Two interesting stories out today relating to Japan's proposed restarts of some of its nuclear reactor fleet despite the complete absence of anywhere to store high-level radioactive waste.
An article in the Japan Times notes that the government will begin to draw up a list of possible sites next year and once an agreement has been reached with the relevant authority targeted to house the facility surveys will be undertaken OVER A PERIOD OF 20 YEARS to determine its suitability.
In the meantime a Nuclear Waste Management Organisation of Japan official is quoted as saying that at present, "there are about 18,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in about 40,000 canisters at Japan’s nuclear power plants." These will have nowhere to go for at least 25-30 years, deepening of course on how long it takes for the 10 sq. km underground storage facilities to be built.
And that's if the targeted municipalities agree to having such facilities built in their back yards.
Another story in the Mainichi outlines a proposal by the mayor of Takahama in Fukui, which hosts the reactors that were restarted earlier this month, to store spent fuel inside dry casks within the grounds of the nuclear facility itself.
The result, say some experts, is that spent fuel will continue to pile up inside the facility, potentially turning it into a massive security risk.
Japan's nuclear waste problem has been hampered by the massive failure of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori. Since construction began on the reprocessing plant in 1997, the projected operating date has been put back 18 times. The latest delay has delayed that opening date once more, this time to 2018. Over the years an estimated US$20 billion has been invested in the massive site -- three times more than the original estimate.
One nuclear scientist I interviewed for Yoshida's Dilemma said he doubted Rokkasho would ever commence operations, yet the facility is maintained largely because it has brought in close to US$26 billion in various nuclear-related grants and subsidies to the local government coffers. Meanwhile, just under half of Rokkasho village's 11,000 residents are employed doing jobs that are related to the reprocessing facility. Another reason is that the national government continues to believe that recycling nuclear fuel holds an important key to Japan's energy future.
Even should the facility become fully operational, Japan will still need to find ways to safely store high-level radioactive waste, a problem that plagues several other countries with nuclear power facilities. Japan's nuclear power industry is over 50 years old, and we are looking at another 20 years, at least, before this problem can even begin to be addressed.
According to a new study the United States has underestimated the risks of nuclear accident at one of its nuclear plants and a single nuclear fuel fire could lead to fallout “much greater than Fukushima.”
According to the study, which was jointly carried out by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists and was published in the May 26 issue of Science magazine, if spent fuel at one of the 97 reactors currently in operation in the US was to catch fire, it has the potential to "dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident."
After the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident the US' Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of its regulations, and ultimately approved a number of safety upgrades, the study states. "It rejected other risk-reduction measures, however, using a screening process that did not adequately account for impacts of large-scale land contamination events. Among rejected options was a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima," it continues.
"Unless the NRC improves its approach to assessing risks and benefits of safety improvements—by using more realistic parameters in its quantitative assessments and also taking into account societal impacts—the United States will remain needlessly vulnerable to such disasters."
There's a story breaking today about six decontamination workers in Fukushima who have filed a lawsuit against a former employer for unpaid danger allowances of over 6.6 million yen (US$ 59,300).
In the lawsuit, which was filed at the district court in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture, the six men, whose ages range from 34 to 73, claim the unspecified company failed to pay danger allowances for cleanup work they undertook in communities such as Namie and Katsurao that were among the worst hit by the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant, at which multiple reactor meltdowns took place.
National broadcaster NHK quoted one of the men, who is in his 60s, as saying: "I think it's strange that despite the danger of being irradiated we worked diligently at the decontamination sites but did not receive the originally (promised) pay."
In Yoshida's Dilemma I interviewed one decontamination worker, a welder by trade, who has worked onsite at the nuclear power plant for around two years. He eventually quit, also due to problems with receiving the danger allowance that had been promised. In late 2013, the president of TEPCO, the utility that runs the nuclear facility, vowed workers would receive a daily danger stipend of 19,000 yen (US$170). The worker I interviewed had been promised an allowance equal to about one-third of that amount, but the TEPCO subcontracting company which hired him reneged on that deal.
The worker stated that this kind of situation was not unusual and that another lawsuit had been filed by four other workers earlier this year.
What is the greatest challenge humanity faces in this nuclear age?
How do we define security now, in the age of climate change, nuclear energy, and terrorism?
How, as scientists, do we think about time and responsibility in a world with rapidly evolving nuclear technology?
These are some of the questions raised in an article in Newsweek ME that also looks at medical consequences of exposure to low does of radiation. "The truth is," writes Muhammad Riaz Pasha, a nuclear scientist and former advisor to Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission, "most politicians, businessmen, engineers and nuclear physicists have no innate understanding of radiobiology and the way radiations induce cancer, congenital malformations and genetic diseases which are passed generation to generation."
