Fukushima Ice Wall Construction Taxes Workers

June 26, 2014

Construction on the underground ice wall around Fukushima is now underway.  its aim is to prevent water that’s been contaminated with radioactive materials from escaping and entering the broader water supply. The ambitious government funded project project intends to freeze the ground around four reactors, as well as other related buildings,  to a depth of 30 meters. In total, the frozen wall of earth will stretch for 1.5km and will reach temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. A series of pipes carrying coolant will be used to freeze the land. Beyond preventing water from escaping the area, the AFP reports that the hope is that it will also prevent contamination of the huge volume of groundwater that flows into the plant from nearby hillsides daily. Construction is expected to finish in March of 2015 with an expected cost of about 32 billion yen ($314 million).

In Japan ground freezing projects have already been used in the construction of tunnels and subways for short periods of time. An underground ice wall has also been used to isolate radioactive waste at the U.S. Department of Energy’s former site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that produced plutonium, but only for six years, according to the MIT Technology Review magazine.

Some experts are still skeptical about the technology and say the running costs will be a huge burden. Atsunao Marui, an underground water expert at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said a frozen wall could be water-tight but is normally intended for use for a few years and is not proven for long-term use as planned in the outline. The decommissioning process is expected to take about 40 years.

A group of reporters were permitted into the Fukushima plant last Friday to visit key working areas to tackle the radioactive water. They were accompanied by Masato Kino the Natural Resources and Energy Agency’s director for management of the contaminated water at the plant and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials.

Kino emphasized the importance of improving working conditions for the roughly 6,000 workers at the crippled nuclear plant during the tour.

“I sincerely felt the hardships workers have experienced, as what’s going on here is different from ordinary construction work in terms of the severe heat due to protective suits and high radiation level,” he said.

The water buildup is a major headache for TEPCO  and the government as they work toward decommissioning all six reactors at the complex. The contaminated water is increasing at a rate of around 400 tons per day as groundwater flows into the damaged buildings for reactors 1 through 4.

Tepco began constructing the huge underground ice wall early this month. It will surround reactor buildings 1 through 4 in an attempt to prevent more groundwater from seeping into their basements and mixing with heavily contaminated water. Under the unprecedented government-funded project, 1,550 pipes will be inserted deep into the ground to circulate coolant and freeze the nearby soil. However, the work is taking place in conditions of high radiation. “A worker is permitted to continue to do his job for about three hours a day due to legal limits on radiation exposure,” said Kino.

The scale of the project is immense. “Look at that crane! Three out of only six or seven of that supergiant kind existing in Japan are operating here,” Kino said. “The current work is dominated by construction.” In addition to the huge cranes, various kinds of heavy machinery and trucks are operating in the area, which is now a large-scale construction site. Everyone on site has to wear white protective suits and full face masks. A signboard reads “Highly contaminated water here.”

Since May, Tepco has employed a “groundwater bypass system” in which it has dumped thousands of tons of groundwater into the Pacific Ocean collected from wells dug near the reactor buildings. The utility claims the water’s radiation level meets safety guidelines.The system is designed to pump out the groundwater before it reaches the heavily contaminated area near the reactors. “We will not be sure whether this measure is working effectively until one or two months have passed,” said Kino.

An Advanced Liquid Processing System, or ALPS, has been developed to reduce the radiation level of the highly contaminated water accumulating at the plant.ALPS is reportedly capable of removing 62 different types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium. The system has been plagued by glitches and is still in the trial stage, with all three of its lines resuming Sunday for the first time in about three months.

TEPCO is also constructing an offshore wall of steel panels to keep contaminants from spreading further into the sea. The utility says radioactive elements have mostly remained near the embankment inside the bay, but experts have reported offshore “hot spots” of sediments contaminated with high levels of cesium.

Sources:The Japan Times,The Huffington Post, The Verge.com

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Japan to increase number of foreign and female construction workers

April 4, 2014

The Japanese government has decided to allow more foreign workers to work in the construction industry following the growing demand for manpower in Japan, reported Kyodo News Network.

The building of facilities for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and planned reconstruction of areas hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, are drivers behind the ever increasing demand for workers in this sector, officials said.

The country has experienced a general labour shortage since spending on public projects was increased under President Shinzo Abe. 

Measures to create a new resident status, allowing apprentices from emerging economies working in the construction industry to remain in Japan longer than the current period of three years, will be introduced in April 2015. These measures will also permit previous trainees in Japan to return to the country.

The news comes at the same time as plans by The Japan Federation of Construction Contractors to double the number of skilled female construction workers in Japan to some 180,000 within the next five years to help ease the industry’s labor shortage.

“I hope more and more young people and women will enter the industry to help it remain attractive,” Mitsuyoshi Nakamura, chairman of the federation, said in February.

