Archives for : nuclear

High radiation levels detected on school grounds near Tokyo

Reports emerged yesterday that radiation levels exceeding the safety limits set by the Japanese government were recorded at school playgrounds near Tokyo.

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Officials of the educational board in Chiba Prefecture, which neighbours Tokyo, reported that five schools in the Chiba city of Kashiwa had detected radiation levels of up to 0.72 microsieverts per hour in areas of the schools, including playgrounds and near swimming pools, more than triple the government-set limit.

Meanwhile, the man who headed the parliamentary investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has voiced criticisms of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration’s policies on restarting reactors, saying that proper evacuation plans are still to be effectuated at plants that have been restarted or where restarts are imminent.

You can find more information on these stories here (http://www.yoshidas-dilemma.com/blog/high-radiation-levels-found-on-school-grounds-near-tokyo)

More thyroid cancers found in Fukushima

Last week the Fukushima prefectural government announced that seven more cases of thyroid cancer had been discovered among residents who had lived near the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant at the time of  the multiple explosions and meltdowns there in March 2011.

The new cases were announced during a meeting of an expert panel, and brought the total of confirmed thyroid cases to 152, it was reported. However, the panel, which is headed by Hokuto Hoshi, vice-chair of Fukushima’s medical association, believed it was “unlikely” that the new cases were connected to the radiation that spewed from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the air and sea for weeks and months after the disaster.

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called "Fukushima 50," is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called “Fukushima 50,” is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

To quote one famous US baseball player, it was like déjà vu all over again, and it is worth revisiting the issue to understand why panelists and other scientists are unwilling to state categorically why cancers can or cannot be tied to radiation exposure.

According to some experts it is almost impossible to prove the medical relation between radiation exposure and cancers. Geraldine Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, says that proving a nuclear accident such as Fukushima will categorically not cause cancers or other illnesses “is incredibly difficult.”  However, she adds that while it is easy to blame radiation exposure, it is almost impossible to prove there is a connection, either, as there are no biomarkers that can be used to distinguish between different aetiologies.

“There’s no way of distinguishing between the radiation from nuclear power plants and radiation in the background (i.e. naturally occurring in the environment),” says Thomas, who also runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, which analyzes samples of tissue from people exposed to radiation after Chernobyl in order to monitor the impact of iodine exposure in children. “Everyone hoped we would find … a (genetic) marker for radiation-induced cancer, but there isn’t one.”

Other experts, such as Hisako Kakiyama, a medical doctor who is also a former head researcher at Japan’s national radiological research institute, disagrees, saying research has shown that even low levels of radiation have led directly to cancers such as thyroid cancer.

The debate over the impact of radiation on health is discussed at length in “Yoshida’s Dilemma,” as indeed is the issue of the credibility of Fukushima’s surveys and studies examining the thyroid cancer issue.

In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, the Fukushima Prefectural government in cooperation with Fukushima Medical University (FMU) began monitoring the health of residents who were under 18 at the time of the incident at the plant. FMU has since been is overseeing thyroid-cancer all screening and surgeries. By April 2014, 380,000 children, including those who were in utero on 11 March 2011, had been tested in the prefectural government checks, of which around 75 were confirmed as having malignant nodules, while a similar number were suspected of having nodules, but malignancy had yet to be confirmed – high compared to other known international statistics.

However, the lead researcher at FMU at the time, Shunichi Yamashita, a former president of the Japan Thyroid Association,  claimed (you guessed it) that it was highly unlikely that the cancers uncovered in Fukushima were connected to radiation.

Yet, shortly after, Yamashita, along with three other leading researchers, resigned from the study after it was revealed in a Mainichi Shimbun investigation that lengthy secret meetings had been instigated among researchers and prefectural officials to pre-determine a line of argument during official deliberation sessions that would emphasize the view of a non-causal relationship between cancer cases and the nuclear disaster.

Shortly after it came to light that the data required to confirm this assertion was not available and that one scientist, Hirosaki University’s Shinji Tokonami, who had tried to obtain independent verification of how much radiation residents had been exposed to in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, was prevented from completing his research by prefectural officials.

According to radiation expert Sakiyama, without such data it becomes impossible to say conclusively that any cancers discovered among residents was caused by radiation from the nuclear power plant.

