(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
Kyoto Governor Keiji Yamada and Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada have submitted a seven-point plan to the central government of items that they say must be implemented before they will approve the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in nearby Fukui Prefecture. The proposal includes establishing a roadmap for decommissioning reactors and establishment of final disposal sites for nuclear waste.
In addition, the new plan includes demands that an independent, third party panel determine whether or not the Kansai region will really experience a power deficit if all nuclear reactors go offline on May 5, as scheduled. The public has expressed significant distrust in electricity estimates released by Kansai Electric, which predict an 18.4% power shortage this summer if Japan again experiences last year’s record-breaking high temperatures. This week, Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), hinted that blackouts might occur if all nuclear reactors go offline, prompting criticism from experts who say that the Kansai estimates do not take into account power-saving efforts and other forms of energy, including renewable. Kada and Yamata released a joint statement that noted, “It’s necessary to create a third party of experts who can check electricity supply and demand in a fair manner, not just make a decision based solely on information provided by the utilities.”
Edano once again changed course this week and announced that Japan will most likely be nuclear free for a period of time after the last active reactor in Japan, #3 at the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture, goes offline. Initially, Edano said that nuclear power would be offline “momentarily,” but later apologized for that remark after he was criticized for appearing not to take safety of the reactors seriously.
Japan has not been nuclear-free since 1970, when nuclear power was offline for a total of five days. Junichi Sato, Executive Director of Greenpeace Japan, noted, “Japan is [already] practically nuclear free, and the impact on daily life is invisible.” A Japan Times editorial stated, “The hastiness with which the government is trying to restart the Oi reactors shows that it is not taking the Fukushima nuclear disaster seriously. It is highly regrettable that Mr. Noda lacks the will and determination to wean Japan off nuclear power.”
Meanwhile, the government again admitted that no minutes or notes were taken when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, METI Minister Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, and Nuclear Minister Goshi Hosono met to discuss the fate of the Oi reactors. Japan came under severe criticism earlier this year when it revealed that no minutes had been taken by government agencies dealing with the nuclear crisis in the days following the earthquake and tsunami last March. Failure to do so is illegal in Japan.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan’s government announced that as of midnight on April 19, reactors #1- #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were formally “decommissioned.” The pronouncement elicited anger and frustration from residents, many of whom saw the declaration as an empty gesture. The area around the plant remains so radioactive that no one will be able to live there for decades, if not centuries. Infrastructure in the area has been decimated, and the plant continues to experience major breakdowns in spite of the government’s declaration last December that TEPCO had achieved a state of “cold shutdown status.” This month alone, there has been a leak of highly radioactive water; a shutdown in the cooling systems designed to prevent yet another meltdown; and failure in the injection of nitrogen, which officials hope will prevent another hydrogen explosion. A government representative delivering the announcement seemed bewildered that citizens weren’t more appreciative of the announcement. “I never though there’d be this much backlash,” he said.
Anti-nuclear activists are staging a hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), where they have been camping in protest since last September. They hope to bring attention to concerns about restarting nuclear reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant, and said they will continue their strike until May 5, the day that the last nuclear reactor in Japan is scheduled to go offline.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials released new data this week showing that a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that strikes directly under the city could kill as many as 9,700 people, and almost 400,000 buildings could collapse. An additional 200,000 buildings could be destroyed by fire if conditions are right.
Japan has signed a bi-lateral pact with Ukraine, agreeing to cooperate in the case of another nuclear disaster. Ukraine was the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
State of the Reactors
Workers at TEPCO are preparing to install a crane and partial cover that will span the top portion of the spent fuel pool of reactor #4. In addition, they are installing a filter to prevent radioactivity from escaping into the environment. Once that work is completed in the Fall of 2013, they will begin to remove over 1,500 spent fuel rods in 2014, a process that could take more than 10 years.
Earlier this month, United States Senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Energy Committee, visited the Fukushima Daiichi plant and expressed grave concern about its ongoing fragility. Wyden is especially worried about fuel rods in the spent fuel pool at #4, which was damaged in last year’s hydrogen explosions and are now highly vulnerable to another earthquake. In a letter to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese Ambassador to the US, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Gregory Jaczko, he warned, “Seeing the extent of the disaster first-hand during my visit conveyed the magnitude of this tragedy and the continuing risks and challenges in a way that news accounts cannot.” He urged Japan to accept assistance from the US and other nations.
TEPCO sent a new robot, built by Topy Industries Ltd., into the suppression pool of the containment vessel in reactor #2 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant this week. Officials were hoping to discover the site of extensive leaks in the vessel, but they failed to do so. In order to eventually remove melted fuel from the reactor, workers will need to fill it with water in order to block deadly radiation levels. However, leaks need to be repaired before that process can even begin. A year after the nuclear disaster, TEPCO has been unable to identify the source of the leaks, and workers continue to inject 200 tons of water every day to maintain cooling efforts. Similar procedures will need to be followed at reactors #1 and #3, where damage is far more extensive.
Prime Minister Noda has appointed Kazuhiko Shimokobe as the new Chairman of TEPCO. Shimokobe has been leading the government-backed Nuclear Damage Liability Fund, which has overseen TEPCO’s efforts to restructure in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year. TEPCO is expected to submit its revised business plan by the end of this month, which will pave the way for a one trillion yen injection into the ailing utility.
Other Nuclear News
US President Barack Obama announced he will reappoint Republican Kristine Svinicki to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Svinicki is a polarizing figure opposed by many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and has been accused of being too close to the nuclear industry to adequately regulate it.