Eight years on, water woes threaten Fukushima cleanup

The reactor units No.1 to 4 are seen over storage tanks for radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan February 18, 2019. Picture taken February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

OKUMA, Japan (Reuters) – Eight years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, a fresh obstacle threatens to undermine the massive clean-up: 1 million tons of contaminated water must be stored, possibly for years, at the power plant.

Last year, Tokyo Electric Power Co said a system meant to purify contaminated water had failed to remove dangerous radioactive contaminants.

That means most of that water – stored in 1,000 tanks around the plant – will need to be reprocessed before it is released into the ocean, the most likely scenario for disposal.

Reprocessing could take nearly two years and divert personnel and energy from dismantling the tsunami-wrecked reactors, a project that will take up to 40 years.

It is unclear how much that would delay decommissioning. But any delay could be pricey; the government estimated in 2016 that the total cost of plant dismantling, decontamination of affected areas, and compensation, would amount to 21.5 trillion yen ($192.5 billion), roughly 20 percent of the country’s annual budget.

Tepco is already running out of space to store treated water. And should another big quake strike, experts say tanks could crack, unleashing tainted liquid and washing highly radioactive debris into the ocean.

Fishermen struggling to win back the confidence of consumers are vehemently opposed to releasing reprocessed water – deemed largely harmless by Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) – into the ocean.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

Workers conduct crane operation training to remove nuclear fuels at the operation floor inside No.3 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan February 18, 2019. Picture taken February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Workers conduct crane operation training to remove nuclear fuels at the operation floor inside No.3 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan February 18, 2019. Picture taken February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

SLOW PROGRESS

On a visit to the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant last month, huge cranes hovered over the four reactor buildings that hug the coast. Workers could be seen atop the No. 3 building getting equipment ready to lift spent fuel rods out of a storage pool, a process that could start next month.

In most areas around the plant, workers no longer need to wear face masks and full body suits to protect against radiation. Only the reactor buildings or other restricted areas require special equipment.

Fanning out across the plant’s property are enough tanks to fill 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Machines called Advanced Liquid Processing Systems, or ALPS, had treated the water inside them.

Tepco said the equipment could remove all radionuclides except tritium, a relatively harmless hydrogen isotope that is hard to separate from water. Tritium-laced water is released into the environment at nuclear sites around the world.

But after newspaper reports last year questioned the effectiveness of ALPS-processed water, Tepco acknowledged that strontium-90 and other radioactive elements remained in many of the tanks.

Tepco said the problems occurred because absorbent materials in the equipment had not been changed frequently enough.

The utility has promised to re-purify the water if the government decides that releasing it into the ocean is the best solution. It is the cheapest of five options a government task force considered in 2016; others included evaporation and burial.

Tepco and the government are now waiting for another panel of experts to issue recommendations. The head of the panel declined an interview request. No deadline has been set.

NRA chief Toyoshi Fuketa believes ocean release after dilution is the only feasible way to handle the water problem. He has warned that postponing the decision indefinitely could derail the decommissioning project.

STORING INDEFINITELY

Another option is to store the water for decades in enormous tanks normally used for crude oil. The tanks have been tested for durability, said Yasuro Kawai, a plant engineer and a member of Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy, a group advocating abandoning nuclear energy.

Each tank holds 100,000 tons, so 10 such tanks could store the roughly 1 million tons of water processed by ALPS so far, he said.

The commission proposes holding the tritium-laced water, which has a half life of 12.3 years, in tanks for 123 years. After that, it will be one thousandth as radioactive as it was when it went into storage.

Although experts caution that tanks would be vulnerable to major quakes, Japan’s trade and industry minister, Hiroshige Seko, said the committee would consider them anyway.

“Long-term storage … has an upside as radiation levels come down while it is in storage. But there is a risk of leakage,” Seko told Reuters. “It is difficult to hold the water indefinitely, so the panel will also look into how it should be disposed of eventually.”

Space is also a problem, said Akira Ono, Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer. By 2020, the utility will expand tank storage capacity by 10 percent to 1.37 million tons, and about 95 percent of total capacity will probably be used by the end of that year, he said.

“Tanks are now being built on flat, elevated spots in stable locations,” Ono said. But such ideal space is getting scarce, he added.

Many local residents hope Tepco will just keep storing the water. If it does get released into the ocean, “everyone would sink into depression,” said fishing trawler captain Koichi Matsumoto.

