(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
Japan’s government is continuing to rush toward restarting nuclear reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, despite vehement opposition by local governments and increasing distrust by residents who no longer believe the government’s promises that nuclear power is safe. Last week, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda bowed to pressure by concerned municipal officials. He requested that Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, draft new nuclear safety standards for nuclear reactors in Japan, after Noda insisted for months that they weren’t necessary.
However, the new standards, which were hastily compiled in just two days, have been met with an uproar of protest, as many experts complain that the majority of the new guidelines are simply recycled from other standards outlined by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and have already been put in place. The remaining third have no government-defined deadline for completion, and in the case of the Oi reactors, will not be enacted until at least 2015. In essence, the Oi reactors are no safer now than they were last week, when many local officials were questioning their safety. In spite of the controversy, Noda and his cabinet approved the new standards, although Edano’s assessment at a press conference on the issue seemed lukewarm. When asked about the safety of the Oi reactors, he answered that they “more or less met our safety standards.”
The new standards require that power companies ensure backup power sources exist at idled reactors in case of an earthquake or tsunami; in most cases, this was out into place immediately after the Fukushima crisis. In addition, operators will be required to draft a plan to improve nuclear safety, which in the government’s eyes, basically means passing its controversial stress tests. They’ll also need to prepare a mid- and long-term plan for dealing with issues identified in the stress tests; however, actually addressing those issues, no matter how crucial they are to safety, is not required in order to restart the reactors. Notably, these standards apply to idled reactors all over Japan, not just those at the Oi plant. And they don’t address a number of issues identified after the Fukushima disaster, including how well plants are designed to stand up to multiple-fault earthquakes or address the need for complex evacuation plans.
In response, Kansai Electric immediately submitted a safety plan including 91 action items, but admitted that over one third of the steps have not been enacted and may not be for years, in spite of the fact that many are crucial for ensuring the plant’s safety. Kansai said that it will install new vents to prevent hydrogen explosions, which will include filters to reduce the amount of radioactive fallout that could escape from the reactors in case of a nuclear accident. However, those vents will not be installed until 2015, which means that nearby residents and workers at the plant will be at risk of radiation exposure until then. In fact, none of Japan’s 54 reactors is fitted with such vents.
In addition, Kansai will build an earthquake-resistant building to house emergency headquarters in case of a disaster, but that will also not be completed until 2015. Currently, the central emergency control center is located in the basement of the Oi plant; if a tsunami struck, that room could be flooded. In the interim, the utility is promising to use a nearby conference room as the headquarters, in spite of the fact that experts have pointed out it only holds 50 people and is so close to the plant that radiation levels might be too high to use it. The same thing happened during the Fukushima disaster, rendering that emergency control center unusable.
Edano will reportedly visit Fukui Prefecture as early as this week or next to obtain consent to restart the Oi reactors from Governor Issei Nishikawa, who has been relatively closemouthed regarding whether or not he will grant approval, although in the past he said that a decision could not be made until the government releases its report on the causes of the Fukushima disaster. However, gaining the approval of other local officials will be an uphill battle for Noda. The Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, said this week, “There is no way for the government to hastily put standards together and judge safety in a couple of weeks. Japan will collapse if restarts are approved based on these procedures…The role of politicians is to assemble experts who have not received money from the nuclear power establishment and tell them to put together [new] standards.” Hashimoto was referring to the so-called “nuclear village” in Japan, where the nuclear power industry has had notorious financial and social influence on the government’s nuclear regulatory system as well as universities that publish pro-nuclear studies.
And Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada, whose prefecture is home to Lake Biwa, primary freshwater source for 14 million people, said she will oppose the restarts unless “we are certain that they are absolutely safe.” Kada is demanding that the government’s new nuclear regulatory agency be established before the Oi reactors are restarted, and expressed serious concern about Kansai’s safety plan items that have yet to be implemented. “I’d be hard pressed to go along if those things are excluded, and they say they’ve met the standards just based on what they’ve managed to get done at the time. It appears to me that they are compromising technological safety in a half-baked way.”
