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 a surprise announcement, National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa said this week that Japan should strive to eradicate nuclear power by 2030, a view that falls in line with the vast majority of the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono said that the nation should not rush to move away from nuclear power. In particular, he raised concerns about decommissioning reactors in Japan. “Unless we have the knowledge of how to maintain such technology for decommissioning, we can’t simply say that we will be able to abandon nuclear power generation.” But even if Japan continues to embrace nuclear power, experts say that the government must begin to figure out how to decommission the growing number of aging reactor there that will soon reach the end of their lifespans.  Currently, the only reactors being decommissioned are those at Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tokai reactors in Ibaraki Prefecture. However, plant operators have encountered numerous problems in trying to remove the fuel there and decommission the reactors, and as yet, still have not identified a location to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that will be generated.

Newly-conducted deliberative polling of 280 people on Japan’s proposed nuclear energy policy for the year 2030 shows that 47% of those queried support completely eradicating nuclear power—far more than support any other option, and an increase of 14% from before discussion about the issue took place. The government is trying to determine how much nuclear power the country should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. Deliberative polling assesses participants’ opinions before, during, and after substantive discussion about an issue. Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University, conducted the poll. Some government officials and proponents of nuclear power had predicted that the number of supporters of the 15% option would increase once participants were better informed, but instead, that number actually decreased. Only 15.4% said they supported the 15% option after discussion, and just 13% supported the 20-25% option. In assessing the results, Sone noted, “I think that even after discussion meetings, many respondents were not thoroughly convinced about the safety of nuclear power plants.” Analysts say that the results, along with other indicators of public opposition to nuclear energy, are certain to affect the government’s decision about the nation’s future energy policy as well as elections in the near future.

The government has also been collecting opinions about the energy policy online, with more than 89,000 responses received so far. A whopping 90% of those who responded support either phasing out or completely abandoning nuclear power in Japan, with 81% saying that it should be completely eradicated. Only 4% said they support nuclear power.

Newly-released figures from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan shows that in spite of widespread fear-mongering by power companies and threats of rolling power outages during summer peak usage periods, electric companies sold 6.3% less power this summer, record-high temperatures in August notwithstanding. No rolling blackouts occurred. And even in the Kansai region, where demand would have occasionally outstripped supply had the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture not been restarted, experts say that KEPCO, the plant’s operators, could have easily borrowed power from other nearby operators, as they did the year before, without restarting the reactors. Hideyuki Koyama, Executive Director at Mihama No Kai, which opposed the restart of the Oi reactors, said, “The data are solid proof that Japan can supply electricity even without any nuclear power generation. Reactivation of the reactors was decided considering the cost and profits of the electricity utilities. But under the circumstances, nuclear plants should be shut down for the safety of the public.” In a separate interview, Yukio Hatoyama, former party leader of the DPJ, noted, “Electricity demand is hitting a peak during the summer baseball season but even so, there have not been any blackouts. We should set a target of 0% power usage by 2030.”

After months of refusing to do so, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda finally met with 10 representatives from the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes on Wednesday. The group has been leading protests—some that attracted more than 100,000 people—outside of Noda’s residence every Friday since March. The meeting was streamed live and covered by the media.  The protesters asked Noda to shut down the recently restarted reactors at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, completely eradicate nuclear power in Japan, and to appoint new, impartial representatives to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is scheduled to begin operations next month. However, Noda showed no signs of backing down despite mounting public opposition to nuclear energy. The meeting ended after 30 minutes; protesters were clearly frustrated. “We’ll never stop our protests until the government says in clear words that it will abandon nuclear power,” one noted. Another said, “I don’t think our demands meant anything to him.” Noda was scheduled to meet with the head of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, which is strongly pro-nuclear, later in the day. Protesters have vowed to continue to weekly protests, which continue to grow in size.
 
Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and others from the National Network for Legislation of a Nuclear Phaseout Law (Datsu Genpatsu Ho Seitei Zenkoku Network) are working to enact new legislation that would end nuclear power in Japan by 2025 and instead encourage reliance on renewable energy sources. In addition, the proposed law would limit the lifespan of reactors in Japan to 40 years and prohibit construction of new nuclear power plants. In order to submit the bill, Oe’s group needs signatures from at least 50 members of the Diet’s Lower House and 20 members from the Upper House. Because of widespread dissent among members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is the ruling party in Parliament, the group expects to easily obtain those signatures.