The effect of low-dose radiation on health is hotly debated among scientists around the globe, though few dwell on the argument proffered by Pasha. "In the nuclear arms race, government doctors and scientists brainwashed the public into believing low dose radiation is not harmful," Pasha states -- an argument that somehow seems unbefitting of a nuclear scientist who presumably has access to the wealth of peer reviewed studies on the health effects of radiation exposure.
While there are some highly dubious and sensationalist claims that greatly hinder the credibility of this article -- "There was no nuclear bomb let of by the Russians it is a hoax!! The Iodine 131 is coming from Fukushima UNIMAGINABLE Nuclear Meltdown Being Covered Up!" being a less extreme example -- it will, no doubt, provide some talking points for future debates on this hotly debated issue.
As discussed in Yoshida's Dilemma, opinions on the health effects of radiation exposure are varied. Imperial College, University of London cancer expert Gerry Thomas says there is no way of proving categorically if low doses of radiation can, or cannot, result in cancers, while Japanese radiation expert and medical doctor Hisako Sakiyama, who was formerly chief researcher at Japan's National Radiological Institute, believes even low doses can result in DNA damage leading to cancer. At the other end of the spectrum is Oxford University Emeritus Professor Wade Allison, who says radiation is less dangerous than fire and that the IAEA-stipulated safe exposure limit of 1 mSv per year is “unjustifiably strict by a factor of 1,000.” In other words, humans could easily withstand an annual radiation exposure of 1,000 mSv or per year.
Scientists such as Allison will be required to justify such statements time and again as the debate goes on and a more accurate picture of the effects of radiation on health emerges. In the interim, scientists could do worse than follow the hippocratic oath that physicians are sworn to ("do no harm"). At times, Pasha seems to border on the alarmist with statements that seem to fly in the face of that ancient pledge. "Fukushima disaster is totally out of control." he writes. "This is a nuclear war without a war. ... Fukushima nuclear facility is a TICKING TIME BOMB."
In Yoshida's Dilemma, there is a section that discusses the future of nuclear power, noting that some countries, including the US, significantly bolstered defenses of their nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Japan shut down all of its 54 nuclear reactors, and six years on all but four remain off-line, but at the time, only Germany announced categorically that it would be phasing out its nuclear energy policy.
The Swiss, meanwhile, had debated the idea of following suit, though eventually rejected it. However, according to news reports today it seems the Swiss people have decided they no longer wish to be dependent on nuclear power and have voted in favor of a government plan to cease construction of any new reactors in a first step toward phasing out nuclear power completely.
Swiss energy minister Doris Leuthard said that the decision would lead Switzerland "into a modern energy future" and shows the public wants "a new energy policy" that would give a boost to domestic renewable energy projects.
Nuclear power has been a crucial part of Switzerland's energy mix and a poll undertaken in the Fall 2013 showed that 64 percent of respondents believed the country's five existing nuclear reactors were crucial in meeting its electricity demand. This actually represented a 3 percent increase over a similar poll conducted in 2012, one year after the Fukushima accident.
What's more, even more respondents (68%) stated they believed Switzerland should continue its nuclear power policy, providing the reactors could be guaranteed to be safe. Even at this point the government had decided to phase out the five existing reactors, meaning they would all be taken off line by 2035 in order to be decommissioned. Yet no clear decision had been made on replacements, or so-called "new builds."
A 2014 editorial in the World Nuclear News reported that: "The results of the (2013) poll suggest that Switzerland's phase out policy is not fully supported by the Swiss people." The announcement today, almost four years later, would seem to indicate that in the intervening years, when news out of Japan has been dominated by leaking tanks storing contaminated water, an inability to locate the melted fuel and other problems at the stricken No.1 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, little has happened to convince the Swiss public that they are right and that the government's phase out policy is flawed. What's more, the bold announcement that the European nation will strive to develop its own renewable projects would seem to have assuaged fears among the 73% of respondents in 2013 poll that without nuclear power the nation would be forced to become increasingly dependent on foreign countries.
As nuclear engineer quoted in Yoshida's Dilemma astutely notes: "Safety and peace of mind are two different things." As the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident seems to confirm, instilling peace of mind among the public depends on how well you can demonstrate absolute safety -- which in turn depends on how well you look.
Japanese media is reporting that reactor 4 at the Takahama Nuclear Power Station in Fukui is to restart on the afternoon of June 17. Meanwhile, reactor 3 at the plant was refueled today in preparation for restarting later in the month. Both reactors will be back in full commercial service by early July. Some reports also mentioned that several hundred people gathered at the entrance of the plant to voice their opposition to the restart. There have also been some unverified reports of some of the protestors starting a hunger strike.
