(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

Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) admitted this week that there is a great likelihood that Japan will be entirely nuclear-free, at least for a while, once the country’s last operating reactor goes offline on May 5. The government is concerned about power shortages, although local municipal officials are questioning numbers that show a possible 18% power deficit and demanding that the government explain how they reached that estimate.

He made the comments after visiting Fukui Prefecture this weekend, where he had hoped to obtain the permission of local officials to restart reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant. However, he and other ministers in the Noda administration no longer believe that obtaining that consent will be easy. Although local approval is not legally required to operate nuclear reactors, power plant operators have consulted with nearby communities for decades. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, most experts agree it would be politically perilous for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to ignore a rising swell of opposition to nuclear power.

Edano has sent increasingly mixed messages on the issue. Although he traveled to Fukui to persuade residents and municipal officials to approve of the restarts, last week he said Japan needs to reduce its dependence on nuclear power. “I would like to break away from the reliance on nuclear plants and reduce dependence to zero as promptly as possible. The government has a clear policy on making maximum efforts to break away from dependence on nuclear plants.”

The decision to send Edano to Fukui came after Prime Minister Noda, in conjunction with Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, Edano, and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono, announced that the reactors are safe. But, many experts and believe that decision was made in haste, in order to prevent people from thinking that nuclear power is even necessary. If the country uses no nuclear power this summer, it may be more difficult to persuade the residents to restart aging reactors, especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Restarting the Oi reactors has been met with considerable resistance from surrounding prefectures, where residents share the danger of a possible accident. The governors of Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures have been particularly vocal, as have both the mayor and governor of Osaka. Keiji Yamada, Governor of Kyoto, noted, “The government should be cautious about resuming operations while only stopgap measures are in place, since it has been tasked to come up with permanent measures…I do not believe a nuclear accident on the scale of what happened in Fukushima can be avoided solely with these countermeasures in place.” Yamada was referring to new safety measures for nuclear plants that the government announced next week. However, many of these will not be put into place for years, and residents remain concerned about their safety, questioning the effectiveness of measures that were compiled in less than three days.

A recent survey of 3,071 Japanese people, conducted by Asahi, reveals that a majority of respondents (55%) oppose restarting the Oi reactors, and a whopping 88% believe that local consent is required. In addition, 83% believe that obtaining “local consent” includes surveying residents in surrounding prefectures, not just those hosting the plants.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

The Federation of Electric Power Companies released new numbers this week, which show that nuclear reactors in Japan produced 43.6% less power than last year — the lowest percentage since 1966. Japan used 5% less electricity overall, in part because of conservation efforts, and has increased its use of thermal and renewable energy.

An expert panel appointed by Japan’s Environment Ministry said that greenhouse gas emissions in Japan could be reduced by 25% by 2030, even without the use of nuclear power, if the country significantly increases use of renewable forms of energy.

The number of students studying nuclear energy at seven universities in Japan has declined by 16% over last year’s enrollment numbers, raising concerns that even if the nation abandons nuclear power, there will not be enough nuclear experts to deal with the challenges of decommissioning reactors and decontaminating radioactive areas. University officials blame the Fukushima nuclear disaster for the large decline.

State of the Reactors

TEPCO announced that nitrogen gas injection into reactors #1, #2, and #3 stopped unexpectedly for nearly nine hours this week. Workers are continuing to inject nitrogen into the crippled reactors in order to prevent more hydrogen explosions; failure to do so could be exceedingly dangerous. However, TEPCO officials said that hydrogen levels remained stable, and there was no increased risk of explosion. This is the fourth time that nitrogen injections have failed in the last six weeks.

A second thermometer has broken in Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #2, leaving only one working temperature sensor. According to officials it will take up to 10 years to remove molten fuel from the reactor vessel, and temperature monitoring is crucial to ensuring that another meltdown doesn’t occur. Normally, thermometers and other equipment are tested and often replaced every 13 months. However, extremely high radiation levels are preventing workers from getting close enough to the reactor to perform repairs. Experts are concerned that the one remaining temperature gauge will not last 10 years, and are worried about overall stability of the reactors, as well as TEPCO’s ability to monitor their safety.

TEPCO discovered that a 35-ton crane fell into the spent fuel pool at reactor #3 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, along with significant amounts of debris, and is resting atop fuel storage racks beneath the water. Utility officials, who were using a camera to explore the interior of the pool, believe that the fall occurred during hydrogen explosions last March. The crane, in addition to other debris, will need to be removed from the pool before fuel is removed and the reactor can be decommissioned. Experts expect the process to be challenging.

Contamination

Officials from Miyagi Prefecture have discovered high levels of radioactive cesium in Yakon tea, a beverage made from root vegetables that is consumed for its healthful effects. Samples measured 17,200 Bq/kg, 172 times the legal limit for cesium. Over 1,000 packages were sold online and in stores, under the brand name GOLDbrand. The company has issued a voluntary recall, and prefectural officials are testing other brands of the tea.

Evacuation and Repopulation

Japan lifted evacuation orders for parts of Minamisoma this week, although residents are still restricted from staying overnight and were prohibited from areas that are still designated as radioactive hotspots. Officials are hoping to eventually repopulate the city, but residents continue to express concerns about radiation levels, as well as adequate infrastructure.