Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

TEPCO

TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, as well as the utility’s executive Vice President and Managing Executive Officer, will each be fined 5% of one month’s salary. The move comes in response to an incident earlier this month, in which power was cut off to cooling functions at the plant’s spent fuel pools for more than 29 hours after a rat ran across wiring at a temporary switchboard being that had been sitting on a truck for more than two years. TEPCO did not notify NRA officials for more than an hour after the discovery, and waited several hours before notifying local government officials, media, and the public about the situation, which could have eventually led, had the spent fuel rods overheated, to large releases of radioactivity. Critics charge that the fines, comprising a small amount of a single month’s salary, are too small.

TEPCO announced this week that in order to stay financially solvent, it needs to cut an additional 100 billion yen from operating and procurement costs this year, in addition to 3.36 trillion it has already pledged to cut by 2021 as part of a business plan it submitted to the government last year. The company is staggering under massive cleanup and compensation costs in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and was forced to ask the government for 1 trillion yen last year. Lawsuits against the company are pending and expected to grow, further increasing the company’s liability. Experts estimate that the overall cost of the Fukushima disaster will be as much as 10 trillion yen—equal to 2% of Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP). TEPCO announced losses of 120 billion yen in fiscal year 2012, which ended last week, but claims that it will operate in the black by the end of the year.

In addition, the company said that it is putting plans to restart reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture on hold; they will not restart any time soon. Last year, TEPCO submitted a business plan to the government that included restarting one reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant this month, and restarting its remaining six reactors over the next year and a half. However, new NRA safety regulations will not take effect until July, and inspections to ensure reactors meet those new standards are expected to take months.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO reported that an alarm was triggered near the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi plant on April 3, signifying radiation levels higher than .0001 Bq/cm3. However, officials said that no major changes in radiation levels were recorded nearby, and no abnormalities were noted in either water injection or cooling systems at the plant’s reactors. Officials are blaming the incident on an equipment malfunction, but have ordered all workers to wear facemasks for the time being.

On Thursday morning, the utility also reported that its advanced liquid processing system (ALPS) was unintentionally halted after an employee hit the wrong switch. The system is designed to remove many radioactive substances from water used to cool reactors (with the exception of radioactive tritium, which it is not able to filter out) and had been in testing mode since Saturday. The system was restarted that same morning.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said this week that nuclear reactors aged 40 years or older which pass newly-defined standards will be allowed to operate for an additional 20 years. Those requirements include ultrasonic examinations of reactors, tests to determine strength of concrete used to build containment vessels, installation of more than two cooling water injection pipes, and use of non-flammable power cables. Last June, Japan enacted a law stating that reactors older than 40 years would be dismantled. In August, while being questioned by members of Parliament, NRA Chairman Sunichi Tanaka promised to hold a hard line on shutting those reactors down, saying, “This system is needed to ensure the safety of old power plants. We should strictly check nuclear reactors and take the stance of not allowing those beyond 40 years to operate.” The country currently has three reactors that are older than 40 years, and 13 more will reach that point within the next ten years.

(Source: NHK)

In addition, NRA Chair Tanaka said that the agency is drafting new safety goals that it will present next week, including establishing a limit of one major nuclear disaster per reactor every million years. The purpose of establishing the limit, Tanaka said, was to acknowledge that major nuclear disasters do occur, and to dispel the so-called “nuclear safety myth” in Japan, in which the nuclear power industry long claimed that nuclear accidents were impossible in that country. That myth was shattered in March 2011, after three separate reactors experienced core meltdowns, as well as hydrogen explosions that sent massive amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japan plans to overhaul its national power system, requiring companies to fully separate power generation and distribution functions by 2020, with efforts to begin the process starting in 2015. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed hard for the move in a country where the high cost of electricity has often been a disincentive in bringing in new business. The end result, lawmakers say, will be increased competition in the energy market as smaller producers, including renewable energy providers, are able to enter the market without paying exorbitant prices for transmission to incumbent companies that own power grids, as well as lower costs for consumers. The influential power industry, which holds regional monopolies, has long fought the proposed changes, fearing increased competition, but since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it has lost some political capital. The Mainichi Daily News reported that one official at a power company lamented, “If certain customers got lower prices, other customers would demand the same, and there would be no end to it.” The plan was approved by the Cabinet this week, and now heads for passage by Parliament.

Japan’s central government has announced plans to build a new reactor decommissioning research center in Naraha, Fukushima. The new facility, located approximately 25 km from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, will include a simulated reactor where scientists can use robots to simulate the steps required to dismantle TEPCO’s crippled reactors. That process is expected to take at least 40 years. The Naraha facility is slated to open in March 2015.

Contamination and Other Long Term Effects of the Nuclear Disaster

A new study by the Minamisoma Municipal Board of Education reveals that only 56% of elementary school-aged children and only 67% of junior high-aged children have enrolled in local schools, after many were forced to evacuate following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Officials say that many parents fear exposing their children to high radiation levels in Minamisoma; in addition, some are hesitant to uproot their children from the schools and towns to which they evacuated. “I think that this is because schoolchildren have gotten used to their lives in schools in areas where they are taking shelter. However, we’re determined to continue our efforts to create an environment in which children can study in the city without concern,” said a Board of Education official.

Evacuation and Repopulation Issues

The municipal government of Naraha has distributed tablet computers to all 7,600 of the town’s evacuees, in order to allow them to access information about radiation levels, live footage of conditions, and notices from town officials. Many are living in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. The town is the fourth municipality to distribute tablet computers to residents forced to evacuate in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. Residents can currently visit their homes during the daytime, but persistent high radiation levels in the area have prevented them from returning full-time.  (Source: NHK)