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

A bi-partisan group comprised of 91 members of Parliament has declared that 28 of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors need to be permanently shut down and immediately decommissioned because they are not safe. In addition, they say that the remaining 22 reactors are dangerous.

In a major shift, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has proposed that Japan wait until 2015 to decide on future energy policy, rather than doing so this month. In addition, they are suggesting that nuclear power be eradicated in 2050, rather than 2030, which has long been the target date for meeting the nation’s revised goals. However, other DPJ members are vehemently opposed to continuing to support nuclear power, a situation that has caused a major rift in the party just a month before national elections. The government has been trying to determine how much nuclear power Japan should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. Originally, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was expected to support the 15% option, but widespread opposition to nuclear power and massive public protests have forced him to reconsider, even as the business and nuclear community lobby for that plan. Some analysts charge that the DPJ move is an effort to wait until some of the anti-nuclear sentiment dissipates.  National Policy Minister Motohisa Furukawa said that a decision of some sort will be made on September 10.

In response to calls to completely abandon nuclear power, Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said that reducing the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to zero could increase electricity costs and present challenges regarding where to store nuclear waste resulting from the decommissioning of reactors. METI is responsible for promoting nuclear power, and according to the Asahi Shimbun, many of the impediments raised by Edano and some members of the DPJ were in fact provided by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. 

However, the CEO of Softbank and a vocal advocate of using renewable power sources, Masayoshi Son, said that in fact, the price of nuclear power would actually be more costly than using renewable energy, not less. Son noted that the government’s estimates do not consider the astronomical cost of insuring nuclear power plants, as well as that of decommissioning plants that exceed 40 years of age. Decommissioning will produce large amounts of radioactive waste, which will need to be disposed of.

And, the Environment Ministry announced new plans last week to increase the energy produced from renewable sources six-fold, including wind, biomass, solar, ocean energy, and improved geothermal plants. The combined output from those sources is estimated at 19.4 million kilowatts by 2030. (Source: NHK)

Officials in Aomori Prefecture, home to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, say that they may start to refuse nuclear waste being sent there. The Rokkasho plant was supposed to be the linchpin of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, the plant has been riddled with problems and issues and has never operated at full capacity. In the meantime, 3,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste has been building up there and in storage facilities overseas; the plant’s storage pools are almost full. Officials and residents are economically dependent on the plant continuing its recycling operations, which would be unnecessary if the country abandons nuclear power. If Aomori officials send the waste—which they are calling “nuclear garbage”—back to the plants where it was originally produced, spent fuel pools at plants around the country would quickly fill up, possibly halting their operation and forcing shut downs.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said this week that he will appoint Shunichi Tanaka and four other members to the nation’s newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission, without any Parliamentary approval. The move is highly unusual. The nominations of Tanaka and the others have elicited widespread opposition by the public and members of his own party who have questioned their impartiality. Tanaka is the former vice-chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, a pro-nuclear organization. And four of the five appointees, including Tanaka, have admitted to accepting money from the nuclear power industry.

The government is requesting 81.7 billion yen in funding for the new regulatory agency, which replaces the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The NRC is slated to begin operations later this month.

Weekly anti-nuclear demonstrations, conducted outside of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s official residence every Friday since March, are continuing, but protesters are complaining that some members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department are trying to intimidate participants. The protests are now being videotaped, which can be illegal in Japan, where by law subjects must grant their consent to be photographed. Kenichiro Kawasaki, a lawyer volunteering with the group, warned, “It could be a violation of one’s portrait rights, and it could serve as a form of intimidation on the participants. There is a need to raise such concerns so that videotaping is not considered something that is allowed.” Police have also used barricades to control crowds, in spite of the fact that the protests have been peaceful. A middle-aged woman who attended a recent demonstration said, “With the police taking videos and specifying where we can stand, I felt intimated. This is a peaceful protest movement.”

For the first time, the leaders of three different investigative commissions assigned to examine the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster came together during a forum sponsored by the Science Council of Japan. Koichi Kitazawa led the Independent Investigation Commission of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, sponsored by the independent Rebuild Japan Initiative; Yoichiro Hatamura chaired a government investigative body; and Kiyoshi Kurokawa headed a Diet-appointed panel. The three cautioned that unless further studies delve into the root causes of the disaster, including in-depth examinations of the reactors themselves, a Fukushima-like disaster of even greater proportions could happen again. “It would still be an enormous challenge to bring an accident under control if another occurred,” Kitazawa warned.

