(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

Senior Vice Minister Mitsuyoshi Yanagisawa, from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), met last week with residents of the town of Oi, where the government is considering starting two nuclear reactors in spite of ongoing concerns about their safety. A recent poll conducted by public news station NHK revealed that 71% of residents there are worried about a nuclear accident. Many meeting attendees expressed concern that the government’s definition of “safe” is inadequate and questioned whether restarting the reactors is even necessary. Over 300,000 people live within 30 km of the plant and would need to be evacuated if a nuclear disaster occurred, but there are few roads in that area, and only one train line. The town’s council will now decide whether or not to approve the restarts.

METI Minister Yukio Edano is warning of possible rolling blackouts this summer if the reactors at Kansai Electric’s Oi plant are not restarted. However, many experts have questioned Kansai’s predictions of a 16.3% power shortage, pointing out that the utility has failed to take into account energy saving measures and renewable forms of power. 

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

A group of 70 mayors and other municipal officials from 35 prefectures in Japan has banded together to form an anti-nuclear group, which is demanding that the central government work to establish a “nuclear-free society.”  In addition to criticizing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the group formally declared opposition to the government’s plan to restart reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

Four electric power operators in Japan have submitted stress test results to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for a combined 20 facilities, including the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, in the hopes of gaining approval to bring the reactors back online. The Japanese public, however, remains wary of their safety in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, in which three separate reactors experienced nuclear meltdown.

TEPCO

TEPCO submitted a new plan for restructuring its beleaguered business in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster to Yukio Edano, the head of METI. The plan was due to be submitted to Edano last month, but the utility failed to do so. The revised business plan proposes a 10% rate increase for residential consumers, restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture in 2013, and some cost-cutting measures. In addition, the government would inject $12.4 billion in public funding to keep the utility afloat and help cover compensation and decontamination costs, in exchange for more than 50% of voting shares. Edano must approve the plan by May 14 in order to keep the company from going bankrupt.

TEPCO is being forced to recalculate the height of a potential tsunami at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, after new calculations by local municipalities show that a magnitude 8.15 earthquake could strike near the plant, triggering a much larger tsunami than originally anticipated. TEPCO’s previous calculations predicted a maximum 7.85 magnitude quake, with a 3.3-meter tsunami. The new figures could affect stress tests results at the plant, as well as local approval to restart the reactor there.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which is the largest single shareholder of TEPCO stock, plans to present a five-point list of demands at the utility’s annual shareholders’ meeting in June. Among other things, the Tokyo government is demanding that TEPCO drastically reduce operating costs, retain an external certified accountant, and review its pricing structure.

Other Nuclear News

Workers have begun construction on a new steel-framed shelter at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred in 1986. The structure, which will stand 105 meters tall and 257 meters wide, is designed to contain radiation while workers disable the reactor and remove melted fuel. That process is expected to take more than 70 years.

The staff of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recommended that its commissioners vote to approve a license renewal for the controversial 40-year old Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, just 35 miles from Boston. Almost five million people live within 50 miles of the plant, whose license expires in May.

The move comes as a power struggle continues to brew among the NRC commissioners and its Chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who has pushed for stronger safety standards in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Robert Alvarez, of The Institute for Policy Studies, noted, “The majority of commissioners were put there largely with the blessing of the nuclear power industry and are now pushing back over potentially expensive upgrades to the reactor fleet after Fukushima.” Notably, the nuclear industry’s powerful and well-heeled Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) spent $2.1 million on lobbying and public relations in 2011, increasing its efforts by 25% in direct response to the Fukushima crisis. Approximately one-quarter of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors are Mark-I reactors, the same type as those that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant; they too would at risk of meltdown in the case of power loss should a natural disaster or terrorist attack occur.

Officials at the Pacific Gas and Electric in California have been forced to reduce power output to 25% of operating capacity at its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, after small jellyfish-like creatures called salp clogged a cooling water intake pipe. A similar incident involving jellyfish severely restricted power output at Diablo Canyon in 2008, and other plants in the US, Japan, United Kingdom, and Israel have also experienced issues with jellyfish.

Ted Craver, Chief Operating Officer of Edison International, told shareholders last week that he is unable to say when the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will resume operation. It was taken offline three months ago after excessive wear was discovered in steam generator tubes, placing the plant at risk for radiation leaks into the atmosphere. The utility has been unable to determine the cause of the wear. Almost seven and a half million people live within 50 miles of the SONGS facility.