Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Criticism of TEPCO continues to mount in the wake of the release of tapes of teleconferences conducted during the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The company recently released the videos to media outlets under very tight restrictions. The tapes, which cover the dates between 6 pm March 11 and midnight on March 15, have been significantly altered and in some places intentionally obscured. Reporters must watch the tapes onsite at TEPCO’s headquarters over the next month, and are allowed only 6 hours per weekday in which to do so. Originally, the utility refused to release the tapes in any capacity, claiming so-called “privacy concerns,” but relented after additional legal threats from company shareholders who have already filed suit against the ailing utility. In its revised announcement, in response to widespread public outcry, pressure from the media, and exhortations from Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), TEPCO said that it would allow only one reporter from each media outlet access during a period of 30 hours—in effect, granting access to only one-fifth of the 150.5 hours of tape that it was releasing. Company officials once again backtracked after Edano publicly criticized the decision, calling it “a token disclosure,” and ultimately said that news organizations could send more than one reporter, but would be given at most only two computers on which to watch the footage. In spite of the fact that TEPCO is now under government control and the tapes are essentially public property, reporters were forced to agree not to make any video or audio copies and had to promise not to reveal the names of TEPCO staff; those who refused would be barred from any future TEPCO press conferences. An additional 90-minute version of the tape was released to the public; however, the utility did its own editing, deciding which parts to include and which to omit.
Analysts say that the tapes are vital to understanding the disaster and how staff handled it, and have loudly criticized TEPCO’s failure to release the videoconferences in their entirety, including coverage of the days beyond March 15, 2011. They say that researchers and nuclear experts, in addition to reporters, should be able to view the tapes and assess the actions of the utility. The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association has issued a statement urging TEPCO to release the tapes to the public and completely abandon any viewing restrictions. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan said this week, “I find the company’s explanation that the footage is private property quite unnatural. It’s like the communication between an airline cockpit and the control tower—it should be public domain.”
Claiming a desire to protect the privacy of lower-level staff, TEPCO beeped out portions of audio a total of 1,665 times, and blurred faces of staff 29 times. Overall, audio quality is very poor, and sometimes unintelligible. The Daily Yomiuri interviewed one technical expert at a video-imaging firm who believes that the tapes were altered more than necessary.
The intelligible sections of the tapes document widespread confusion and disagreement about how the disaster should have been handled, with significant discord between executives at company headquarters and engineers and workers at the plant’s offsite emergency headquarters, as well as officials from the Prime Minister’s office and other government agencies. In one instance, an argument broke out about whether and how to open vents at reactor #2, where cooling function had failed and the threat of nuclear meltdown and a hydrogen explosion were imminent. At one point, Haruki Madarame, Chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), provides conflicting orders, further complicating the decision making process as precious time slipped away.
Late in the day on March 12, the tapes show company executives, including then-President Masataka Shimizu, abandoning company headquarters, the same day a massive hydrogen explosion rocked reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Engineers were left to deal with situation and make decisions on their own. (Source: NHK)
In another segment, then-TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata tells a senior executive, “It’s my judgment on whether we can cause the general public anxiety. If I’m asked about [a hydrogen explosion at the #3 reactor] at the news conference, I’ll deny it and say that would never happen.” Experts believe that the explosion had either just occurred or was on the verge of occurring when Katsumata made that statement.
TEPCO’s confusion about the causes of the explosion at reactor #3 and how to inform the public about the situation is clearly evident. In a recorded discussion between then-President Shimizu and another senior official, Akio Takahashi, about how to word the announcement, which followed another explosion at reactor #1, Takahashi asks, “In short, the only change we have made [to the statement] was replacing ‘No. 1 reactor’ with ‘No. 3 reactor? We do not know whether it was a hydrogen explosion but since the government and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is saying it is a hydrogen explosion, we can just say so—a hydrogen explosion, can’t we? On television a short while ago, NISA was saying it was a hydrogen explosion. I guess we’d better keep pace.” To this day, the cause of the explosion at reactor #3 remains unknown.
