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Fukushima disaster: Is TEPCO nuclear plant still a safety risk?

Ten years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been criticized for failing to learn safety lessons.

A seismograph at the Fukushima Daiichi plant malfunctioned during a recent earthquake

Februay 26, 2021

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, is facing renewed criticism that it has failed to learn the lessons of the 2011 disaster there. 

Next month marks the 10-year anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns in three nuclear reactors. 

Opponents of nuclear power and other civic groups are calling for greater transparency in TEPCO’s operations. They cite a number of issues as evidence that TEPCO is still falling short of its responsibilities, including a significant security breach recently at one of the company’s plants.

It was discovered in early February that an employee at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in northern Japan had used a colleague’s identity card to enter the central control room after misplacing his own pass.

The incident, which happened five months earlier, was not reported to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) until a quarterly meeting in late January on the grounds that it was not considered a major breach of security.

The NRA disagreed and concluded that the unauthorized entry by the worker into the nerve center of the plant “affected security.” TEPCO was ordered to make improvements. 

Fukushima’s earthquake problem

The fallout from that incident was worsened after a serious earthquake on February 13 shook northeast Japan, including the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Seismologists said the magnitude 7.3 tremor was the largest to strike Japan since April 2011 and was actually the latest aftershock from the Great East Japan Earthquake nearly a decade ago.

TEPCO admitted a short while later that seismometers installed in two of the reactor buildings broke down last year and had not been repaired.

In addition, a report to the NRA confirmed that the earthquake caused radioactive water to slosh over the edges of containment tanks at the site, while the water level around two of the reactors has fallen.

That could indicate that the tremor enlarged existing fissures in the surrounding concrete or created new ones, enabling the escape of water that is needed to keep the reactors cool and prevent the release of more radioactivity into the atmosphere.

A hard-hitting editorial in the Asahi newspaper after the security breach at the Niigata plant said the incident “raised doubts” about TEPCO’s “fitness to operate nuclear power plants.”

“The utility must thoroughly reexamine every conceivable issue and raise its workers’ safety awareness to prevent missteps, once and for all,” it added.

In a statement issued to DW, TEPCO said it was “addressing” the issue of the malfunctioning seismometers, which may have failed in July due to heavy rain.

“We are now working to restore the system as soon as we can,” the company said.

TEPCO excuses ‘not acceptable’

Hajime Matsukubo, secretary general of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre, said the excuses of a company charged with decommissioning four damaged reactors that caused the second-worst nuclear disaster in history are “not acceptable.”

“The way that the company is managing things suggests to me that they have not learned their lessons from the March 2011 disaster,” he said.

This 2011 TV image shows the aftermath of an explosion at the plant

“TEPCO says it is ready, for example, to resume operations at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, but now we have this very serious security breach,” he added.

“I agree that the company has made great strides with the technology that is being developed to contain the situation at the Fukushima plant and to decommission those damaged reactors, but there are too many human errors creeping into their operations,” said Matsukubo.

“They cannot fully manage these sites and, I would say, they do not have the capabilities to manage nuclear facilities.”

Azby Brown, lead researcher for the nuclear monitoring organization Safecast Japan, agrees that the company has made progress in the decommissioning work, but says that errors keep cropping up.

“A lot of things they are doing very well, because this is a hugely challenging operation, so we have to give them credit for that, but there are still some gaping holes that management really needs to plug if they want to begin to rebuild public trust,” he said.

“They have all the appropriate security regulations in place, but then we see things like this happening,” he said. “It’s almost as if there is an institutional allergy to transparency and informing the regulators immediately a problem occurs and then addressing that problem. And that is not helping their reputation at all.”

Increase in radiation

The company’s errors have immediate implications, he says, as monitoring equipment installed at sea off the plant detected a small increase in highly radioactive caesium in the days after the earthquake, indicating that water had indeed escaped from the site and was dispersing into the ocean.

And that coincided with the announcement that a black rockfish caught off the prefecture by a fishermen’s collective had caesium levels five times above the government’s permitted levels.

Local fishermen, whose livelihoods were devastated by the nuclear accident, have been carrying out limited test fishing since June 2012 and had been hoping this year to resume small-scale shipments of fish to market if they were able to prove to inspectors that all the fish being caught were safe to consume.

The revelations surrounding TEPCO’s latest problems is unlikely to reassure the public that produce from much of northeast Japan is safe to buy.

February 28, 2021 - Posted by | Fukushima 2021 | , ,

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