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

After months of refusing to do so, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has abruptly changed his mind and said he will meet with representatives from the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, a group of 13 anti-nuclear organizations, as early as next week. The Coalition has led increasingly large protests in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence every Friday since March, with one recent demonstration on July 16 attracting more than 150,000 people. Analysts say that Noda’s sudden change of heart may be attributed to widespread increasing anti-nuclear sentiment across Japan, and accusations that he has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the public. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has spoken out against nuclear power over the past year, urged Noda to take the meeting in an effort to improve his failing public image. The move, however, could backfire if Noda makes no concessions and the public sees the meeting as a public relations move designed simply to appease them.

Polls of attendees at a series of 11 recent town hall meetings designed to assess public opinion regarding Japan’s nuclear energy policy show that almost 70% of respondents favor completely eradicating nuclear power. In Fukushima Prefecture, that number rose to 90%. The government is currently trying to decide how much nuclear power the nation should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. Many cite concerns about nuclear safety as their number one reason for wanting to abandon nuclear, and some expressed concern that in spite of widespread opposition to nuclear power, the wishes of the public will be ignored. One attendee from Okayama Prefecture, Yasukimi Sato, said, “I do not know how much of the public’s opinion will be reflected. My bet is they are going to use us as an excuse that they’ve heard us out when they decided on a scenario other than zero percent.”

The government had said it would make a decision on energy policy by the end of August, but now that deadline may be pushed to September or the end of the year. Prime Minister Noda said that the issue is a serious one and requires more thought, but analysts believe that he is hoping anti-nuclear sentiment will abate with time—in spite of the fact that so far, it has only increased since March. The business sector continues to lobby for the 25% option—just 1% less than the amount of nuclear power Japan was using before the Fukushima disaster occurred.

Japan’s government is once again under fire for its close ties to the nuclear industry, as new documents surfaced this week revealing that Kyoji Yoshino, Nuclear Power Chief at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) tried to inappropriately influence the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) in favor of nuclear power. Yoshino admitted that he sent a memo to Shensuke Kondo, Chair of the JAEC, encouraging him to avoid even considering eliminating atomic power entirely as the Commission was discussing Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, because it would be detrimental to the nuclear industry. “Analyzing a scenario in which Japan were to give up nuclear power may help shore up the courage of the cautious factions [concerned about nuclear safety], but it would not aid the continuation of atomic energy,” Yoshino wrote. In another note, he added that if the JAEC recommended that the government embrace zero percent dependence on nuclear power by 2030, it “would only encourage people to be cautious about nuclear plants, and would not help Japan maintain nuclear power plants.” Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), held a press conference this week, during which he revealed Yoshino’s letter. He admitted that the disclosure may further damage the public’s trust in its government, which has repeatedly been accused of being too close to the nuclear power industry—“It’s unavoidable that some people will see this as proof the government is scheming to continue atomic power generation”—but tried to insist that Yoshino was speaking as an individual, not as an official representative of the government.

The proposed appointment of Shunichi Tanaka as Chairman of the newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has stalled in Parliament, as 10 members of the Diet vocally criticized Tanaka’s ties to the nuclear industry and demanded replacements for all nominees. Recent revelations show that four out of five proposed commissioners, including Tanaka, have accepted money from the nuclear industry within the past year.

Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Over 50,000 people gathered to mark the solemn occasion, as Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui urged the central government to eradicate nuclear power in order to protect “the safety and security of the people,” and instead embrace renewable energy. “We see [the Fukushima residents’] ordeal clearly superimposed on what we endured 67 years ago,” he said. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also attended the event, and admitted that the nation needs to end its dependence on nuclear power, although he did not set a date for that goal.