In the meantime, Edano said that the government will evaluate the need for nuclear energy produced by the Oi plant. A report recently released by Kansai Electric said that not restarting reactors #3 and #4 could result in a 13.9% power shortage if temperatures are similar to those of last summer, which broke records for heat. However, experts are questioning these estimates, pointing out that Kansai has a history of releasing inaccurate estimates of power supplies. For instance, this February, Kansai predicted a 10% shortage in its service area. In fact, the area experienced a power surplus, in spite of a record-breaking cold winter and a 5% increase in power usage. Analysts caution that Kansai’s projections do not take into account power-saving measures of residents, renewable energy sources, and power-sharing with other utilities in the region.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
METI Minister Yukio Edano raised eyebrows this week when he said that Japan should work to completely eradicate its reliance on nuclear power. “The government’s policy is now to reduce reliance on nuclear power as low as possible…I’d like to see the reliance on nuclear cut to zero. I’d like to have a society work without nuclear as soon as possible.” Edano made the comments even as Prime Minister Noda is expected to instruct him to travel to Fukui Prefecture soon, where he will attempt to convince local officials that restarting the Oi nuclear reactors is safe. Edano was speaking at a news conference, and clarified that the statement reflected his own personal opinion.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama has apologized for his support of nuclear power while in office, including his part in changing the Japan Socialist Party’s policy on nuclear energy. “It was imprudent and it was a failure. I want to apologize.” Murayama opposes the decision to restart the Oi reactors. He joins former Prime Minister Naoto Kan in his anti-nuclear stance.
A group of 15 mayors in Japan has formed an anti-nuclear alliance. They are urging other mayors to join them in promoting a nuclear-free Japan and renewable energy, while working to establish sound evacuation plans and food safety policies in case of another nuclear disaster. The group banded together in response to the possible restart of the idled Oi reactors. Kosai Mayor Hajime Mikame, of Shizuoka Prefecture, summarized the central reason for building the alliance: “By breaking away from nuclear plants, we will protect the lives and property of residents.”
Meanwhile, a group of seven members of Parliament, from both ruling and opposition parties, is urging Noda not to make a slipshod decision about whether or not to restart idled reactors in Japan. One member, Taro Kono, noted, “The government needs to investigate the causes of the nuclear accident, launch a nuclear regulatory body, set out new rules, and gain agreement from local people. These are the right steps [in the right order.]”
The number of TEPCO employees who voluntarily quit or retired this year has increased three and half times over the usual number of staff who leave the company. Workers reported stress, despair, and low company morale as reasons for leaving, as well as pressure and anger from prefectural residents who are frustrated with the way TEPCO has bungled the disaster.
A coalition of hotels in Shizuoka Prefecture has announced that its members will not renew their contracts with TEPCO, in protest of the utility’s recent 17% rate hike for businesses in Japan.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
A new poll of 35 prefectures and 10 major cities conducted by Japanese public television station NHK reveals that most are still not committed to the central government’s request to accept debris, much of it radioactive, from last year’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Officials from seven regions have agreed to accept the debris, but eight flatly refused, and 29 said they are still considering the request. Residents’ worries about radiation safety lead the list of concerns. Many government officials are demanding guarantees of safety, as well as compensation for the potential negative effect on local businesses of rumors about radiation.
Other Nuclear News
In response to recent revelations that the operator of the Kori nuclear power plant in Busan, South Korea, attempted to conceal a major power outage at the plant, including failure of backup generators, residents who live near the Kori reactors are demanding an en masse relocation to an area far away from the plant. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, many are concerned about their safety, as well as the effect of a possible nuclear disaster on their personal property and livelihoods. Local political candidates are all calling for the closing of the reactor, but in Busan, municipal approval is not required. Residents are planning protests and sit-ins to draw attention to their concerns.
Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said he cannot predict when the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), located near San Diego, will reopen. SONGS was shut down after excessive wear was discovered in tubes connected to a steam generator there. One tube broke, possibly releasing radioactivity into the environment. Over 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of the plant. Jaczko said, “I don’t want to put a timetable on how long it could take.” Local residents are pushing for a permanent closure of the SONGS facility; Patti Davis, a member of San Clemente Green, worried, “We saw what happened in Japan and we’re terrified that it could happen right here in Southern California.”