The TEPCO-altered tapes do not, however, clarify whether or not utility officials planned to completely evacuate the plant, as some government officials, including former-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, continue to insist, although evacuation is discussed more than once. If the plant had been completely evacuated, experts say that no staff would have remained to manage cooling functions at the remaining reactors, as well as the spent fuel cooling pools associated with each. Ultimately they believe that meltdowns would have occurred at all six reactors, resulting in a far more catastrophic outcome, including the evacuation of 35 million people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and major radioactive fallout across Japan.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Discussion about Japan’s future energy policy continues, as the government tries to determine how much nuclear power the nation should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. The general public is widely opposed to the long-term use of any nuclear power, with almost 70% saying they support complete eradication of nuclear energy by 2030. In a surprise move, Yukio Edano, head of METI, said this week that he believes that contrary to claims from the business community and the nuclear industry itself, Japan’s economy can actually flourish by developing renewable energy sources and embracing energy conservation. “We can do it. I rather think it would be a plus for the economy,” he said. “I don’t think the zero scenario is negative for Japan’s economy. On the contrary, it can create growth as efforts to develop renewable energy and improve energy efficiency could boost domestic demand.” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that he is willing to explore the implications of “zero reliance,” although refused to fully endorse it as a policy goal. “I intend to order the cabinet to identify the possible challenged if Japan were to have zero reliance on nuclear energy in the future. To deepen discussions on the future energy mix, I believe it is necessary to consider the possibility of having zero reliance in the future,” he said. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, now a vocal opponent of nuclear energy, has added his own voice to the debate, saying at a press conference this week that the nation needs to decentralize its power grid and install solar panels across Japan. The government was scheduled to make a final decision by the end of this month, but may reportedly delay the decision to September or even the end of the year. In spite of the public’s clear rejection of nuclear power, business and nuclear industries are pressuring Noda to embrace the 25% option. A series of 11 town hall meetings were conducted across Japan over the past couple of months to gather public opinion, but the government has never clarified how that information will be used or how much influence it will have on Noda’s final decision.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has postponed plans to meet with representatives from the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, which has organized massive protests against nuclear power since March. Noda refused to meet with the protesters for months, but recently relented as public opposition to nuclear power has become vocal and widespread. However, opposition parties threatened this week to force a no-confidence vote in Noda, forcing him to rearrange his schedule. The head of METI, Yukio Edano, has said he disagrees with Noda’s decision to meet with the protesters. A new date for the meeting has not been announced.
A Cabinet-level investigative panel assigned to determine the degree to which the nuclear industry influenced the nation’s energy policy during secret closed-door meetings of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) is being roundly criticized for failing to complete its task. Attendees at the JAEC meetings insist that no minutes were taken. Tatsujiro Suzuki, Vice Chairman of JAEC, told the panel that attendees representing the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) took notes. Although the FEPC admits that it kept memoranda, it has refused to release them to the investigative team, citing “privacy concerns.” Analysts note that the request for the memoranda came from Hitoshi Goto, Senior Vice Minister at the Cabinet Office, rather than Prime Minister Noda himself. Goto does not have authority over other ministries and agencies. “The organization that conducted the investigation was inadequate,” said Nobuo Gohara, a lawyer who chaired an investigation last year into efforts by Kyushu Electric to wrongly influence public opinions about nuclear power.
TEPCO and its subsidiary, Tokyo Energy Systems, Inc., admitted this week that lead shields, which some subcontractors were forced to use to hide the amount of radiation they received while working at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, reduced accurate radiation readings by approximately 30%. The discovery means that workers were indeed exposed to more radiation than TEPCO originally reported, and the incident was a violation of Japan’s Industrial Safety and Health Law. In addition, newly revealed documents show that the companies that hired eight of the workers involved in the scandal were unlicensed, and the workers illegally hired. TEPCO originally said that all of the workers were hired by Build Up, a subcontractor of Tokyo Energy Systems, Inc.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Fukushima Prefecture introduced new equipment to check rice for radioactive cesium contamination this week, after the officials promised to check every bag of rice sold in an effort to reduce radiation fears. The new detector, which can process up to four bags of rice per minute, issues a sticker with radiation levels printed on it and will stop operation if rice exceeding the legal contamination levels passes through. Officials say that contaminated rice will be disposed of. (Source: NHK)