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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 | , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima nuclear plant operator: Seismometers were broken

February 22, 2021

The operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant says two seismometers at one of its three melted reactors have been out of order since last year and did not collect data when a powerful earthquake struck the area earlier this month

TOKYO — The operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant said Monday that two seismometers at one of its three melted reactors have been out of order since last year and did not collect data when a powerful earthquake struck the area earlier this month.

The acknowledgement raised new questions about whether the company’s risk management has improved since a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed much of the plant.

The malfunctioning seismometers surfaced during a Nuclear Regulation Authority meeting on Monday to discuss new damage at the plant resulting from a magnitude 7.3 quake that struck the region on Feb. 13. Cooling water and pressure levels fell in the Unit 1 and 3 reactors, indicating additional damage to their primary containment chambers.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has repeatedly been criticized for coverups and delayed disclosures of problems at the plant.

Regulatory officials asked TEPCO at the meeting why it did not have seismological data from the Unit 3 reactor for Saturday’s quake, and utility officials acknowledged that both of its seismometers had failed — one in July and the other in October — and had never been repaired.

TEPCO also said that seismometers at all but two of the reactor buildings that survived the 2011 disaster were submerged by water from the tsunami and have never been replaced.

During Monday’s meeting, regulatory officials said they were concerned about the declining water levels and pressure in the Unit 1 and 3 primary containment chambers because of the possibility that the quake had expanded the existing damage or opened new leakage paths, and urged the utility to closely check for any increased radiation levels in the ground water surrounding the reactor buildings.

TEPCO said no abnormality has been detected in water samples so far.

New damage could further complicate the plant’s already difficult decommissioning process and add to the large amounts of contaminated water being stored at the plant.

Since the 2011 disaster, cooling water has been escaping constantly from the damaged primary containment vessels into the basements of reactor and turbine buildings, where the volume increases as groundwater seeps in. The water is pumped up and treated, then part of it is reused as cooling water, while the rest is stored in about 1,000 tanks.

TEPCO initially reported there was no abnormality at the plant from Saturday’s earthquake. But on Monday, it said about 20 of the tanks had slid slightly due to the quake, a storage container carrying radioactive waste had tilted, and asphalt pavement at the plant was cracked.

February 25, 2021 Posted by | Fukushima 2021 | , | Leave a comment

TEPCO neglected seismograph failure for more than six months, failed to record the earthquake of March 13 at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3

February 22, 2021

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced on Wednesday that two seismographs installed in the reactor building of the Unit 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant had failed but had been left unrepaired for more than half a year, so they were unable to record data from a seismic intensity 6-weak earthquake that occurred late at night on the 13th of this month.

The water level in the reactor containment vessel dropped by more than 30 centimeters at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 3, possibly due to the magnitude 6-weak earthquake.

 The explanation was given by TEPCO when it reported on the effects of the earthquake at a Nuclear Regulation Authority meeting. TEPCO made no mention of the seismograph failure in its press conference after the quake or in its public documents, and had not announced it before that.

 Akira Ono, chief executive officer of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Decommissioning Promotion Company, apologized at the review meeting, saying, “We missed a chance to get valuable data and we regret it.

 According to TEPCO, seismographs were installed in March 2020, one on the operation floor and one on the first floor, both on the top five floors of the Unit 3 reactor building, and the one on the first floor broke down in July, four months after it was installed, when it was submerged in water due to rain, and the other broke down in October of the same year due to another cause.

 At a press conference on the evening of the 22nd, a TEPCO spokesperson said, “We had planned to install seismographs with countermeasures. The seismograph in the Unit 3 reactor was “installed on a trial basis” to study the earthquake resistance of the building where a hydrogen explosion occurred during the accident, he explained.

 At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, seismographs were installed on the basement floor of the reactor buildings of Units 1-6, but the equipment in Units 1-4, which were flooded by the tsunami, is not working. (Kenta Onozawa)

February 25, 2021 Posted by | Fukushima 2021 | , , | Leave a comment