TEPCO

This week, TEPCO finally released portions of a videoconference conducted between its central office in Tokyo and emergency headquarters at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the days immediately following the nuclear disaster in March 2011, after receiving considerable pressure from the government. A 90-minute version of the tape was released to the public; however, names and faces of TEPCO employees were blocked out, and the utility did its own editing, deciding which parts to include and which to omit. Meanwhile, reporters from major media outlets will be able to view the 150.5 hours, between 6 pm on March 11 and midnight on March 15, 2011 as long as they watch on computers at TEPCO’s headquarters. However, audio is only available for one-third of the videoconference, and they may not make copies. The tapes reportedly show the emergency headquarters shaking violently as a hydrogen explosion rocked reactor #3, as the plant chief shouted, “This is serious. This is serious.” Calls for full disclosure of the tapes—which TEPCO originally refused to release at all, citing “privacy concerns”—are increasing.

Worker Safety

Concerns about worker safety at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant continue to rise, as new reports surfaced this week about subcontractors who willingly hid the amount of radiation doses they received, or were urged to do so by their employers. Last week, a second-tier subcontractor was discovered without a dosimeter after working in a radioactive area for four hours; he said he was overtired and “forgot.” The first-tier subcontractor, Tokyo Energy and Systems, later admitted that they did not provide dosimeters for any of the second-tier staff that day. TEPCO’s acting general director of the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division at the utility, Junichi Matsumoto, admitted that there have been other such cases, although he was unable to say how many. The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, said it will investigate TEPCO’s safety management practices.

Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun is reporting that it interviewed 10 workers who also had repeated knowledge of radiation exposure concealment. Many workers are afraid they will lose their jobs if plant officials realize that they have exceeded legal limits of exposure. In one instance, a worker recounted seeing approximately 20 dosimeters hidden in a car parked within the plant compound on at least six different occasions. Another said that the practice is a widespread, open secret within the nuclear power industry and has been occurring for decades; he told of being ordered to hide dosimeters in a lead box in the reactor building, especially near the end of the year when annual exposure limits were being reached. Yet another agreed, recalling, “Workers of the electric power company and plant manufacturers also turned a blind eye to such practices. That was a well-known practice among anyone who worked at nuclear plants for a number of years.” When questioned about worker safety, an official from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare claimed his agency had little control over the situation. “Nuclear plants are sealed places where only a limited number of people are allowed in. Even if we hear rumors that dosimeters are not being carried by workers, it is very difficult to obtain evidence of such practices.” Workers often feel as if they have no choice. One noted, “If we diligently carried the dosimeter, we would not be able to work at nuclear plants…we had no choice because we had to make a living.”

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

The Mayor of Namie, Tamotsu Baba, is pushing the central government to provide free lifetime medical care for 21,000 residents, many of whom unwittingly fled toward a radiation plume in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, after government officials failed to publicize their own and US radiation data. Namie remains off-limits for entry because of high radiation levels. Currently, healthcare eligibility for residents will expire in February. In addition, Baba wants to issue radiation booklets that would allow them to track exposure and lifelong medical issues. However, many residents and municipal officials from nearby towns are balking at the idea, fearing discrimination similar to that faced by atomic bomb survivors. “We understand that many of the people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced discrimination. I am not sure if it is a good idea for children to carry a health book,” said Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo. But Baba disagreed: “Namie residents will need something to prove their radiation exposure if they encounter health problems in 10 or 20 years from now.”

Decontamination

Growing amounts of radioactive waste are accumulating in Japan as it struggles to decontaminate areas in preparation for the return of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes for almost a year and a half. At issue is the fact that the central government has very few “interim storage sites” for contaminated dirt and waste that must be removed from the area; out of 11 municipalities scheduled for decontamination, five do not even have temporary storage areas confirmed, where waste will be stored for the first three years. Many residents have opposed plans to build the sites, fearing that once the radioactive waste is there, the government will never remove it.

Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba has reportedly accepted a government proposal to reclassify evacuation zones in his town, after Yukio Edano, head of METI, announced new standard compensation rates for victims of the Fukushima disaster. Previously, Baba had criticized the Noda administration for failing to develop a comprehensive reconstruction plan. Accordingly, Namie will now be reclassified into three zones, depending on radiation levels: a so-called hard-to-return zone, where residents may not be able to go home for many years; a residential restriction zone; and a zone where the town is preparing to lift evacuation orders as soon as decontamination has taken place. Namie lies within the evacuation zone and almost a year and a half after the Fukushima disaster, is still uninhabitable.