Still more problems with the FMU study have since come to light.  On March 31, 2017, Sakiyama  who is also a representative of the 3.11 Fund for Children With Thyroid Cancer, announced that a 4-year-old child who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer after the Fukushima nuclear accident was missing from government checkup records. The toddler’s case was omitted from data taken by FMU, which had treated the child. This seeming clerical error raised still more questions about the thoroughness and transparency of the thyroid screenings. Sakiyama stated that any missing case was “a problem” and brought about suspicions that there could be still more such cases missing from the data.

Katsutaka Idogawa, who was the mayor of Futaba, one of the two towns hosting the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, believes this was the outcome of a deliberate and carefully planned strategy by the government to prevent accurate information about radiation doses being disseminated.

The reason, he says, is clear: To ensure compensation claims are kept to an absolute minimum. “That was a deliberate policy by the government because if they had [provided accurate data] it would have caused a massive problem to the extent of national economic collapse. So right from the start, they made the radiation problem a non-problem.”

With regard to the surveys of residents undertaken by the FMU, Imperial College’s Thomas said such a practice of screening for thyroid or any other cancers is highly debatable. “Although it has the obvious advantage of finding cancers early, it also finds more of them when testing on such an unusually large scale using high-tech equipment to look for them,” she said, adding that such an outcome is often  referred to as the “screening effect”.

Many cancers found are too small to require the treatment they almost certainly will get, whether or not such treatment at that stage is actually necessary, she adds. “If you operate on these, there is always a danger, so there is a risk and a benefit of doing these kinds of survey.”

Yet, Idogawa is among those who are critical of the likes of Thomas who, he says, have a microscopic perspective when it comes to the health impacts of radiation exposure. Indeed, Idogawa believes there are almost certainly many many more cancer cases that have yet to come to light quite simply because of the stigma that is still associated with radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses. This was prevalent following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where hibakusha (literally “nuked person”) would conceal their condition — where possible — for fear of being ostracised. That fear not only applied to them, but their children and other relatives. Even today, there are hibakusha and relatives of hibakusha who will not speak to journalists on the record — if at all.

This has already been shown to be a problem in Fukushima.  Children who were forced to relocate to other parts of the country have been subjected to bullying purely because they are from Fukushima. A couple I interviewed for Yoshida’s Dilemma told of how on a 2012 coach trip to western Japan they had decided not to tell fellow travellers they were from Fukushima. When their identity was eventually betrayed, those same fellow travellers would not talk to them or sit near them.

Another unusual situation that did not make it into the book involved one young Fukushima man having his engagement nullified by his future parents-in-law purely because he was from Fukushima. The irony was — so were his bride-to-be and her parents.

“My guess is there are dozens, maybe hundreds more Fukushima residents who have been diagnosed with cancer,” says Idogawa. “But they won’t risk coming forward for fear of similar treatment to themselves and their families.”

If that is the case, there seems to be an even greater need to get them to come forward, but also for there to be greater transparency with the data being collected.  Without such accurate monitoring and dissemination of results scientists will be unable to reach a clear consensus about the connection between radiation  and various cancers.

You can find out more about this and other issues at my blog site dedicated to my book Yoshida’s Dilemma, which contains many entries relating to the Fukushima nuclear accident and nuclear and other types of energy. It also includes a sample chapter from the book and information about where to order it. Please take a look: www.yoshidas-dilemma.com

My book on the Fukushima nuclear crisis is now available

Following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in northern Japan I began researching a book. The focus was on the meltdowns and YOSHIDA COVERexplosions that had occurred at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and in particular the people who had battled to ensure an even bigger catastrophe was averted.

That research culminated in a book titled “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear catastrophe – Fukushima, March 2011” and I am delighted to announce that on March 11, 2017 — exactly six years since the day of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, that book was published.

There is a website about the book here. It includes an overview of the book and an eight-page extract.

The book is now available through the publisher’s website here and also on Amazon here

It was never my intention to offer my own personal views on the important issue regarding nuclear power, only to try and find out what exactly had caused the triple meltdowns and to try and find an answer to a fundamental question: Should a country like Japan, which experiences one-tenth of the world’s biggest quakes, really be housing so many nuclear reactors.

Below are some comments about the book. I hope they will inspire you to check it out.

