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

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

In spite of dire predictions of blackouts from power companies and some government officials, Japan has experienced no power loss this summer, even during the heaviest period of usage on August 3. Analysts say that electricity sales to households fell by 12.4% from last year, after voluntary power saving advisories were established. In addition, predictions by the Japanese Institute of Energy Economics earlier this year that the nation’s economy would shrink or remain the same have fallen flat. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) actually grew by 5.5% in the first quarter of this year and by 1.1% during the second quarter.

Japan has begun posting select comments from the public on the government’s pending decision about how much nuclear energy the country should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. Over 90,000 comments were received. Officials plan to convene with experts beginning next week to assess the opinions. However, the Noda administration has never said how much weight public opinion, which is overwhelmingly anti-nuclear, will hold. Recent surveys show that approximately 70% of the public embraces the 0% option and believes that nuclear power should be completely eradicated by 2030. Meanwhile, in the face of so much opposition, officials are now waffling on the 2030 deadline. But no new goal date has been given.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said this week that approximately two tons of alkaline water leaked from a desalination system at the Oi power plant, as a result of a malfunction in the tank’s measuring equipment. Officials from Kansai Electric, which operates the plant, insist that the reactors are safe. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered reactors #3 and #4 restarted in July, in defiance of overwhelming public opposition to the move. Meanwhile, scientists are now conducting seismic studies of the ground immediately beneath the reactors after new revelations that active faults may lie there. If active faults are indeed discovered, they could be shut down permanently and decommissioned.

TEPCO

Revelations about how TEPCO dealt with the Fukushima nuclear crisis in the days immediately following the disaster continue to surface, as reporters broaden their examination of videotapes recording teleconferences conducted between TEPCO’s main offices and the plant’s emergency headquarters. This week, The Daily Yomiuri reported that executives from the utility, including Managing Executive Officer Akio Komori, began to draw up plans to evacuate workers as they realized that efforts to vent steam from reactor #2 were failing, and a hydrogen explosion would likely occur. However, just last week, Masao Yoshida, then Plant Chief at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, said he never thought about abandoning the plant as the crisis was unfolding. The tapes do not clarify whether officials planned to evacuate all workers, or just some. TEPCO officials have long denied that they planned to evacuate all staff from the plant, but former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other government officials said that they were.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will reportedly terminate an exclusive contract with TEPCO to sell electricity generated at dams in Tokyo to the utility. The municipal assembly currently has a contract with TEPCO that extends through 2019, but hopes to end it next year in order to increase competition within the power industry and encourage new players. The Assembly plans to award a new contract to the highest bidder. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he will present a proposal to the municipal assembly in September, but TEPCO said it has no plans to terminate the contract before the end date.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa said this week that restarting reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as reactors #1 - #4 at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, is impossible, and they should never be reactivated. Residents, many who have been permanently displaced from their homes, have long protested the restarts, and the Fukushima municipal government has officially declared its opposition to restarting any reactors in the Prefecture. In spite of public outcry, TEPCO has yet to declare whether or not it will decommission the reactors.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said this week that the government will provide increased support, including funding, to the development of robot technology that will be used to decommission the crippled nuclear reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Hosono made the announcement during a trip to the Chiba Institute of Technology, where a new robot prototype, “Rosemary,” was unveiled. Rosemary is stronger and more stable than a previous robot called Quince, which met a tragic demise when its cable became entangled in debris in reactor #2.

Nuclear Power Industry Corruption

A citizens’ group is protesting the ethics and impartiality of municipal officials tasked with deciding whether or not nuclear reactors should be restarted around Japan, after it conducted a survey that showed nearly 20% of 100 officials with authority to decide on the restarts had taken money from the nuclear industry. The amount of money received—listed as “donations” or “research funds”—ranged from 30,000 yen to 42.61 million yen per person. In all, the group discovered that 140 million yen ($1.8 million) was distributed to local officials just in 2010 and 2011. Satoshi Shinkai, who serves as head of the group’s secretariat, said, “In order to restart reactors whose operations are currently suspended, the consent of prefectural governments is vital. The councils play important roles in giving that consent. But we found that their members are not in positions to be impartial.” An additional 100 assembly members have not yet replied to the survey; the group plans to continue to conduct research and tally results as they are received.

