A string of new incidents at Fukushima show that more than two years after a tsunami crippled the nuclear facility, it remains a toxic time bomb, one that Japanese believe plant owner TEPCO to be utterly incapable of managing.
The Wall Street Journal’s Mari Iwata reported last night that 10 workers at Fukushima received high levels of radiation exposure after being sprayed at a misting station.
That amount of contamination is five times the maximum level Tepco has set as its limit, but none of the workers appear to have inhaled radioactive particles, or reported any illness, [Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Agency] said.
TEPCO says the incident poses no threat to the surrounding area as the plant’s water supply is cut off from the region’s, and that the water itself did not appear to be contaminated, but that they had not yet pinpointed the source of the stray radiation.
This follows an earlier announcement that 300 tons of radioactive water are still seeping past barriers and into the Pacific every day.
According to NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel, the area around the plant is already a dead zone, and the ocean is likely to dilute much of the harmful impact of the leaks.
But the revelations have shattered the already brittle notion that TEPCO had a handle on the situation.
The FT’s Jonathan Soble reported last month that it was clear TEPCO was withholding the true extent of the newly revealed leaks.
Government officials and local fishermen criticised Tokyo Electric Power on Tuesday after it admitted the existence of the leak for the first time, weeks after regulators spotted the problem and days after the utility’s own analysis confirmed it.
“The data disclosure was very slow, and that is extremely regrettable,” Toshimitsu Motegi, industry minister, told reporters.
Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, also said Tepco should have responded more quickly.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the company (as well as the government itself) faced similar charges of foot-dragging in the aftermath of the March 2011 meltdown itself.
TEPCO has effectively been neutered as a going concern by the incident. Estimates put the cost of the cleanup at $US11 billion over 40 years.
For a visual demonstration of this, here’s their stock chart over the past few years:
But Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper blasted the idea that the company should be allowed to restart one of its nuclear reactors to raise funds:
TEPCO is planning to seek permission to restart its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture in accordance with the existing rehabilitation plan. This is an outrageous idea, given what is happening in Fukushima. It beggars belief that TEPCO is even considering it.
An insolvent Fukushima is a problem that goes beyond corporate interests, the paper notes:
TEPCO is confronted by massive burdens that far exceed its capability. If the situation is left unattended, it could have a negative effect on the reconstruction of stricken areas and the power supply to the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Believe it or not, the situation could actually get even worse.
As in worse than the original accident itself — and possibly worse than Chernobyl.
Later this year, TEPCO will attempt to remove 1,300 highly irradiated spent fuel rods bundles weighing 400 tons of “highly irradiated spent fuel”, according to Reuters.
Here’s what happens if it’s botched:
The operation, beginning this November at the plant’s Reactor No. 4, is fraught with danger, including the possibility of a large release of radiation if a fuel assembly breaks, gets stuck or gets too close to an adjacent bundle, said Gundersen and other nuclear experts.
That could lead to a worse disaster than the March 2011 nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, the world’s most serious since Chernobyl in 1986.
No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.”
Somehow, those risks outweigh — or maybe simply equal — the impetus for the operation in the first place: reactor No.4 remains highly unstable, and if another quake hits everything gets fried anyway.
So far, the death toll from the meltdown itself (as opposed to the tsunami) remains a matter of debate. A May UN report said no one had died or even yet fallen ill, though Slate has explained that we still don’t even have a precise mortality count from Chernobyl (it’s hard to distinguish between exposure-induced and naturally occurring cancer). A Stanford study says it could ultimately lead to 1,300 cancer deaths.
But mortality is likely to be compounded by the fact that Japan released record amounts of CO2 last year after it temporarily shuttered most of its other nuclear plants (which are carbon neutral).
This thing just keeps going.
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