Fukushima was once popular with surfers. But young people in the area do not go surfing any more because they’ve been repeatedly warned about suspected radioactivity in the water, said surf shop owner Yuichiro Kobayashi.

Releasing treated water from the plant “could end up chasing the next generation of children away from the sea as well,” he said.

Ono says dealing with contaminated water is one of many complex issues involved in decommissioning.

A year ago, when he took over leading the effort, it felt like the project had just “entered the trailhead,” he said. “Now, it feels like we’re really starting to climb.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle)

As Fukushima residents return, some see hope in nuclear tourism

Tourists from Tokyo's universities, plant rice seedlings in a paddy field, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, during a rice planting event in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan May 19, 2018. Picture taken May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Tim Kelly

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – On a cold day in February, Takuto Okamoto guided his first tour group to a sight few outsiders had witnessed in person: the construction cranes looming over Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Seven years after a deadly tsunami ripped through the Tokyo Electric Power plant, Okamoto and other tour organizers are bringing curious sightseers to the region as residents who fled the nuclear catastrophe trickle back.

Many returnees hope tourism will help resuscitate their towns and ease radiation fears.

But some worry about drawing a line under a disaster whose impact will be felt far into the future. The cleanup, including the removal of melted uranium fuel, may take four decades and cost several billion U.S. dollars a year.

“The disaster happened and the issue now is how people rebuild their lives,” Okamoto said after his group stopped in Tomioka, 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) south of the nuclear plant. He wants to bring groups twice a week, compared with only twice a month now.

Electronic signs on the highway to Tomioka showed radiation around 100 times normal background levels, as Okamoto’s passengers peered out tour bus windows at the cranes poking above Fukushima Daiichi.

“For me, it’s more for bragging rights, to be perfectly honest,” said Louie Ching, 33, a Filipino programmer. Ching, two other Filipinos and a Japanese man who visited Chernobyl last year each paid 23,000 yen ($208.75) for a day trip from Tokyo.

NAMIE

The group had earlier wandered around Namie, a town 4 kilometers north of the plant to which residents began returning last year after authorities lifted restrictions. So far, only about 700 of 21,000 people are back – a ratio similar to that of other ghost towns near the nuclear site.

Former residents Mitsuru Watanabe, 80, and his wife Rumeko, 79, have no plans to return. They were only in town to clear out their shuttered restaurant before it is demolished, and they chatted with tourists while they worked.

“We used to pull in around 100 million yen a year,” Mitsuru said as he invited the tourists inside. A 2011 calendar hung on the wall, and unfilled orders from the evacuation day remained on a whiteboard in the kitchen.

“We want people to come. They can go home and tell other people about us,” Mitsuru said among the dusty tables.

Okamoto’s group later visited the nearby coastline, where the tsunami killed hundreds of people. Abandoned rice paddies, a few derelict houses that withstood the wave and the gutted Ukedo elementary school are all that remain.

It’s here, behind a new sea wall at the edge of the restricted radiation zone, that Fukushima Prefecture plans to build a memorial park and 5,200-square-metre (56,000-square-foot) archive center with video displays and exhibits about the quake, tsunami and nuclear calamity.

LURING TOURISTS

“It will be a starting point for visitors,” Kazuhiro Ono, the prefecture’s deputy director for tourism, said of the center. The Japan Tourism Agency will fund the project, Ono added.

Ono wants tourists to come to Fukushima, particularly foreigners, who have so far steered clear. Overseas visitors spent more than 70 million days in Japan last year, triple the number in 2011. About 94,000 of those were in Fukushima.

Tokyo Electric will provide material for the archive, although the final budget for the project has yet to be finalised, he said.

“Some people have suggested a barbecue area or a promenade,” said Hidezo Sato, a former seed merchant in Namie who leads a residents’ group. A “1” sticker on the radiation meter around his neck identified him as being the first to return to the town.

“If people come to brag about getting close to the plant, that can’t be helped, but at least they’ll come,” Sato said. The archive will help ease radiation fears, he added.

Tourists from Philippines walk past irradiated cattle skulls at the Farm of Hope, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Tourists from Philippines walk past irradiated cattle skulls at the Farm of Hope, near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

SPECTACLE

Standing outside a farmhouse as workmen refurbished it so her family could return, Mayumi Matsumoto, 54, said she was uneasy about the park and archive.