Newly obtained documents show that five of seven judges participating in a Supreme Court-hosted study meeting said that safety needs to be scrutinized in cases pertaining to nuclear power plants. Until now, Japanese courts have focused on whether or not the government responded appropriately to nuclear disasters, rather than placing blame on the operators themselves.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono has issued a verbal warning to officials from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and issued fines to its Chair and Vice Chair, after JAEC officials admitted that they held secret, closed door meetings with members of the nuclear industry. Documents show that pro-nuclear participants encouraged the JAEC to change wording of a policy decision statement to encourage the possibility of continuing to recycle nuclear waste, rather than disposing of it. However, JAEC officials have refused to repeal the statement.

Officials from the Osaka municipal and prefectural governments are calling upon Kansai Electric Power to halt reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi Power Plant in nearby Fukui Prefecture now that summer is ending, and power needs in the region have been reduced. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the reactors restarted a few months ago, in spite of widespread public opposition to the plan, massive anti-nuclear protests, and warnings from experts that the reactors may be sitting on active seismic fault lines.

Hokuriku Power has flatly refused a request by members of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) to inspect the Shika Nuclear Power Plant in Ishikawa Prefecture. Seismic experts have recently raised questions about the plant’s safety because of its proximity to potentially active fault lines. Hokuriku officials said, “We determined that those who don’t understand the necessity of nuclear plants are low on our priority list.”

Status of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO continued to experience problems this week in is efforts to injecting water into reactors #1, #2, and #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Last week, workers noticed that water levels in the reactors had dropped several times by as much as 10%, leaving less than the amount needed to keep them cool enough to prevent a nuclear meltdown. Workers were unable to determine the cause of the problem, but surmised that something might be blocking a pipe or there might be an issue with pumps. The utility said that efforts to solve the problem had “a certain effect,” but the problem is persisting. The pumps have now been replaced.

Workers at TEPCO plan to build a steel frame covered with steel sheets over reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in order to prevent any more radiation from escaping into the environment. The move comes as the utility prepares to remove 1,535 fuel rods from a spent fuel pool there, beginning in December 2013. In addition, TEPCO officials insist that reactor #4 is capable of withstanding an earthquake measuring upper-6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. Many experts have expressed grave concern about the safety of the #4 reactor building, which was heavily damaged in a hydrogen explosion in March 2011 and whose walls are now bulging.

TEPCO

Naomi Hirose, President of TEPCO, said this week that the utility is still considering trying to restart reactors #5 and #6 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as all four reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, in spite of the fact that prefectural officials and residents there vehemently oppose the plan. Many Fukushima residents will never be able to return to their homes, and other areas will be uninhabitable by humans for decades. A full year and a half after the nuclear disaster there, the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in a precarious state, and the area is highly contaminated.

TEPCO promised this week that it will release more videotapes from teleconferences conducted between its main offices and an emergency operations center in the days immediately following last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. Previously, TEPCO only agreed to release 150 hours of footage taken over the course of five days, but will now release communications covering the first month of the crisis. However, the utility said that it still plans to heavily edit the tapes, out of concern for “privacy” of its officials.

Worker Safety

TEPCO’s own records show that 40% of those working at the Fukushima Daiichi plant between March 15 and March 31, 2011, or 3,077 people, had no dosimeters, in spite of the fact that many were working in highly radioactive areas. Because there was a dosimeter shortage, only one member of each working group was given the radiation-detecting equipment; each worker in the group was then ordered to record the exact same reading in their dosage books. However, many workers say that they did not work near their representative; one man recounted working in a highly contaminated area while the man wearing the dosimeter waited in an enclosed vehicle. Experts are now expressing concern that those who were exposed to high radiation levels have no accurate way to prove it and could be refused health care and workers’ compensation or denied legal recourse if they develop cancer down the road.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

In conjunction with Fukushima University and other research institutions, the government announced that it will conduct in-depth radiation studies on victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster over the next 50 years, in order to determine the genetic effects of radiation. Children will be a main focus of the study, and officials said that they will request funding for the project beginning in fiscal year 2013.  (Source: NHK)

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Fukushima Prefectural officials said this week that they hope to decontaminate a 17 km section of the Joban Expressway, which falls within the evacuation zone near the Fukushima Daiichi plant, by June 2013. However, decontamination experiments conducted thus far have only reduced contamination levels to 44 millisieverts per year. A reading of 50 millisieverts would mean that the area would be uninhabitable for humans.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Reconstruction Agency said that it expects residents from areas where evacuation orders will be lifted “soon” may be able to return to their homes within the next two years—three and a half years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred. A poll conducted by the Kawamata Municipal government shows that 60% of the town’s residents do not have faith in the government’s ability to decontaminate the area and believe that their homes will never be safe. Thirty percent said they have no plans to ever return to their homes.