Officials try to calm fears about spent nuclear fuel rods
By HIROSHI MATSUBARA/ Staff Writer
Despite growing international concerns over the state of spent fuel rods at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, two government experts said on May 21 that there are no plans to speed up their scheduled removal by 2015.
Speaking at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, the government apparently wanted to get the message out to the world that the No. 4 reactor at the plant, which houses more than 1,500 nuclear fuel rods, could withstand a similar strike to last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake.
Ikko Nakatsuka, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office, reiterated that the No. 4 reactor has sufficient seismic resistance against an earthquake equivalent to the force of the March 11, 2011, tremor. He spoke at FCCJ along with Hiroshi Asahi, director-general for Energy and Environmental Policy of the ministry of trade and industry.
“Although I am not an expert on this issue, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (the plant operator) and the trade ministry have explained that the No. 4 reactor can withstand a quake of a Japanese intensity scale of 6-plus,” said Nakatsuka, a Lower House member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
“What we can only promise right now is that the plant workers are still working to reinforce the reactor’s anti-quake capacity and will continue to do so.”
The badly damaged No. 4 reactor building houses storage pools containing 1,331 spent and 204 new fuel rods, which are not protected by containment vessels and are open to the air. The number is the largest of any of the six reactors at the plant.
The government plans to start relocating the fuel rods from the No. 4 reactor in the latter part of of 2013 and complete the mission by 2015.
“We have no evidence to support that the No. 4 reactor building is neither as sound or more dangerous structurally, compared to the other buildings,” said Nakatsuka, who entered the reactor in April for an on-site inspection.
“But we understand that there are various concerns about the reactor, including those that have been proven to be false. All we believe is that the situation of the facilities at the Fukushima plant is very different from other nuclear plants and thus stricter safety measures must be applied.”
Experts from around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the state of the No. 4 reactor building. In a letter on April 16 to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, who visited the Fukushima plant on April 6, warned that the storage pool at the No. 4 reactor could collapse if the building was hit by another major earthquake or tsunami.
It would spew a much greater amount of radioactive materials in such a disaster than after last year’s accident, wrote Wyden, the senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“The precarious status of the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) nuclear units and the risk presented by the enormous inventory of radioactive materials and spent fuel in the event of further earthquake threats should be of concern to all and a focus of greater international support and assistance,” Wyden wrote.
Mitsuhei Murata, former ambassador to Switzerland, also told an Upper House hearing in March that another accident at the reactor building could cause the “final catastrophe of the world.”
Citing that they will also impact the common spent fuel pool containing 6,375 fuel rods, located some 50 meters from the No. 4 reactor, Murata urged that it is the government’s responsibility to immediately remove the No. 4 fuel rods.
During the news conference on May 21, the government spokesmen were repeatedly asked why they do not consider a worst-case scenario and start working to prevent a catastrophe in cooperation with foreign experts.
Nakatsuka refused to comment on these questions by using a twist of logic. After the Fukushima accident, we must no longer use the term “safe” without evaluating actual risk, he said. “So, government officials should not talk about ‘safety’ without presenting concrete risks.”
Unlike the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, which suffered from hydrogen explosions after the quake and tsunami, the No. 4 reactor was undergoing a periodic inspection at the time.
But a mysterious explosion blew away the walls and roof of the steel-reinforced concrete building. TEPCO said that the explosion was caused by hydrogen gas seeping into the building from the No. 3 reactor through the ventilating system.
The lawmaker added that the only possible way for the government to reduce overall risk for another catastrophic event is to speed up the plant’s 30-year decommissioning road map. It would reduce the risk even by a small margin if another major quake strikes the area, he said.
By HIROSHI MATSUBARA/ Staff Writer