“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of what happened at the plant, and now is not the time,” she said.

Matsumoto had come back for a day to host a rice-planting event for about 40 university students. Later they toured Namie on two buses, including a stop at scaffolding near the planned memorial park site to view Fukushima Daiichi’s cranes.

Matsumoto described her feelings toward Tokyo Electric as “complicated,” because it is responsible for the disaster but also helped her family cope its aftermath. One of her sons works for the utility and has faced abuse from angry locals, she added.

“It’s good that people want to come to Namie, but not if they just want to get close to the nuclear plant. I don’t want it to become a spectacle,” Matsumoto said.

Okamoto is not the only guide offering tours in the area, although visits of any kind remain rare. He said he hoped his clients would come away with more than a few photographs.

A tourist from Tokyo's university, takes photos from a bus at an area devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan May 19, 2018. Picture taken May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

A tourist from Tokyo’s university, takes photos from a bus at an area devastated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, near Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan May 19, 2018. Picture taken May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“If people can see for themselves the damage caused by tsunami and nuclear plant, they will understand that we need to stop it from happening again,” said Okamoto, who attended university in a neighboring prefecture. “So far, we haven’t come across any opposition from the local people.”

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; additional reporting by Kwiyeon Ha and Toru Hanai; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Hawaii volcano belches new ash plume as geothermal wells secured

A volcanic ash cloud hovers in the distance over the small town of Pahala during the eruption of the Kilauea Volcano in Pahala, Hawaii, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Garcia

By Marco Garcia

PAHALA, Hawaii (Reuters) – The restive Kilauea Volcano belched clouds of ash into the skies over Hawaii’s Big Island twice more on Wednesday as civil defense authorities reported that pressurized geothermal wells at a nearby power plant had been spared from approaching lava.

The latest back-to-back upheavals of ash from the main summit crater of Kilauea — one before dawn and another several hours later — came on the 21st day of what geologists rank as one of the biggest eruption cycles in a century from one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

The earlier ash plume rose to a height of 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), while the later one reached about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), authorities said.

Intermittent explosions of ash from the summit, believed to be driven by underground bursts of steam deep inside the throat of the crater vent, are occurring about twice a day, with smaller blasts in between, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) vulcanologist Wendy Stovall told reporters.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense agency warned in its latest bulletin that residents downwind of Kilauea should take care to avoid exposure to ash, which can cause eye irritation and breathing difficulties, particularly in people with respiratory problems.

“The ash has just been nonstop every day since the summit has been erupting,” said Tiahti Fernandez, 24, as she sat in a car parked outside her father-in-law’s home in the tiny farming village of Pahala, 26 miles (42 km) southwest of the summit crater.

“Every day we have to wash our cars and wash down the patio because the ash just covers everything,” she said over the crowing of four roosters tethered to a chicken coop in the yard. “The air quality has been so bad that everybody has been walking around with a (dust) mask.”

A fine layer of brownish-gray ash coated vehicles and other surfaces, and an ash plume rising from the volcano summit was visible in the distance through the hazy air.

Emissions of sulfur dioxide gas, harmful if inhaled, also remained at high levels from newly opened lava-spewing fissures in the ground running through populated areas on the eastern flank of the volcano, authorities said.

“Residents in the affected area should be prepared to take leave of the area with little notice due to gas or lava inundation,” the civil defense bulletin warned.

CRISIS AVERTED AT GEOTHERMAL PLANT

One potential hazard that appeared to have been brought under control was at the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) plant, which provides about a quarter of the Big Island’s electricity.

Lava from an active fissure nearby had flowed onto the property early this week, posing the risk of toxic gases being released in the event molten rock encroached into any of several pressurized deep-underground wells.

Utility crews racing to quench the wells with cold water and plug them with mud had managed to mostly secure the site. The civil defense agency reported on Wednesday, “there is no immediate threat to any of the wells at PGV.”

The facility also received a respite from Mother Nature. Accumulations of cooled, hardened lava created a thick, 30-foot (9.14-meter) high wall of solid volcanic rock channeling fresh lava streams from fissures to the south, away from the PGV plant, USGS scientists said.

Authorities also were monitoring hazards from noxious clouds of acid fumes, steam and fine glass-like particles — called laze — emitted when lava flows pour into the ocean on the island’s southern end.