In yet another revelation of corruption within the nuclear power industry, newly released documents uncovered by Asahi show that power companies and related organizations have donated at least 3.18 billion yen ($40 million)—and possibly more—to six municipalities just since the Fukushima disaster occurred in March 2011. That amount does not include donations to victims of the disaster. The companies and organizations involved are the Federation of Electric Companies of Japan, known as Denjiren; Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.; Chubu Electric Power Company; Japan Atomic Power Company; Chugoku Electric Power Company; and Kyushu Electric Power Company. The so-called “donations” were made to the Aomori prefectural government, Rokkasho village government, Shizuoka prefectural government, Matsue city government, and Saga prefectural government. Each of those locations plays host to a nuclear power facility. Other local governments have been promised funding—some of which is undisclosed—so analysts expect the total amount of payments to rise.

Notably, even after the Fukushima disaster, TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company allocated 400 million yen to Rokkasho Village, which abuts the future site of TEPCO’s Higadori power plant. In the meantime, TEPCO was busy petitioning the government for 3 trillion yen ($13 billion) in public funds, which it eventually received, effectively putting it under state control. In a special business plan presented to the government in May of this year, TEPCO promised that it would “abolish donations.” Officials from TEPCO and Tohoku insist that the money was not a donation, and rather, part of original construction costs. However, documentation and budgets from the original plans show no evidence of that.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Fukushima Prefecture said that it will begin testing all rice harvested in the prefecture—which is sold in 30 kg bags—this weekend in order to accommodate the early harvest. Last year, a scandal erupted when radioactive rice exceeding government limits was discovered after prefectural officials declared it safe for human consumption. The government safety standard for rice and other food has since been lowered, from 500 Bq/kg to 100 Bq/kg. Officials say that rice that exceeds legal limits will be discarded.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono met with mayors of local municipalities on Sunday, where he announced the locations of 12 sites identified as future so-called “temporary” nuclear waste storage facilities. Hosono said that the government will begin geological surveys of the areas immediately, promising that the waste will be moved to permanent sites within 30 years, although the government has yet to even determine where those sites might be, much less obtain consent from local authorities. Two sites are in Futaba, nine are in Okuma, and one is in Naraha, where residents were recently given permission to enter their homes but are still forbidden from staying overnight because radiation levels there remain too high. The government originally hoped to store waste at one central site, but retreated after an Environment Ministry study said that such a plan would require a five square kilometer area to store 28 million cubic meters of contaminated soil—enough to fill 23 Tokyo Domes—stirring widespread local opposition. Residents of the 12 municipalities, who do not believe that the waste will be removed within 30 years and who fear deleterious effects from radiation and loss of income from locally grown and made products, are protesting the decision. Many believe that the move will prevent residents and businesses from returning, and towns will remain abandoned. Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa questioned the safety of the decision, stating, “The central government should build up discussions by listening to the intentions of local people.” The government plans to make final decisions regarding locations of the sites by March of 2013; storage will begin in 2015.

Evacuation

The Japanese central government is surveying evacuees of Katsurao Village, in an effort to determine whether they want to establish a temporary town until they can once again return to their homes. The village is located 30 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and experts estimate that the town will be uninhabitable for the next ten years or more as a result of the nuclear crisis. The government plans to follow suit with other towns where radiation levels remain dangerously high. Analysts estimate that at least 15,000 people will remain displaced from their homes for at least a decade. (Source: NHK)

Other Nuclear News

In its annual report, which was released this week in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that worldwide projections of global nuclear power capacity for 2030 are down by 7-8% as a direct result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan is now operating only 2 of 54 reactors, with restarts for the remainder uncertain. Germany plans to completely eradicate nuclear power, and Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland are considering following suit.