“Rob Gilhooly has written what is probably the most comprehensive English-language account yet of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  Gilhooly is among the best-informed foreign reporters on this issue in Japan, having travelled to Fukushima several dozen times since being one of the first journalists to arrive in the prefecture on a freezing night in March 2011.  He gives the story of Masao Yoshida, perhaps the key figure in the disaster, all the detail, sympathy and pathos it demands.  His remarkable pictures throughout the book are a bonus.  Highly recommended. “

— David McNeil, The Economist.

“A powerful synthesis of the technical and the personal, Gilhooly succeeds in conveying the events of March 2011, its aftermath and the dramatic impact on the people of Fukushima and wider Japan. Six years after the start of the accident, Yoshida’s Dilemma is a necessary reminder of how through the actions of heroic individuals and luck Japan avoided an even greater catastrophe.”  
— S. David  Freeman, former Tennessee Valley Authority chairman, engineer, energy expert and author of Energy: The New Era and Winning Our Energy Independence

“As one of the few journalists to have covered the Fukushima story from the very start, Rob Gilhooly is perfectly placed to discuss the disaster’s causes and aftermath, and its wider ramifications for the future of nuclear power. From the chaotic scenes as the plant went into triple meltdown, to the plight of evacuated residents and Japan’s long and troubled relationship with atomic energy, Gilhooly combines fine story-telling with journalistic integrity to produce a book that is admirably free of hyperbole.” 
— Justin McCurry, The Guardian.

Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”

 

Japan to start new nuclear regulations

DR. Shunchi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, Japan on 04 July, 2013. Tanaka said that while operators of Japan's 48 reactors would be eligible to recommence operations should they meet the NRA's new guidelines, they would ultimately need to gain the cooperation of local governments and people of the communities in which those reactors are located. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

 

Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said during a news conference July 4 that Japan’s 48 other reactors, offline since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, would need to comply to “strict and stringent” new regulations before they could be considered for re-start approval.
The NRA has even wider-reaching power than previous watch-dog bodies to ensure the regulations are met, Tanaka said Friday. A new “back-fit” system will be implemented to ensure that any aspects of plant inspections previously left at the discretion of operators will now be independently monitored. The upgrade would turn a previously B-ranked regulatory system into “one that at last comes into line with international standards,” the nuclear watchdog’s chair added.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the troubled utilities operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has said it will ask the government to allow it to restart two of its reactors at another facility in Niigata as they meet the new NRA safety guidelines.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida has expressed dismay at Tepco’s request to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was completely shutdown following an earthquake in 2007.
NRA chairman Tanaka said even should utilities companies satisfy the new regulations they would need to win over local people. “The resumption of reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding and cooperation of host communities,” he said.
He also believed that due to the severity of the new regulations a new safety awareness culture would grow, superseding the tendency previously seen within utilities companies to undertake the legally allowed bare minimum measures.
Tanaka also commented on the Fukushima power plant saying he did not feel a sarcophagus of the type used to enshroud Chernobyl’s reactor 4 was appropriate for the three damaged Fukushima reactors, which went into meltdown after massive earthquakes and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011.
At Fukushima Daiichi heat would continue to be emitted for tens or possibly hundreds of years, meaning countermeasures will still need to be taken. Rather than enshrouding the leaking reactors it was better to continue efforts to decommission the plants, he said.

Visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

It has been quite some time since I added anything to this blog, though quite a lot has happened in the intervening weeks and months. In March I spent the best part of three weeks covering a trial for an Irish newspaper, which related to the murder last May (2012) of an Irish student in Tokyo. There are a few other projects I have been working and hopefully I will get around to adding posts to update this blog in the near future.

On to more recent assignments, on June 12 I  part in a tour of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns following the March 2011  earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast. My plan is to write up a more personal account of the experience but for the time being here is the story that I wrote up for the New Scientist, which appeared in the magazine last week.

Photo shows the steel canopy arching over Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The now completed structure will be used to support a overhead crane strong enough to lift 100-ton vessels into which will be placed the 1533 pent fuel assemblies that are still residing inside the unit's spent fuel pool on the 3rd floor. they will be moved to a common spent fuel pool

 

 

By Rob Gilhooly at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

 

An alarm lets off a shrill beep as a dosimeter on the bus hits 1500 microsieverts of radiation. “Do not open the windows,” an official warns. We are inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, driving by one of the three reactors that went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011.