Interesting story in the New York Times about how the Fukushima nuclear accident and 3.11 disasters in general have affected children in Cambodia -- and not in a way you might have expected. According to the story, the disasters have brought about a shortage of iodine, which is a crucial element in brain growth. Unfortunately, Cambodia has long battled an iodine deficiency and although it seemed to have found a solution by introducing iodized salt into the diet, that all changed after March 2011.
Story in the Mainichi here about the proposed restart of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka, which was shut down just over 6 years ago due to lingering fears about its safety. Hamaoka nuclear power station is located directly above the hypocenter of an active seismic fault along the Nankai Trough that experts believe could be the cause of Japan's next megaquake. The article also features a photo showing the 22-meter seawall that was recently built on the ocean side of the plant. Above this blog entry there is a photo I took in 2010 before the wall was built.
In August 2012 I wrote an article in New Scientist magazine arguing that Japan could become the world's second-biggest solar power nation. The article followed the announcement of a new feed-in tariff (FIT), introduced into law to make it more appealing for new energy companies, in particular wind and solar, to enter the market.
At 42 yen per kilowatt hour for new starts, that FIT was among the highest in the world and double that offered in Germany. The tariff tripled the number of independent energy suppliers in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, leading many to believe Japan was setting out on a new course in its energy policy.
In April 2017, just five years on, Japan changed its legislation regarding the FIT system and as a consequence "nullified some 28 million kilowatts of potential solar power generation -- enough to power 5.6 million households, or around 10% of Japan's total," according to one article in the Nikkei Asian Review.
The reason, in a nutshell, is that upon announcement the FIT set off a kind of "solar bubble," but many smaller outfits that had applied for licenses looking to take advantage of the tariff were finding it difficult to acquire necessary land or secure contracts with existing utilities who, under the FIT legislation, would be obliged to provide them with access to their power grids -- in theory at least.
One example given in the NAR article is the company Enblue, which had planned to start a megasolar project, but the licensee had failed to seal a deal with utility Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. Most people know the utility as TEPCO -- the company that operates the now defunct Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, site of the 2011 nuclear disaster.
While researching my book, "Yoshida's Dilemma," I interviewed several smaller solar operators and was made aware of a systemised effort by utilities to block solar projects from their grids. Just three years into the 20-year FIT program, utilities already had started to block renewable projects from their transmission grids reportedly, I was told, to free them up for the restart of nuclear power.
According to one official at Greenpeace, Japan was thus "in limbo" with regard to its energy policy, which was brought about by “a lot of pressure" by the government of Shinzo Abe to restart nuclear reactors.
“A lot of effort is being put into this direction while we see that renewables, especially wind power, is being blocked in Japan,” said Greenpeace radiation expert Jan van de Putte. Five of Japan's utilities companies have announced “a clear strategy” that they will not allow renewables to connect to their grids, stymying the growth of renewables such a solar and making Japan reliant once more on an aging and increasingly dangerous energy source with an “uncertain” future, he added.
The NAR article suggests that the new legislation announced in April makes that future even more obscure. By cracking down on licensed solar power providers who never began operations, the new legislation "could set back renewable energy development in the country and put more facilities in the hands of a few major players," the article states.
One reason a number of these smaller operators held back on commencing their businesses was a hope that solar panel prices would fall, which indeed they have, by nearly 50%. But still only around 40% of licensed operations are actually doing business. One major reason is the astronomical costs of connecting to the grids -- when utilities allow operators to do so, that is.
"Utilities have shown ambivalence about renewable energy," the NAR article states. "Output from solar and wind farms varies widely based on weather, making it tougher to regulate overall power supply. Times of high production can put stress on transmission lines, while a lull requires fossil-fuel power plants to provide backup."
The FIT legislation reform effectively sifted out licensees who, at an estimated 28 million kilowatts of potential solar power generation, were holding a potential generating capacity close to Japan's current solar power production. This has made the chances of another megasolar construction boom "close to nil" the article states, and makes the government's aim to have renewable energy account for 22-24% of Japan's total electricity output by fiscal 2030, a target that requires adding 40 million kilowatts of capacity, all but impossible. Unless, of course, other renewable forms of energy are given a fighting chance. Even so, Japan's solar future does not look as sunny as it did five years ago.
We've received a few mails from readers in Japan noting the wait time when ordering via Amazon (one to four months). We are unsure why this is happening but for your reference it is almost certainly quicker to order directly from publisher INB's webstore, which you can do here