Laze — a term combining the words “lava” and “haze” — is formed when molten lava, reaching temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 Celsius), reacts with sea water. Although potentially fatal if inhaled, Stovall said the danger was confined to the immediate vicinity of laze plumes themselves.

Kilauea rumbled back to life on May 3 as it began extruding lava and sulfur dioxide emissions through a series of fissures, marking the latest phase of an eruption cycle that has continued nearly nonstop for 35 years.

The occurrence of new lava vents, now numbering about two dozen, have been accompanied by earthquakes and periodic eruptions from the summit crater.

At least 44 homes and other structures have been destroyed, and a man was seriously injured on Saturday when a chunk of lava shot out of a fissure and struck him in the leg.

Some 2,000 people remain under evacuation orders due to lava flows and sulfur dioxide gas. Civil defense officials said contingency plans for further evacuations were being prepared with National Guard officials in case they become necessary.

(Additional reporting by Jolyn Rosa in Honolulu; Writing and additional reporting by by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Michael Perry)

Hawaii volcano threatens power plant; mass evacuations possible

Lava advances towards a metal barrier in Puna, May 6, 2018. WXCHASING via REUTERS

By Terray Sylvester

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Hawaii authorities scrambled to move tens of thousands of gallons of highly flammable chemicals from the path of lava on Thursday, and the state’s governor warned mass evacuations might be needed as the Kilauea volcano’s eruption became more violent.

After a new fissure opened on Wednesday about half a mile from a geothermal power plant, Hawaii Governor David Ige set up an emergency task force to remove the pentane used in the plant’s turbines. He cited estimates that if the fluid ignites, the resulting explosion could create a blast radius of up to one mile. (1.6 km)

The Puna Geothermal Venture plant sits at the edge of the Leilani Estates residential area on Hawaii’s Big Island where lava from 15 volcanic fissures has so far destroyed 36 structures, most of them homes, and forced the evacuation of around 2,000 residents.

“As more fissures open and toxic gas exposure increases, the potential of a larger scale evacuation increases,” Ige said in a tweet on Wednesday evening.

“A mass evacuation of the lower Puna District would be beyond current county and state capabilities, and would quickly overwhelm our collective resources,” Ige tweeted, saying in a separate post that he signed a request for federal disaster assistance.

The lower part of the Puna District, of which Leilani Gardens is a part, covers dozens of square miles and is home to many thousands of residents. It has the highest possible hazard risks for lava flows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Exposure to very high levels of the sulfur dioxide gas emitted from the fissures can be life-threatening, experts say.

Geologists warned on Wednesday that Kilauea may be entering a more violent phase of explosive eruptions, the likes of which Hawaii has not seen in nearly a century.

Steam-driven explosive eruptions could hurl “ballistic blocks” weighing several tons upwards of half a mile and dust towns as far away as Hilo, some 25 miles (40 km) distant, with volcanic ash and smog.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea is located, said on Wednesday it would close most of the park on Friday due to the threat of a possible explosive eruption.

Magma is draining out of the volcano’s sinking lava pool and flowing underground tens of miles eastward before bursting to the surface on Kilauea’s eastern flank in the lower Puna area.

“There’s still quite a fair bit of magma under the ground that’s available to erupt,” Tina Neal, the scientist in charge of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said in a conference call, adding that she saw no end to activity in the east rift zone.

Kilauea has been in a state of nearly constant eruption for 35 years. It predominantly oozes out lava from fissures that flows into the ocean but occasionally experiences more explosive eruptions, such as an event in 1924.

 

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester, writing and additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by David Gregorio)

Cracks in Scottish nuclear reactor core prompt safety checks

FILE PHOTO: The Hunterston nuclear power station in West Kilbride, Scotland May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/File Photo

By Nina Chestney

LONDON (Reuters) – A reactor at EDF Energy’s Hunterston B nuclear power plant in Scotland will remain offline for additional safety checks after cracks were found in its core, Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said.

Ageing reactors generate just over 20 percent of Britain’s power but almost half of this capacity, including Hunterston, is due to go offline by 2025, prompting the government to plan new plants.

ONR was informed in March about keyway root cracks found during planned inspections of graphite bricks in the core of Reactor 3 at Hunterston.

Graphite bricks ensure reactors can be cooled and thousands of them are used in reactor cores.

“Inspections confirmed the expected presence of new keyway root cracks in the reactor core and also identified these happening at a slightly higher rate than modeled,” EDF Energy said in a statement.