The place is a mess, with mangled containers and vehicles scattered around crumbling buildings – but the fact that I’m even here is testament to the now relative safety of the plant. However, much remains to be done and the clean-up operation is starting to look never-ending.

The group I’m with is ushered into a quake-proof building, the plant’s nerve centre since the disaster, by staff from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s operator. Inside, the only sign of the post-disaster panic and stabilisation operations, undertaken by 3,000 workers a day, is a line of unmade bunk beds, indicating that the clean-up operation is still a round-the-clock affair.

The walls are decorated with messages of encouragement to embattled workers from school children. “We’re rooting for you,” reads one, a bright red heart drawn above. Many of the messages were penned during more ominous times, when tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated from their homes, and plant workers struggled to secure  water to cool the compromised containment vessels housing the reactor fuel.

Water shortages are no longer the problem – quite the opposite. Today, the main issue is what to do with all the water used to cool the fuel that melted through the containment vessels. This is exacerbated by the 400 tonnes of groundwater that are flooding into the basements of the cracked reactors every day and mingling with leaked nuclides.

rest of story available at New Scientist website here

 

Fukushima Restaurant in Tokyo

 

A slideshow of photos taken at 47 Dining, a restaurant in Tokyo specializing in produce/cuisine from Fukushima. The photos were taken during an assignment for the Guardian newspaper and correspondent Justin McCurry’s excellent story about the place appeared in the newspaper on Nov. 17.

The online version can be found here

Of course it was mandatory to sample some of the fare on offer, which was excellent, especially the “ji-zake” including from the excellent but little-known Aizu Sake Brewery in Tajima

More photos can be found on my Photoshelter website here

It’s interesting that while people in Tokyo are slowly warming to the idea of purchasing and consuming produce from Fukushima, friends of mine in Fukushima and in most of the Tohoku region affected by last year’s disasters remain skeptical of foodstuffs that originate there.

That being said, my local supermarket often sticks produce from Fukushima but if the same item is available from another part of the country there is little doubt as to which is more popular with customers. One Fukushima grape grower I interviewed for a story said that despite there being no evidence of contamination in his part of central Fukushima he has his produce scanned both by the government and through an independent company in Saitama, which neighbors Tokyo to the north. The scans reveal nothing of concern, but his sales are down 30% compared with before the disasters. Other farmers have resorted to other means to try and regain consumer confidence, but admit it is going to be a long time before their produce is fully accepted on a wider level. If ever.

Strong in the Rain

The cover of David McNeil and Lucy Birmingham's "Strong in the Rain"

 

One of my photos was used on the cover of a book (and several more inside) about the 2011 Tohoku disasters, authored by the Independent’s David McNeil and Lucy Birmingham of Time magazine. As part of a wider article, Ian Buruma takes a look at the book for the New York Review of Books here and an excerpt can be found here

The title of the book comes from a celebrated poem by early 20th century writer Kenji Miyazawa, who was, coincidentally, born in one of the affected cities In Iwate Prefecture.

The authors kindly sent me a copy of the book and I am looking forward to getting stuck into that very soon. Fingers crossed for both of them that it does well – David and Lucy are remarkable journalists so I’m sure it will.

Solar – Japan’s shining light?

Solar-powered lights are left out on the roof to recharge at a temporary evacuation shelter in Kama elementary school, Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture Japan on April 11, 2011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Story published in New Scientist magazine about Japan’s moves in the solar energy industry here.

 

WITH nuclear power on the ropes in Japan, it could be solar power’s time to shine. Minamisoma City in Fukushima prefecture has signed an agreement with Toshiba to build the country’s biggest solar park. The deal comes weeks after Japan introduced feed-in tariffs to subsidise renewable energy – a move that could see the nation become one of the world’s largest markets for solar power.

Parts of Minamisoma are around 10 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and land there has been contaminated by radiation fallout. “Moving away from a dependency on nuclear is of course involved [with the agreement to build the solar park],” a city official said.

Both Minamisoma and neighbouring Namie have called for the cancellation of plans to build a nearby nuclear power plant – although Minamisoma has received $6.4 million over the past 25 years for initially agreeing to host the facility.

A number of Japanese municipalities have started solar projects in recent months. Plans have been drawn up for large-scale solar parks in Hokkaido and Kyushu, while SB Energy began operating two megasolar facilities, in Kyoto and Gunma, on 1 July.

