Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Upcoming National Elections
Campaigning for Japan’s Lower House of Parliament elections—scheduled for Sunday, December 16—has moved into full swing, but the outcome of the contest remains uncertain. Although current polling shows that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will likely be knocked from power, analysts say that the large number of undecided voters, lack of clarity in party platforms, and disorganization of newly-emerging third parties may result in no one party having a majority in the Lower House. Etsushi Tanifuji, professor of political science at Waseda University, notes, “I think there will be no true winner in this election because the Diet will still be divided no matter what. This means this is a transitional election and not the ultimate decider.” He added, “This is an extremely unfortunate election for the voters because everything is so undecided—from the candidates to the policies---and the people are being forced to choose the ruling party in this environment. There are no past achievements to judge from, nor clear visions of the future to place their hopes in.”
Indeed, although almost 1,500 candidates from 12 parties are competing for the 480 available seats, many voters remain confused about which party to support. Yuko Sato, a voter from Fukushima Prefecture who lived just 6 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant before the nuclear disaster, lamented, “They’re all saying the same sort of thing, and in the end, I don’t know in whose hands I should leave my future.”
Nuclear power is expected to play a major role in the decision-making process; this is the first general election since the Fukushima nuclear crisis more than a year and a half ago. In a debate last weekend, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that the DPJ would continue its efforts to eradicate nuclear power across the country by 2040. Opposition leader Shinzo Abe held firm in his previous stance supporting nuclear power, and later said, “Japan should not rely completely on renewables.” Abe heads the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was instrumental in crafting the nation’s nuclear power policy over past decades. Meanwhile, Yukiko Kada, head of the newly-formed Tomorrow Party (JTP), which emerged just last week, promised to end nuclear reliance within the next decade, by 2022. (Source: NHK)
Although the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) released documents attached to their official party platform promising to “phase out nuclear power generation from existing nuclear reactors by the 2030s,” party leader Shintaro Ishihara backtracked, saying that politicians should not set a target year for moving away from nuclear power, and promising to change the wording in the document. “I’ll have that policy pledge reviewed,” Ishihara said. The statement has raised questions about how solid the relationship between Ishihara and his co-leader, popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, is and whether party members’ views are too disparate.
An alliance has also reportedly sprung up between the LDP, which is pro-nuclear, and the New Komeito Party, which states that nuclear power should be abandoned “as promptly as possible.” Nevertheless, analysts have questioned whether or not that relationship will hold, given philosophical differences.
In the meantime, issues with communications, particularly surrounding submission of a list of candidates to the Central Election Management Council by the evening deadline on December 4—some names were simply scribbled on blank paper—as well as poor attendance at campaign events, have highlighted internal organizational problems and have many asking whether or not the brand-new JTP has a chance of becoming a serious force in Parliament.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Hisako Sakiyama, a scientist who was on the 10-person panel that compiled the Diet’s investigatory report into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, has pointed out a single sentence in the 600-page document, which acknowledges that experts who determined the nation’s radiation exposure limits have been receiving monetary support from the nuclear industry for years. The discovery once again highlights a conflict of interest between the nuclear industry and those who are supposed to regulate it objectively. The support came in the form of money for flights and hotels in order for the experts to attend meetings of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). Some of the scientists’ statements about radiation have been optimistic and sharply downplayed any risks from low-level radiation. The Diet investigation found that the nuclear industry has worked to influence Japanese ICRP members as far back as 2007, and documents show some executives expressing delight when the IRCP supported their views.
The official view of the ICRP is that no level of radiation is considered safe, but the organization does not dictate individual members’ viewpoints or their countries’ policies. Several of the Japanese members said they do not agree with the zero-radiation standard. Sakiyama criticized the cozy relationship between the experts and the nuclear industry, saying, “The assertion of the utilities became the rule. That’s ethically unacceptable. People’s health is at state. The view [about low-level radiation] was twisted so it came out as though there is no clear evidence of the risks, or that we simply don’t know.” ICRP members in Japan hold prestigious positions, including advising the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). In some cases after the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, their assessments resulted in children being allowed to play outdoors, rather than staying inside or evacuating. Meanwhile, over a third of Japanese children were recently found to have abnormal growths on their thyroid glands. Yoshiharu Yonekura, a member of the ICRP and President of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences smiled as he said, “Low-dose radiation may even be good for you.”
