(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met with Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI); Goshi Hosono, Nuclear Crisis Minister; and Osamu Fujimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary for the fifth time this month, as he tries to rush to restart reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture before the last operating reactor in Japan goes offline on May 5. The group was widely expected to announce they would approve the restarts this week. However, in a press conference on April 12, Edano said that they had postponed their decision because they were unable to reach a conclusion. Noda and the ministers are scheduled to meet again today; assuming they approve the reactors, Edano will travel to Fukui Prefecture to try to win local support for the move. The ministers will then meet one more time to make a final decision.
While speaking at a press conference on April 10, Noda reiterated that there is no law requiring consent of local governments to restart the reactors, although failure to obtain it would upend decades of Japanese custom and respect for local communities.
However, Noda is also facing fierce political pressure from surrounding prefectures, including Osaka. The staunchly anti-nuclear mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the Governor of Osaka Prefecture, Ichiro Matsui, have formed an alliance and created a so-called Energy Strategy Council, which has formally presented eight demands with which they say the government must comply before they will grant approval for restarting the reactors. Those conditions include obtaining permission from all local governments within a 100 km radius; establishing an independent nuclear regulatory agency, an effort that has been stalled in the Diet; and revising safety standards and creating new, two-stage stress tests that reflect those standards.
The proposed plan would require that the government obtain permission from Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures as well as Osaka. The governors of both Kyoto and Shiga openly oppose the restarts, and several local officials are questioning Kansai’s assertions that failure to restart the reactors will result in power shortages this summer. Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada asked, “Is it really the case we’re facing such a severe shortage? The utilization rate of water pump electric generators in only about 20% and the rate for coal burning plants is only 40% and can be raised.” They point out the importance of cultivating renewable energy. In addition, some experts contend that if utilities shared excess thermal energy supplies, the combined electricity capacity would far exceed Kansai’s estimated shortfall.
Nonetheless, Noda declared that the government will only seek consent from Fukui Prefecture, where the Oi plant is located, in spite of the fact that Edano earlier conceded that obtaining consent from Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures was critical. However, the joint Osaka municipal government is the largest shareholder of Kansai electric, and plans to submit a formal proposal for the utility to abandon nuclear power entirely at the next shareholders’ meeting, which is in June. Osaka is working to convince the cities of Kobe and Kyoto, which also hold Kansai stock, to join in its campaign. In addition, Hashimoto is powerful, and ignoring him could be politically problematic for Noda.
In an effort to lessen public fears about the restarts, the government is drafting a contingency plan outlining how it will address potential nuclear disasters. Those plans include improving communication between government officials. Edano admitted that the risks of nuclear power are great: “There is a possibility for any idled reactors, whether they are running or offline, to suffer from a severe accident as long as active nuclear fuels are located [there].”
Meanwhile, the Osaka Energy Strategy Council has revealed that as of March 2012, 69 former civil servants, including some from METI and the Ministry of Environment, had worked at Kansai Electric. In addition, as of March 2011, the utility had made 600 donations to local governments, public service organizations, and others, totaling 1.695 billion yen. The discovery raises questions about the propriety of Kansai’s influence.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The mayor of Namie, Tamatsu Baba, said that the town may file a criminal complaint against unnamed government officials who failed to disclose System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) data in the days immediately following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Thousands of Namie’s residents evacuated to Tsushima, where in fact, radiation levels were very high.
Yoshimori Honkura, Professor Emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology and the chair of a government panel studying earthquakes, said he personally believes that the risk of significant aftershocks from last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake is still possible, and those quakes could measure as high as magnitude 8. Honkura warned that Japan should prepare for that possibility.
Records show that officials at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) awarded 7.1 billion yen (almost $87.5 million) in non-competitively bid contracts to companies who agreed to hire former JAEA employees. In addition, the JAEA requested in writing that winners of the contracts make donations in pre-specified amounts back to the JAEA, raising more than 40 million yen over the past four years. Some experts are now requesting that Japan’s Board of Audit perform an investigation into those practices.
United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron visited Japan this week and announced that the UK has signed a pact with Japan, opening the door for UK companies to assist with decommissioning and decontamination of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. In return, Japan will share nuclear technology and expertise in building new reactors.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO announced that cooling systems were automatically suspended at the spent fuel pond at reactor #4 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Thursday, as a result of a pipe leak. Officials said that 20 liters of contaminated water leaked, as well as 40 cc of hydrazine, a compound used to prevent corrosion. TEPCO is continuing to investigate the cause of the leak. Water temperature has risen more than 20ºC so far, and is expected to rise a half a degree each additional hour. Cooling efforts have not yet been restored.
The municipal government of Tokyo is now the majority shareholder of TEPCO’s stock. Tokyo has criticized the utility for a recent 17% fare hike, as well as for continued bungling of the Fukushima disaster.
Owners of a kindergarten and nursery school have filed suit against TEPCO for 420 million yen, charging that high radiation rendered the newly constructed facility highly contaminated and worthless. TEPCO reportedly plans to reject the claim, in spite of the fact that the kindergarten, located just nine kilometers from the site of the Fukushima disaster, is in the no-entry zone and uninhabitable.
A newly published report by the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI) says that TEPCO’s efforts to protect the Fukushima Daiichi power plant from a tsunami were inadequate. The report charges TEPCO with failing to consider the effects of a multiple-geological fault ruptures, which occurred in the earthquake that struck Japan last March.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
METI estimates that less than 8% of debris from last year’s earthquake and tsunami that has already been disposed of was recycled, as a result of concern about residents’ radiation fears. Typically, recycling companies burn wood chips and use the ash to produce concrete. However, an industry group, the Japan Fiberboard and Particleboard Manufacturers Association, had planned to recycle 1,000 tons of debris each month, but changed plans in an effort to avoid worrying nearby residents.
Other Nuclear News
Southern California Edison announced that unusual erosion has now been discovered in tubes connected to steam generators at unit #2 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) as well as at unit #3. Edison said it does not know what is causing the problem, and will conduct additional investigations. The NRC has no current plans to reopen the plant until the cause is determined.