“New solar projects are being generated day by day,” says Toshiba’s Yuji Shimada.

Solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy still account for just 1 per cent of Japan’s power capacity, however, so Japan has introduced a tariff to encourage investment. Utilities will pay solar energy firms around $0.5 per kilowatt-hour – triple the standard industrial electricity price. The extra money will come through a rise in electricity prices.

Some estimates suggest the move could help Japan leapfrog Italy andbecome the second-biggest market for solar power after Germany – although business groups fear that Japan’s economic recovery will slow as a result of the electricity price rise.

Meanwhile, Japan’s nuclear power industry will continue to provide competition. A reactor at the Oi nuclear facility in Fukui prefecture was brought back online as the tariffs were introduced.

 

 

 

Fukushima Fuel Extracted

Workers undertaking fuel extraction operations at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Rob Gilhooly

Tokyo

Operations commenced July 18 to remove nuclear fuel assembiles from the storage pool of one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, some 16 months after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl struck northeastern Japan.

Despite plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) requesting media outlets to refrain from filming the delicate and highly dangerous operations, aerial images aired on TV and online showed cranes lifting two of the 1,535 fuel units, each of which holds 60 fuel rods, from the No. 4 reactor building.

The procedure marked the first stage of a program that could go on for years to remove both unused and used fuel from the reactor in order to counter the risk of further radiation leakage.

Experts, including nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairwinds Energy Education, have long argued that structural weaknesses in the reactor building, which was severely damaged by an explosion last March that exposed spent fuel to the atmosphere, could cause a large-scale catastrophe should another large quake strike the area.

Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University’s Department of Reactor Safety Management, says that the biggest concern remains the sheer volume of fuel in the pools, which if exposed to the air would cause massive radioactive releases.

The amount of cesium 137 in the fuel in the pools is equivalent to 5,000 times the amount that was spread by the Hiroshima atomic bomb,” says Koide. “The government has said that the amount of radioactivity released by the three affected reactors following 3.11 was 168 times that of Hiroshima, so it is clear that we would be looking at a considerably worse outcome should the (rector 4) structure be compromised.”

The government used exactly such an outcome in its worse-case scenario analysis following the disasters, concluding that residents in Greater Tokyo – home to around 35 million people — would need to be evacuated in such an eventuality.

TEPCO has announced that repair work has sufficiently stabilized the structure, and while Koide is doubtful such operations could have been properly executed under the still high levels of radiation at the plant, others are less skeptical.

My understanding is that now they do have some redundancy in the cooling systems and have buttressed the fuel ponds themselves,” said Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear expert at Imperial College London. “So things are reasonably stable even against another earthquake, though obviously it depends upon where and how strong.”

The first fuel to be removed are among some 204 units that had yet to be used, meaning it posed little danger because unused fuel emits low levels of radiation, Tepco was reported as saying. Operations to remove the 1,331 more dangerous used fuel units will not be manageable until a much larger crane has first been installed. This will be used to haul out mammoth 100-ton metal casks that will be required to house the fuel units to ensure they not exposed to the air, says Kyoto University’s Koide.

TEPCO, which declined to comment on the latest maneuvers due to their “sensitive” nature, estimates that such operations will commence in December 2013, though Koide believes that is ambitious. “It’s a process that carries with it an immense amount of danger,” he says.

Some experts decry Wednesday’s maneuvers as further proof that the utility has no concern for public safety. University of Tokyo professor Ayumu Yasutomi says the removal of the unused fuel was merely a “demonstration” to give the impression it is working in the public’s best interests.

The aim of this is not to protect the people but to protect Nuclear Power Plants in Japan,” says Yasutomi. “This latest procedure is horrifying – just one small mistake and we could be subjected to  something unimaginable. I personally doubt TEPCO has the technical knowhow to carry out these procedures and we should leave it to a capable team of international experts.”

Meanwhile on the same day, a second reactor went back online at the Oi Nuclear power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, just two months after another reactor reached criticality at the same plant in May. The government justified the move in the name of supplying sufficient energy in the steamy summer months, bringing public sentiment to simmering point in Tokyo on July 16, when an estimated 170,000 people took to the streets to voice their disapproval.

Version of above story published in New Scientist magazine here

Photo courtesy of TEPCO

 

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