(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
In a sharp departure from decades of Japanese custom, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura declared on Thursday that there is no legal requirement for local communities to grant permission for restarting nuclear reactors near their homes—even if they are ardently opposed to such a move and concerned about their safety. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been trying to convince prefectural and municipal officials to approve restarts of Kansai Electric’s reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, but has been met with widespread resistance by residents and officials who no longer trust the government’s assurances of safety. Fujimura said that the government will instead “explain” new standards it eventually plans to put in place at the reactors.
Earlier this week, Noda postponed a decision to restart the reactors in response to increasing public anti-nuclear sentiment, as well as concern about the safety of residents in Fukui and nearby Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. The governors of Kyoto and Shiga have both been vehemently opposed to bringing the Oi reactors online; Yukiko Kada, Governor of Shiga, stated, “The investigation into the cause of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, the formulation of safety measures, and the mechanism to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors are insufficient.” Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa has also demanded to see the cause of the Fukushima disaster before moving ahead at Oi. A government report on the causes of the Fukushima disaster is not expected to be released until July.
As recently as April 3, Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), stressed the importance of gaining consent from local communities: “We will not resume operations until we gain a certain level of understanding from local communities and the public. At the present time, I am opposed to resuming operations. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had a direct and indirect effect on all of Japan.” On April 3, Edano reiterated that Noda would not make an immediate decision on restarting the reactors.
However, experts agree that Noda and the nuclear power industry are panicking about what will happen if all reactors in Japan go offline. Currently, 53 of 54 are not working. Many believe that the Japanese people will remain unconvinced that nuclear power is vital to the nation. Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, noted, “They want to avoid setting a precedent of the country operating without nuclear power, because it will create a huge barrier in terms of restarts. People will question why we need it.”
Noda has ordered the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), under the direction of Edano, to compile a list of 30 provisional safety standards for restarting reactors. However, they will be implemented in two stages: 13 of the standards (many of which are already in place) are required for restarts, and the rest will be completed later, because they require new equipment and new facilities, although no dates for completing (or even beginning them) have been announced. In effect, the government has done nothing over the past week to actually ensure the safety of the Oi reactors, in spite of repeated requests by local communities. An editorial in the Asahi Shimbun noted, “The rushed timetable makes it look as if the government believes all that is needed is to change the cover of an old book.”
Noda is continuing to meet with Fujimura, Edano, and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono to push the restarts through in spite of public opposition. Noda plans to send Edano to Fukui Prefecture on Sunday to request the acceptance of the governor there in restarting the Oi reactors.
In the meantime, Osaka’s prefectural and municipal governments have joined forces to form a so-called “energy strategy council,” to determine whether or not it’s safe to restart the Oi reactors #3 and #4 in nearby Fukui Prefecture. The council has proposed eight preconditions for restarting idled reactors, including demanding that Japan’s central government obtain permission from all residents and municipal governments within 100 km of a nuclear reactor. Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka, said, “We must take responsibility in order to obtain the right [to demand local consent]. It is good to create something like a nuclear safety commission that consists of people who do not receive money from the ‘nuclear village.’” Hashimoto’s comments reflect a widespread distrust of NISA and the government’s assurances of the safety of nuclear power, in light of repeated admissions of collusion with and influence by the power industry.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Government sources are blaming communication failures between the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) for failure to disclose to the public information about exceedingly high levels of nuclear fallout in the days immediately following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Data from the System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI ) showed that radioactive iodine measuring 10 trillion Becquerels per hour were released in the environment on March 14, as well as a trillion Becquerels each of radioactive cesium-134 and -137. The estimates were not released to the public until this week.
Japan’s Minister for Reconstruction, Tatsuo Hirano has presented a proposal to create a permanent so-called “buffer zone” around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that would forever more be off-limits to residents. Local officials are largely supporting the plan, out of safety concerns about exceedingly high radiation levels. Specific compensation plans would be established to support evacuees who will never be able to return to their homes.
New reports reveal that Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s office was not connected to a teleconference system designed to link it with NISA, off-site emergency centers, and municipal officials on March 11, 2011 when the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred. The system, which costs between 500 and 600 million yen every year, is located on the fourth floor of the Prime Minister’s office, but the crisis team was working from a crisis management center in the basement. Officials from the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) and the Cabinet Secretariat were responsible for ensuring that the Prime Minister was connected to the system, but said they were too busy to do so.
In response to a new study showing that the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture is at risk for a 21-meter tsunami, NISA has ordered Chubu Electric to upgrade the plant, to ensure that reactors are not at risk of being flooded and power is not lost. Chubu has already spent 140 billion yen ($1.7 billion) building an 18-meter sea wall, due to be completed in December of this year. However, the new data shows that the risk of a tsunami was underestimated, and the utility will need to build a higher wall.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO reported yet another leak of 12 tons of radioactive water at the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster this week, and admitted that much of it may have run into the ocean. A previous leak occurred on March 26, when water containing 10,000 Bq/l of cesium and 140 million Bq/l of strontium seeped into the sea. Officials said they believe that this leak was similarly highly contaminated.
