in the United States and other countries with nuclear power. While Japan will catch up with those countries in terms of the system after the law is revised, that alone is not enough.

In the United States, where around 100 nuclear reactors are in operation, there are some 1,000 inspectors at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and they undergo a two-year training program. In Japan, on the other hand, there are only around 100 inspectors for more than 40 reactors, and they receive a mere two weeks of training.

Unless the quality and quantity of the nuclear plant inspectors are secured, the effectiveness of the new system would become questionable.

Furthermore, the overall grades for each nuclear plant should be released in a way to make it easier for the public to understand. The government should also consider ways to make good use of the system such as changing the premiums of liability insurance policies for potential nuclear accidents depending on the nuclear plants’ safety grades.

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170227/p2a/00m/0na/010000c