(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
A senior METI official, Seishu Makino, traveled to Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures this week in an effort to convince the governors there to approve the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant. However, his efforts to do so were not successful. Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada complained, “Should a nuclear accident occur, damage would spread through the Kinki region [which includes Shiga Prefecture]...We have doubts regarding the transparency of information.” Kada was referring to the government’s recent assertions that the country will experience power shortages if the reactors are not restarted. Officials from both Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures have questioned the validity of those claims and are asking for a third-party panel to assess power needs for the summer months. Kada added that Makino’s explanations “were too abstract for us to move forward” in supporting the restart.
METI Minister Yukio Edano has admitted that it will be difficult to restart the Oi reactors before summer in light of vehement opposition by nearby residents and local officials, especially since the Diet has failed to even begin discussion to approve a new nuclear regulatory agency. Edano also said that Japan is “working to cut reliance on nuclear power to zero in 40 years in principle, at the latest.” The government recently announced a plan to limit reactor operation to 40 years. However, that law allows for exemptions that could keep nuclear reactors in operation far longer. Public opinion of nuclear power has plummeted since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Six Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lawmakers from Fukushima Prefecture have declared in a written proposal that two idled reactors at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture should not be restarted until consent is obtained from local governments. They criticized the government’s decision to grant approval for the restarts, which they said was made “too hastily,” before both the government and Diet have released final reports on the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In addition, they condemned the decision to declare so-called “cold-shutdown status” at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in spite of the fact that radiation levels around the site of the disaster remain fatally high and the plant continues to experience repeated leaks and technical problems that could eventually lead to another explosion or meltdown. The lawmakers had hoped to hand the proposal directly to Prime Minister Noda; however, an aide to the Prime Minister said, “It is difficult for Noda to receive the proposal directly” because of fears that DPJ resistance to the restarts will increase.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan has missed a deadline to report how it will handle half a ton of plutonium that it plans to extract from spent nuclear fuel this year. Failure to submit the report could subject Japan to international criticism, because terrorists could use just a small amount of plutonium to produce a nuclear bomb. The Federation had planned to use the extracted plutonium in the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. However, that reactor has largely failed, leaving the power industry without a plan for the nuclear fuel cycle.
In the meantime, new cost estimates released by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) reveal that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is more expensive that just burying it — a plan that is itself fraught with the possibility of dangerous consequences, should radiation leak into the ground, the ocean, or the atmosphere. In spite of the newly released estimates, many power industry officials continue to push for reprocessing. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel continues to accumulate at the nation’s nuclear reactors.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono is urging Diet members to put political differences aside and pass legislation to establish a new nuclear regulatory entity. Until the new regulator is established, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), continues to regulate nuclear power in Japan. That arrangement has been widely criticized by both Japanese and international experts as a blatant conflict of interest, since METI is charged with promoting nuclear power.
Officials from NISA have compiled a 2,000-page document, including notes from news conferences conducted between March and October, and are now recording ongoing press conferences to share information with other government agencies. NISA, METI, and the Office of the Prime Minister were roundly criticized for failing to take minutes at meetings conducted immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in spite of the fact that failure to do so is prohibited by Japanese law. However, Kyodo news, which obtained the documents through a freedom of information request, reported that an account of at least one crucial press conference was missing: that conducted on March 12, the first time that NISA acknowledged possible meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors.
Over 1,000 protesters gathered in Tokyo on Earth Day (April 22) to demonstrate against the nuclear power in Japan.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung this week. The two leaders confirmed that Japan will advise Viet Nam on two nuclear reactors planned for construction there.
TEPCO’s newly appointed chairman, Kazuhiko Shimokobe, will reportedly replace its current president, Toshio Nishizawa, and replace up to half of its board members with external candidates. However, outgoing chairman Tsunisa Katsumata, who was ousted from his position as a condition of the government’s plans to inject $12.2 billion in public funds into the utility, objects to the change and wants to keep Nishizawa as president. Government officials searched for two months for a candidate who would agree to accept the position of Chairman, and some call Shimokobe, who previously led the government-run Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, a last resort. He has criticized TEPCO’s methods of determining electricity fees, as well as its management structure.
State of the Reactors
Kyodo news is reporting that power loss at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which directly led to the nuclear meltdowns that occurred in three separate reactors there last March, occurred in part because a circuit breaker, which had been deemed unable to withstand high levels of seismic activity in 1978, was never replaced or upgraded. When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred, the breaker collapsed and fell.
Although the government officially “decommissioned” crippled reactors #1 - #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, TEPCO has not yet announced plans for reactors #5 and #6 there, as well as reactors #1 - #4 at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, which is also in the nuclear evacuation zone. The governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Yuhei Sato, is vehemently opposed to keeping any reactors in the Prefecture in operation.
Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), admitted this week that some areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, including parts of Futaba, Okuma, and Namie, may not be habitable for at least a decade because of ongoing dangerous radiation levels in the area. In seven other areas, including Minamisoma and Iitate, residents will not be able to return for at least five years. The new radiation estimates, which include projections through 2032, were based on monitoring conducted by aircraft this past November. “We have to prepare for the option of residents not necessarily returning,” Edano said.
Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries is urging retailers to drop their own stricter safety standards for radiation contamination in food, in spite of consumers’ distrust of the government’s newly-established safety limits. Last year, the government said that general foods containing less than 500 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium were safe for human consumption. At the beginning of this month, they changed that standard to levels below 100 Bq/kg. However, in response to consumer concerns, a number of retailers have vowed to only sell products that have below-detectable cesium levels, as well as to post the radiation levels of those foods that do contain cesium. Ministry officials say that these independent standards may confuse people, and have ordered them to stop. One retailer explained, “We set our own criteria because consumers don’t trust the national standards. If the government tries to enforce only its standards, it will hurt its credibility.” Another pointed out that private-sector businesses have the right to add value to their products—in this case, by ensuring that they are safe to eat.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare announced that it will enact safety regulations for reconstruction workers assigned to highly radioactive areas near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Currently, the government maintains safety standards for decontamination workers and those stationed at the Fukushima plant, but not for those doing reconstruction work, which is expected to increase significantly as more evacuees are gradually allowed to move back to their homes. Officials said that workers must now be provided with dosimeters and annual health examinations in areas where radiation levels exceed five millisieverts per year.