A strong storm in Japan shut down injection of nitrogen into reactors #1, #2, and #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant for almost an hour and a half this week, revealing the plant’s ongoing state of vulnerability. Nitrogen injections are used to prevent more hydrogen explosions, which could result in massive amounts of radiation being spewed into the air. TEPCO believes the issue may have been caused by dust that clogged filters in the injection system, but is continuing to investigate. Officials said that no rise in hydrogen levels was detected. However, they admitted that it took an hour for workers to even notice that there was a problem with the injection process, because the alarm system was not designed to provide alerts in real time.
In addition, the storm shut down cooling systems at a spent fuel pool at the idled Tohoku Electric’s Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture. Officials said that workers manually restarted the system 20 minutes later.
TEPCO may not pay its employees summer bonuses this year, after a recent 17% rate hike for corporate consumers, a proposed 10% rate hike for households, and a government bailout of a trillion yen ($12 billion) has raised cries that the company needs to make serious cost cutting measures before passing them along to the Japanese people. In spite of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and the fact that the utility is in dire financial straits, employees received both summer and winter bonuses last year, even as TEPCO was continuing to petition the government for more money to cover compensation and operating costs. The company is reportedly concerned about its public image.
New government standards for cesium contamination in food have resulted in several discoveries of fish and produce exceeding the revised legal limits. Cesium in smelt caught this week in Gunma Prefecture measured 426 Bq/kg, far exceeding the standard of 100 Bq/km. Bamboo shoots from the Kisarazu and Ichihara regions were found to be contaminated, and shitake mushrooms measuring 350 Bq/kg were discovered in Miyagi Prefecture. The government has banned the shipment of both shitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots from those regions.
Japan’s Environment Ministry announced that radiation levels near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant are once again rising, as snow melts and exposes radioactive soil and other debris. In Namie, radiation readings of 19.3 microsieverts per hour were recorded after a snowstorm on March 6. However, they have risen again to 31.3 microsieverts per hour as the spring thaw takes effect.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere Ocean Research Institute as well as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have discovered high concentrations of radioactive cesium in plankton up to 600 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, raising concerns about contamination of the food chain. Samples taken 300 km from the plant measured 102 Bq/kg (dry weight). Seawater collected 100 km from the Daiichi plant measured 7,733 Bq/m3. “Even though the radiation levels detected from the plankton samples were still low, there is a possibility that large amounts of cesium will accumulate in fish through the food chain, in a phenomenon called biological concentration. We need to continue our survey,” warned Jun Nishikawa, one of the Tokyo researchers.
A computer simulation by JAEA shows that radiation-contaminated water will reach the Hawaiian coast—over 5,000 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant—by March 2014. As a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, scientists estimate that 18,000 teraBecquerels of radioactive iodine and cesium leaked or were dumped into ocean waters. Researchers say that the water’s radiation levels will be highly diluted and do not pose a great risk to humans, but caution that sea life needs to be monitored in order to determine whether contaminants are accumulating in the food chain.
Japan’s Environment Ministry said it will conduct long-term ecological studies near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in order to study and monitor radiation contamination in the ecosystem. Recent reports show that radiation contamination continues to affect flora and fauna in the area around Chernobyl, site of a 1986 nuclear disaster.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
The Mayor of Futaba, Katsutaka Idogawa, met this week with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to finalize discussions about building a waste storage site there. In exchange, Idogawa has requested that the government spell out reconstruction plans for the area, and said that Noda seemed ready to accept that request.
In a sign of increasing frustration with TEPCO’s rejection of reimbursement claims, many victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are banding together to demand higher compensation from the utility. In Odaka, 2,000 people have registered to be part of a joint settlement. One farmer noted, “TEPCO, the wrongdoer, is unilaterally rejecting our claims with little or no explanation. There is no room for negotiation.” Groups from Futaba and Iitate are following suit.
Other Nuclear News
In a sign of increasing concern about the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego, the Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, will visit the plant. California Senator Dianne Feinstein will accompany him. The San Onofre plant has been experiencing ongoing problems with steam generator tubes that are showing excessive amounts of wear, in spite of the fact that they were installed just two years ago. If the tubes break, they can release dangerous radiation into the environment. A report commissioned by environmental group Friends of the Earth accuses Southern California Edison (SCE) of misleading the NRC regarding changes to the the generators’ design, and local residents are rallying to close the plant permanently, citing safety concerns.