The reactor has been offline since March and was due to come back online this month, but EDF Energy has extended the outage until later this year.

“While Hunterston B Reactor 3 could return to operation from the current outage, it will remain offline while the company works with the regulator to ensure that the longer term safety case reflects the findings of the recent inspections and includes the results obtained from other analysis and modeling,” it said.

Hunterston B in North Ayrshire, Scotland, has been generating electricity since 1976. Last year, it produced enough electricity for 1.8 million homes.

CRACKS

In 2015, EDF Energy said routine inspections had revealed cracks in part of the graphite core at a Hunterston B nuclear reactor. It said three of 6,000 bricks had cracked, something that had been expected to begin happening at that point in the power station’s life.

Two of EDF Energy’s nuclear power plants in Britain – Heysham 1 and Hartlepool – were offline for months in 2014 for inspections after a crack was found on a boiler spine at Heysham 1.

In Belgium, the regulator ordered production to be stopped at two nuclear reactors in 2012 after finding indications of tiny cracks in core tanks.

The cracks turned out to be particles of hydrogen that were trapped inside the tanks when they were made by a Dutch company in the early 1980s.

EDF said it expects Hunterston B’s Reactor 3 to return to service “before the end of 2018”. EDF Energy’s outage website shows an expected return date of Oct. 4.

Its Reactor 3 and Reactor 4 are both Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors. The outage will reduce its 2018 output by 3 terawatt hours, the company said.

EDF Energy said the operation of its other UK reactors was not affected.

(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter)

Highest levels of radiation reported by TEPCO from Fukushima power plant

A worker puts up new logo of TEPCO Holdings and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Group on the wall ahead of the transition to a holding company system through a compan

By Kami Klein

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the highest documented radiation levels ever recorded in reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima  No. 1 power plant.  Based on its analysis of measurements and pictures taken by a remote controlled sensor and camera instrument, radiation levels recorded were the highest ever documented since the triple core meltdown in March 2011. TEPCO also reported close to a 3 foot hole in the metal grating under the pressure vessel of reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

According to the Japan Times the power plant has reached a maximum of 530 sieverts per hour.  At 530 sieverts, a person could die from even the briefest exposure.  This highlights the difficulties that lie ahead for TEPCO and the Japanese Government as they try to figure out a way to dismantle all three reactors that were damaged by the March, 2011 9.0 earthquake and giant tsunami that killed almost 16,000 people.

Officials had never taken into account for the “unimaginable” radiation levels that are being seen.  Experts say that 1 sievert could lead to infertility, loss of hair and cataracts.  Cancer risks increase substantially with any radiation levels above the 100 millisieverts or 1 sievert mark.

In a report by the Washington Post, TEPCO recorded radiation near the reactor core using a stick-like robot equipped with a camera and a device designed to measure radiation levels and has suggested that some melted fuel escaped.  Officials state that this was the first time this kind of device has been able to get into this part of the reactor, which explains the unprecedented amount of radiation recorded.  TEPCO said that at this level of radiation, a robot would only operate for less than two hours before it was destroyed.

If deposits that have been seen on portions of the grating are proven to be melted fuel, it would be the first time they have found even a trace of any sign of the fuel rods since the core meltdowns occurred. Levels of radiation are too high to check the actual condition of the fuel, which they believe has melted through their pressure vessels and is pooled at the bottom of their containment units.  This fuel MUST be discovered and removed before the plants can be decommissioned.

Reuters reports that TEPCO has been developing robots that can swim under water and navigate obstacles in damaged tunnels and piping to search for the melted fuel rods.  But as soon as the robots get close to the reactors, the radiation destroys their wiring and renders them useless.  TEPCO does plan to send this robot into Reactor 1 but are still unsure regarding Reactor 2 because of the very intense radiation levels.

Officials still state that these levels may not actually be rising but because they have not been tested so closely to the reactor, they are just now getting a better idea of the true levels recorded. TEPCO does report a 30% margin of error in the tests.

The effects of the radiation on the rest of the world have been in constant discussion and arguments among government officials and environmental scientists.  One year ago, PBS reported that more than 80 percent of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific, far more than ever reached the ocean from Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.  A small fraction is currently on the seafloor, but the rest was swept up by the Kuroshio current, a western Pacific version of the Gulf Stream, and carried out to sea.  Recently, radioactive contamination has been documented near British Columbia and California.