Scientists from The Atomic Energy Society of Japan said this week that they will form a committee comprising 40 nuclear experts to examine the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster last year. They expect to produce a report on the issue by December 2013. This will be the fifth investigation into the disaster; the others were conducted by the Japanese government; a Parliamentary-appointed panel; the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a private commission; and TEPCO itself. Many analysts are questioning the ability of this newest investigative panel to remain impartial; all 40 experts are from the society itself, which is pro-nuclear, and its first meeting was held privately behind closed doors. (Source: NHK)

Local officials in Niigata Prefecture conducted safety drills at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant this week, in an effort to simulate the aftereffects of a terrorist attack. The drill supposed that loss of power to the plant resulted in radiation leaks, leading to evacuation of the 21,500 residents who live within a 5 km radius of the plant. Although the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) has asked nuclear power plants to consider protecting themselves against terrorist attacks, recent stress tests designed to assess the health of the nations’ power plants completely ignored the threat of terrorism. (Source: NHK)

TEPCO

TEPCO is reporting that a record number of household customers have requested reduced contracts with the utility, in anticipation of new rate increases slated to go into effect September 1. TEPCO has instituted a sliding scale system, which means that customers who use the most power will also pay the most. Low-wattage users can expect a rate hike of 1.9%, but for heavy users, that figure jumps to 9.8%. However, utility officials say that instituting a contract change requires physically installing a circuit breaker at the home, and currently they have more orders than they can fill before the new rates go into effect. In addition, they expect they will have a shortage of the circuit breakers themselves. TEPCO has a rule that once a contract is changed, it cannot be changed back for at least a year.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

TEPCO announced this week that it has discovered the highest levels of radiation yet detected in seafood caught off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Utility officials said that a rock trout caught 1 km off the coast of Minamisoma City--located 20 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant--contained 38,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, or 380 times the legally allowed limit. Another rock trout contained 25,800 Bq/kg, or 258 times the legal limit. Although fishing in that area is still forbidden, Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, said he was concerned, and implied TEPCO may have experienced additional leaks they have not publicized. “The reading was way beyond the levels recorded before. It is worrying. We operate on the assumption that no additional contaminated water was leaked into the sea from the plant.” TEPCO said that it will investigate the issue and suggested that concentrated areas of radioactivity in the ocean—in effect, hotspots—may be to blame.

Two men in Fukushima Prefecture showed high levels of radioactive cesium this week after eating vegetables grown in their home gardens, showing that the risk of internal radiation exposure in some areas remains high. One of the men measured nearly 20,000 Becquerels. Their wives also were also exposed to radiation. The men were from Kawamata and Nihonmatsu, and had consumed, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and dried persimmons.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

The Environment Ministry cautioned this week that the amount of highly radioactive waste measuring more from last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, previously estimated at 50,000 tons, is now likely to be much higher.  The government is responsible for handling any waste measuring more than 8,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, and Fukushima and nearby prefectures are currently storing 42,575 tons of highly radioactive waste. Estimates measuring the amount of waste that will need to be stored are as high as 28 million cubic meters, or enough to completely fill 23 Tokyo Domes.

The government is expected to identify state-owned land in four prefectures—Miyagi, Tochigi, Ibaraki, and Chiba—as permanent nuclear waste storage sites. Although residents are already expressing widespread opposition, they have little legal recourse if the waste is stored on state land. No public consent is required. An official from the Environment Ministry noted, “After choosing a candidate site, we will politely explain to local residents about the safety and necessity of the permanent disposal facilities.” Local governments are supposed to construct the permanent storage areas by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, the government has also identified 12 sites in Futaba, Okuma, and Naraha tapped for so-called “interim” waste storage. Officials say that waste will be deposited for no more than 30 years. But residents are concerned that the waste may end up staying there forever, threatening their ability to return to the homes from which they were evacuated almost 18 months ago.

But next week, The Science Council of Japan will reportedly present a proposal to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), requesting a review of the way that the government plans to permanently dispose of nuclear waste. The group contends that a plan to bury highly-radioactive waste 300 meters below the ground for thousands of years is shortsighted and dangerous in a country where major earthquakes and tsunami are commonplace. Instead, sources say that the scientists will suggest burying the waste for hundreds of years, and in the meantime, developing yet-undiscovered technology to otherwise dispose of it.