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) plans to appoint three international experts as external members. They include Richard Meserve, former Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Mike Weightman, head of Great Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation; and Andre-Claude Lacoste, former Chairman of the French Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN). The three experts will meet with the NRA on December 14, when they are in Japan for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference.
Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the NRA, said this week that the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture could be shut down, even if researchers are unable to confirm that an active fault sits beneath the plant. Earlier this month, a five-person team of experts, including an NRA Commissioner, traveled to the Tsuruga plant for two days to study a crush zone beneath reactor #2, in an effort to determine whether or not it might move in tandem with the Urazoko fault, which is located 200 meters away and known to be active. According to Japanese law, if the fissure below the plant is found to be active, the reactors must be shut down. However, Tanaka said that safety, rather than guidelines, needs to be the top priority. “It’s not [the case] that nuclear reactors can be reactivated [just] because an active fault is not running directly beneath reactor buildings. Under special circumstances, the way such faults should be assessed needs to be reviewed,” he said. The NRA plans to make a decision about whether or not the Tsuruga plant will be restarted after it meets again on December 11.
Officials from the NRA are criticizing the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) for postponing required safety check on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment at the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. The lapse is a violation of the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law. Safety checks for 9,679 items have not been performed since July 2010. Of those, 1,551 were important equipment, including some that detects neutrons in reactors. No new inspection dates were set. The NRA said it will require the JAEA to explain the situation and create a plan to prevent this situation from happening again.
Forty residents from Minamisoma, Futaba, Naraha, and Hirono, all in Fukushima Prefecture, have filed suit against TEPCO, demanding 20 million yen ($243,400) each in damages for emotional suffering and loss of their hometown and local community, for a total of approximately 1.94 billion yen ($23.6 million). The leader of the group, Tokuo Hayakawa, said, “We won’t be able to put our lives back in order with the amount of compensation decided by TEPCO, the victimizer. If things remain as they are, we will become abandoned citizens.” He added, “I want to convey our appeal through the lawsuit for the sake of our friends who cannot raise their angry voices to TEPCO, and for the sake of the evacuees who were forced to silently accept the situation.” Hayakawa was referring to 97 handicapped residents of a group home he managed before the nuclear disaster occurred, some of whom died during the evacuation.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Japan’s Environment Ministry reported this week that over 80% of almost 100,000 homes across Fukushima Prefecture are still contaminated with radioactive substances, more than a year and a half after three meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Sixty-nine percent of schools and daycare centers have been decontaminated, but only 38% of parks and recreational facilities and only 51% of roads have been treated. (Source: NHK)
TEPCO is considering placing a 2 km-long net across the seaport at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, in order to prevent highly radioactive fish and eels from migrating out to sea and further contaminating the food chain. The utility long insisted that there were no leaks to the ocean, but in October, finally admitted that radioactive water is seeping into the sea, after a report by Ken Buesseler of The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute noted increased cesium levels in sea life there. In an article in Science magazine, Buessler said, “The fact that many fish are just as contaminated today with cesium 134 and cesium 137 as they were more than one year ago implies that cesium is still being released into the food chain.” TEPCO discovered a conger eel containing 15,500 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, and other fish containing 4,200 Bq/kg. The legal limit in Japan is 100 Bq/kg. Fishermen from the local fisheries cooperative applauded the move, but said it has taken too long. “We have been asking TEPCO to close the port after receiving data showing high levels of contaminated…TEPCO’s response is too slow,” said one official.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
Great Britain said that it will return 28 containers of highly radioactive waste, the result of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from Japan’s nuclear power plants, to Japan in February 2013. The date of the transfer will not be made public because of security concerns. According to Japan’s so-called “nuclear fuel cycle,” spent fuel was supposed to be recycled at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture. However, that facility has been plagued with technical difficulties and 19 separate delays, and has never operated at full capacity. Some government officials are now saying that the reprocessing plan should be scrapped, and spent fuel buried. However, residents across the country are worried about hosting a permanent burial site in their community out of concern about radiation leaks and water and soil contamination.
Officials from the Environment Ministry met with Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe to discuss candidate storage sites for radioactive soil gathered in decontamination efforts around the prefecture. The government was originally looking at nine sites in Okuma, but three of those have been disregarded for geological and environmental reasons. The Ministry wants to finalize locations for waste disposal by March, but residents are unhappy about the decision to host the facilities in Okuma, in spite of the fact that radiation levels in the town remain so high that no one has been allowed to return since the nuclear disaster first began to unfold.