Sources include: Kyodo News Network; The Japan Times

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Japan makes drastic cuts to greenhouse gas reduction goals

November 16, 2013

Yesterday, Thursday 14th November, Japan’s Ministry of Environment announced that it would be slashing its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. The Environment minister for Japan yesterday said that the original target, that of reducing greenhouse gas levels in Japan by 25 per cent from their 1990 levels, has been cut by a quarter, a figure so significant and drastic that environmental experts have wasted no time in expressing their concern for the “devastating effect” this cut could make to climate change action.

For a nation which led the way at the recent Kyoto climate change treaty, this certainly presents as a significant step backwards for Japan. Such a turnaround is very likely a response to the increase in fossil fuel consumption in Japan caused by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster two years ago and the subsequent closure of Japan’s nuclear power stations, which have made the current emission reduction targets highly difficult to meet.

Speaking about the modified targets, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained that the government would now be working towards a 3.8 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 as compared to 2005 levels, rather than the previously agreed 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. “The new target is based on zero nuclear power in the future,” said Japan’s chief negotiator at the UN talks in Warsaw. “We have to lower our ambiton level.”

Whilst many in the country, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, look favourably towards a return to nuclear power, many are opposed to the idea, or at least do not see a return to nuclear power to be a viable or realistic option. Indeed, many are hopeful that Japan will be able to decrease and eventually end its reliance upon nuclear power. Currently, all fifty of Japan’s nuclear reactors are offline due to safety and maintenance checks being carried out by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The process of restarting reactors will be by no means quick, and due to the extent of the devastation caused by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, many will never be restarted.

As a result of the cut to Japan’s nuclear energy sources, which provided a large proportion of the nation’s energy, Japan has been forced to return to importing natural gas and coal, thus increasing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. Japan hopes to offset this increase by 2.8 per cent by planting trees, and will also be using carbon credits from other countries wherever possible.

Sources include The Japan Daily Press, Japan Today

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Floating wind farms off Fukushima coastline mark a big step in the search for alternative energy sources

November 12, 2013

In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastatedJapan’s Fukushima prefecture, attention has turned increasingly towardsalternative sources of energy, as Japan seeks to downscale its dependency on nuclear energy.

Recent explorations into the world of renewable energy have led researchers towards wind power as a potential alternative, and indeed, a floating wind turbine station set up just off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant marks an important step in the downscaling operation.

The floating turbines, which lie 20 kilometres away from the coast where the damaged nuclear power plant is located, could become the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capitalising fully on the huge potential Japan has for wind power.

Japan’s offshore winds reportedly have the capacity to produce over 1500 gigawatts of power, a remarkable figure representing over five times the amount of power currently produced by Japan’s existing energy companies.

Takeshi Ishihara, who leads the Fukushima wind farm project alongside his role as a civil engineer at the University of Tokyo, says of the project: “I believe that the Fukushima (wind) project will help the Fukushima region and Japan as a whole move toward more use of renewable energy.” In the wake of the March 2011 disaster, nuclear energy is no longer seen as a dependable source of energy, and as such, wind power is a source of renewable energy that is increasingly seen as vital to Japan’s search for alternative energy sources.

The idea of an offshore wind farm is relatively novel in terms of renewable energy, but its development is an important one, bringing with it several advantages which set it apart from traditional wind turbine towers.

The construction of normal wind towers is usually done from the seafloor upwards; a costly process which becomes exponentially more costly in waters upwards of 50 metres in depth. In the waters off Japan’s coastline, sea levels lie at 50 metres at the bare minimum, increasing up to 200 metres in some areas. Floating wind turbine stations present a solution to this financial problem, as they come complete with their own substation, and are firmly rooted to the seabed by huge steel chains, allowing them to operate efficiently even in the deepest waters.

And as they are located further out from the coastline, these floating wind farm stations will benefit from the faster wind speeds found off the coast. Walt Musial, principal engineer at the National Wind Technology Centre in Colorado, USA, said of the wind stations: “Japan has lots of deep water off the coast, which is a good wind resource. In order to develop that resource it needs to be at the forefront for floating turbine technology.”

Whilst the Fukushima wind farm project does still have some way to go before its completion, facing obstacles both technologically and politically, it nevertheless marks a positive step in Japan’s quest for alternative sources of energy. Sources suggest that reputed companies such as Marubeni, Mitsubishi and Hitachi are keen to pay for the installation of 140 floating wind turbines, pending a successful pilot of the scheme.

Sources include: The Japan Daily Press

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TEPCO to begin high-risk operation of Fukushima fuel rod removal

November 11, 2013

This month, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is to begin a difficult and dangerous task, as it sets out to remove the first of several thousand potentially unstable fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Nuclear engineers in Japan are preparing to begin the long and arduous – not to mention risky – task of transporting the uranium and plutonium fuel rods out of the reactor building which was heavily damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The fuel rods, which each stand at four metres long, filled with pellets of uranium fuel, are currently being stored in a pool in the Fukushima Daiichi plant. There are over 1,500 rods to be removed, a daunting number, but experts say that the removal operation is a dangerous but essential step in the nuclear plant’s decommissioning process.

