(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.
This week marked the 26th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, said, “Nuclear accidents lead to global consequences. They are not a problem of just one country; they affect the life of entire regions.” Workers there have begun construction on a new steel containment structure that will allow experts to finally begin dismantling the damaged reactor. The area around the plant remains highly radioactive: over 110,000 people were evacuated at the time of the accident, and more than 10,000 will never be allowed to return to their homes.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui and the Mayor of Osaka City, Toru Hashimoto, met with Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Osamu Fujimura, this week as the central government continues to try to convince local residents of Fukui and nearby prefectures, including Osaka, that restarting reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear plant is safe. Local officials remain unconvinced. Matsui and Hashimoto presented Fujimura with eight conditions that would need to be met before they will grant approval for the restarts. Those conditions include obtaining consent from all local governments within a 100 km radius of the plant, establishing new safety standards and incorporating those into revised stress tests, and creating plans for disposing of spent fuel. Fujimura said that the government will consider their proposal, but has no plans to incorporate it into the Oi decision.
Mayor Hashimoto, who is also the leader of a powerful anti-nuclear political group called Osaka Ishin no Kai, said, "It is absolutely wrong for politicians to play a leading role in judging the safety of nuclear reactors.” He added that the decision to restart the Oi reactors should be placed in the hands of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC).
Experts continue to raise concerns about the fact that the Oi plant lacks an adequate seawall, needs radiation filters to be installed, and does not yet have an earthquake resistant emergency headquarters from which to operate in the case of nuclear disaster. None of these projects will be completed until at least 2015, leaving many questioning why the government is pushing to restart the reactors there before such safety measures have been enacted. In addition, the government’s safety assessment ignores scenarios such as an airplane crashing into a reactor or an industrial fire occurring after an earthquake. “It’s become clear that if a serious accident occurs before carrying out these measures, the Oi plant does not have enough measures to deal with it,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of the Fukushima investigation panelists appointed by the Diet.
A new survey conducted in Japan’s Kansai region shows that a majority of residents oppose the restart of the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture. Of those against the restarts, 80% expressed concern about a nuclear accident. Within Fukui Prefecture itself, 67% of those opposed to bringing the reactors back online said they considered the reactors “not safe.” The survey was administered to residents in Fukui, Kyoto, Osaka, Shiga, Hyogo, Nara, and Wakayama Prefectures.
Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) Senior Vice Minister Mitsuyoshi Yanagisawa met with local residents of Ohi Town, the location of the Oi nuclear plant, to try to explain why the government granted approval to restart reactors there. Ohi Town officials said they would determine whether or not to approve the restarts after hearing residents’ views.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
In an interview with Asahi news, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan reiterated his opposition to nuclear power, saying, “There are no safe nuclear plants. What will be important in the future is not to depend on nuclear plants.” Kan criticized Haruki Madarame, Chairman of the NSC, for his ambiguity in declaring whether or not the Oi reactors are safe to restart. (Previously, Madarame stated, “Using only the preliminary stress test evaluation will be insufficient,” but then said the central government should be responsible for making the final decision, in spite of a lack of scientific data that the reactors are safe.) Kan also questioned whether utilities’ warnings of possible power shortages this summer are accurate in light of the nation’s collective conservation efforts, noting, “It is extremely unclear if there will really be a shortage of electricity despite such efforts, or if the suppliers are simply using data from the extremely hot summers before last year’s natural disasters in backing up their argument for the electricity shortage.”
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ordered four nuclear power operators to reassess seismic safety of their plants, after new data revealed that the country’s nuclear reactors might be sitting on more active faults than previously thought. NISA officials issued the orders to the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, Tsuruga and Monju power plants in Fukui Prefecture, and the Shimane nuclear power plant in Shimane Prefecture. All are built on or near two or more seismic faults that could shift simultaneously in the case of a large earthquake, putting the plants at risk for loss of cooling functions and nuclear meltdown. Officials at the Hokkaido plant are already insisting that their equipment will be able to withstand any increased temblor activity, in spite of the fact that they have yet to perform any updated analysis or tests.
In particular, the Tsuruga plant, operated by the Japan Atomic Power Co., is raising widespread concern. Its compound is built on three separate faults, and one, located 150 meters from reactor #2, may be active, contrary to previous belief. If this fault shifted in conjunction with another active fault nearby, it could trigger an earthquake that exceeds the plant’s design capacity. Japanese law prohibits building a nuclear reactor over an active fault. NSC chair Haruki Madarame said that NSC guidelines prevent resumption of a reactor unless operation is proven safe, noting that in the case of the Hamaoka plant, “[obtaining] the proof is almost impossible.”
NISA declared this week that the Hamaoka nuclear power plant would remain safe if a 21 meter tsunami hit the coast on which it’s built, in spite of the fact that a seawall that Chubu Electric, the plant’s operator, is building is only 18 meters high. Recent studies suggest that a catastrophic earthquake is likely to strike the plant within the next 30 years. NISA operates under the auspices of METI, which promotes nuclear power. Many experts have expressed skepticism that NISA can safely and effectively regulate the nuclear power industry under such circumstances.
Japan’s central government plans to establish a third-party panel to examine utilities’ claims that the nation may experience power shortages this summer, after some residents and local officials questioned the validity of those assertions. Currently, 53 of 54 nuclear reactors in Japan are offline. The last of these, reactor #3 at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, is scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance on May 5, leaving the country entirely nuclear free for the first time in 42 years.
TEPCO, in conjunction with the government-managed Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, was expected to submit a revised restructuring and business plan to the central government today, in an effort to obtain an injection of one trillion yen ($12.3 billion) in public funds in order to keep the company afloat. The proposal reportedly includes plans to increase residential electric rates by 10%, as well as restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture. (Just this week, TEPCO officials admitted that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is located within 30 km of three separate faults and may be at risk for a much larger earthquake than previously estimated.) In exchange for TEPCO’s revisions to its business plan, the government will assume more than 50% of voting rights in the company. If TEPCO fails to meet some stated goals, that number could increase to two-thirds, which would allow the government to restructure the company or facilitate a merger.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO has announced plans to build wells at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, in order to divert groundwater that continues to seep into damaged reactors there, mixes with radioactive coolant and consequently becomes contaminated. The utility is struggling with how to handle vast amounts of highly radioactive water, for which it is running out of storage space. TEPCO plans to release approximately 1,000 tons of groundwater per day into the Pacific Ocean, but insists it will test it for contamination before doing so. The so-called “bypass” is expected to be completed sometime this Fall.
TEPCO is working to construct a wall along the seacoast of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which it says will prevent more highly radioactive water from leaking into the ocean from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The utility expects to complete the wall in 2014.
Chiba Prefectural officials announced that radioactive fish have been found in the Tone River north of Tokyo, approximately 180 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Cesium levels in silver crucian carp measured 110 Bq/kg, exceeding the government standard of 100 Bq/kg. Officials are testing other freshwater fish in the area.
A group of scientists is urging the government to rethink its decontamination priorities in the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone, after new research shows that residents, especially children, absorb more radiation from inside their homes than outside. The government’s current decontamination plan has concentrated on areas near homes and schools, but new data suggests that decontaminating interiors of homes would be more beneficial.
The government is considering abandoning plans to decontaminate some highly radioactive areas near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, because doing so would be difficult using existing technology. Earlier this week, officials admitted that some parts might remain uninhabitable for a decade or more.
Other Nuclear News
A new report released by a committee appointed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says that the nation’s response after the Fukushima nuclear disaster “exposed the lack of clearly defined responsibilities and leadership as it pertains to a nuclear emergency in Canada or a global event.”