Whilst the removal of fuel rods does not constitute anything out of the ordinary for a typical day’s work at a nuclear power plant, the removal of these rods must be approached with extra caution, as there are fears that they may have been damaged and destabilised during the 2011 disaster. The operation could not have taken place before necessary repair work had taken place, such as removing the chunks of debris that were flung into the storage pool when surrounding buildings were damaged, but experts are now happy that the removal process can go ahead. Additional precautions have also been set up, such as a protective hood erected over the building, in an attempt to contain any radioactive leakage.

The rods must be submerged in water at all times, as even the slightest contact with the outside air could cause the rods to overheat and release radiation. Once removed, the rods will be transferred to a different storage pool, which, according to a Ministry of Trade, Economics and Industry (METI) official, contains its own cooling system, and is “planned to be used over a long period, supposedly for 10 to 20 years, and will be reinforced against possible future earthquakes and tsunamis.”

The task is certainly not without its risks, and experts have warned that even the smallest of mistakes could easily escalate rapidly. It is likely to be decades before Fukushima is fully decommissioned, and harder tasks are yet to come, such as the removal of the plant’s reactor cores, which are thought to be melted beyond all repair.

Sources include BBC News, Japan Today

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Japanese food chain to grow rice and vegetables in Fukushima prefecture

October 9, 2013

The Japanese fast food chain Yoshinoya has announced that it is to grow rice and vegetables in Shirakawa, just 80 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was crippled by the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Yoshinoya is a popular Japanese fast food chain, which owns a major chain of ‘gyudon’, or ‘beef bowl’ restaurants across the nation. The company’s operator, Yoshinoya Holdings, is to launch a joint agricultural project with local farmers, called Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima, in which rice, onions and cabbages will be cultivated across a 4.3 hectare field, for use in Yoshinoya’s 1000-strong chain of gyudon establishments.

Whislt many Yoshinoya customers have expressed concern at the crop farm’s proximity to the nuclear plant and the potential danger of radiation exposure, the fast food chain was keen to highlight their plans to routinely and stringently screen and monitor the crops for radiation.

In a statement, a Yoshinoya representative said: “We believe this will lead to support for reconstruction.” The chain also hopes that the creation of a more local agricultural site would lead to a lowering of ingredients prices, and thus prices within the gyudon restaurants themselves.

The March 2011 tsunami and consequent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant led to crop prices plummeting not only within the direct radiation zone, but across the entirety of the Fukushima prefecture, despite having been formerly famed for its agricultural produce. Ventures such as Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima are an endeavour to repair the prefecture’s damaged reputation.

Despite these actions, however, many consumers continue to avoid produce carrying the Fukushima tag, amidst continuing fears of radiation exposure.

Sources include: Japan Today, The Telegraph

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Japan to buy Canadian shale gas

September 29, 2013

During a visit to Ottawa, the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, announced that Japan would like to reinforce imports of Canadian natural gas in order to diversify supply in the post-Fukushima nuclear dearth.

During a joint press conference with his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, Abe stated that Tokyo “strongly hopes to strengthen cooperation” with Ottawa.

Huge deposits of shale in the west mean that Canada is the third largest producer of natural gas. “Canada possesses a significant level of energy resources, including natural gas, which show considerable potential in terms of energy cooperation” he noted. Japan’s natural gas imports have increased since the Fukushima disaster and now the country wants to “ensure a stable supply of LNG (liquefied natural gas) at competitive prices” the Prime Minister explained.

At his side, Stephen Harper, whose government is a strong supporter of fossil fuels,  stated that he and Abe met with Canadian business leaders and that “the discussion was focused on energy.” The two countries are currently conducting two “very important” economic negotiations, he continued without giving any further details.

Before these comments, the Japanese media had said that Tokyo and Ottawa may come to an agreement which would allow Japan to import up to 40 million tons per year of Canadian shale gas. This would represent over 45% of the volume of LNG imported by Japan in 2012.

The media also reported on the possibility of Japanese aid to facilitate Canadian exports of LNG. Tokyo could, among other possibilities, assist in the construction of pipelines in Canada to transport gas from production sites to ports, while supporting the development of an infrastructure to help process shale gas into LNG.

As the third largest global economy, Japan is the largest consumer of LNG in the world. Yet, it pays higher prices for the gas than both Europe and North America. Asian contracts are often long-term and are as such based on oil price indexes, meaning the cost is ultimately higher than those on the gas market for short-term contracts.

This discrepancy is even more detrimental to Japan since it had to greatly increase imports of natural gas to compensate for the shutdown in nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. As a precaution, none of the 50 reactors are now in operation.

If this more recent agreement with Canada materializes, it will occur after two recently concluded agreements with the United States for the delivery of 6.7 million tons of shale per year to Japan from 2017.  Japan clearly hopes to negotiate lower prices by multiplying contracts of this kind with other shale-rich nations.


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