Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Elections in Japan
The future of nuclear power in Japan remains unclear after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, suffered a crushing defeat in Sunday’s Lower House of Parliament elections. The results were widely viewed as a condemnation of the DPJ’s failures, rather than support for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its ally New Komeito. Takeshi Sasaki, a professor at Gakushuin University, noted, “Voters did not seek a new choice, but wanted to punish the DPJ. [It] doesn’t mean that the voters hold the policies advocated by [the LDP] in high regard. If you interpret the results that way, it would be a mistake.” A recent pre-election poll of 2,679 respondents conducted by public news network NHK showed that 47% said that neither Abe nor Noda were qualified to act as Prime Minister. Only 28% said that Abe was the best choice, far from a mandate.
The LDP and New Komeito jointly secured 325 seats, more than a two-thirds majority in the 480-seat House; the DPJ won only 57, seats, far less than the 230 they held prior to voting. That balance means that the new ruling coalition can overrule legislation that is voted down in the Upper House, where the LDP does not hold a majority. Upper House elections will be held next summer. Twelve parties competed in this week’s election.
The election results were not without controversy. On Monday, attorneys across Japan filed 27 lawsuits in an effort to invalidate the election results, charging that disparities between the number of Parliamentary seats and populations of local municipalities are so great that they are unconstitutional.
Voter turnout for the election was 59.32%, the lowest since World War II, and 9.96% lower than the last Lower House election three years ago. According to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau, 62 million people voted, including those overseas.
Prime Minister Noda said he would resign from his post as head of the DPJ, and took responsibility for the failures of his party. “It was a tough result for the DPJ. It was the people's judgment and I accept it solemnly. I bear the greatest share of the responsibility. I take it seriously and will resign, ” he said. The Diet is expected to vote for a new Prime Minister on December 26, a contest that LDP President Shinzo Abe is expected to easily win. Abe said that he plans to form coalitions with other parties with shared interests.
Although the DPJ had pledged the abolition of nuclear power by 2040, including building no new reactors, the future of that plan is now murky. In its official electoral platform, the LDP said it would take the next decade to study the role that nuclear power should play in Japan, and will decide within three years whether 48 idled reactors should be restarted. But, Abe is vocally pro-nuclear, and those within the industry are hailing his win.
Meanwhile, the majority of the public remains anti-nuclear despite outcome of Sunday’s election. An Asahi Shimbun exit poll of Sunday’s voters showed that 78% of respondents want to completely phase out nuclear power either immediately or gradually. Nevertheless, 20% of those who want to eradicate nuclear power immediately and 31% of those who support a gradual phase out still voted for the LDP.
On Saturday evening, more than 1,000 people marched in Tokyo to demonstrate against the hazards of nuclear power. “No matter which party takes power, we must not lower our voices for the abolition of nuclear power,” said Satoshi Kamata, a writer and anti-nuclear activist.
Junichi Sato, Nuclear Campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, noted, “The LDP must listen to the overwhelming majority of voters and commit to expanding renewable energy and efficiency, which will in turn allow the country to phase out nuclear energy. At the same time, the LDP must also tighten the regulation and accountability of the nuclear industry so Japan never has to suffer the consequences of a Fukushima-like meltdown again.”
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said on Friday that his agency will not approve restarts of the nation’s nuclear reactors under the current lax culture of safety within Japan’s nuclear industry. “I find the current situation exceedingly unsatisfactory. Reactors should not go online unless we are convinced of their safety,” he said. “The industry’s stance was that ‘simply meeting regulations is enough.’ Safety culture has become a mere shell,” he added. Tanaka was meeting with Andre-Claude Lacoste, former head of France’s l'Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN); Richard Meserve, former Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); and Mike Weightman, Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations in Great Britain. The three regulators have been appointed as foreign advisors to the NRA. (Source: NHK)
Japan’s NRA has admitted that every radiation-dispersal prediction map it released in October contains errors. The maps were designed to show areas in which radiation doses are expected to exceed 100 millisieverts per week in the case of a nuclear disaster. The agency has been forced to repeatedly issue apologies as new mistakes have been discovered, and has now announced that it found at least 2,200 errors in its maps, including those involving weather information and data processing mistakes. The largest errors affect the Tomari, Genkai and Sendai plants; in the case of Genkai and Sendai, the predictions were off by 180 degrees because Kyushu Electric confused windward and leeward wind directions. NRA officials admit that they did a poor job of verifying data. Municipal officials have been ordered to create evacuation and emergency response plans for their cities and towns by next spring, and are depending on the data to do so. Verbal warnings were issued to NRA Deputy Secretary-General Hideka Morimoto and two other agency officials. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka said, “It was our first failure and we learned a lot from it. It’s important not to repeat the mistake.”
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Alex Rosen, a German pediatrician with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), has published a new research paper criticizing the World Health Organization (WHO) for downplaying the effects of radiation on humans in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and maintaining cozy relationships with the nuclear industry through an “apparent lack of neutrality.” Rosen points out that data on radiation exposure was compiled by IAEA officials, whose organization promotes the use of atomic energy, and suggests that an independent scientific assessment should be conducted. Estimates published by WHO were lower than those released by some other international research organizations. “It is unclear why a report written mainly by the IAEA and collaborating nuclear institutions would need to be published in the name of the WHO, if not to provide an unsuspicious cover,” Rosen added. WHO officials have yet to respond, saying they are still reviewing documents.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced that it will establish an office in Fukushima Prefecture, where it will provide training and stockpile dosimeters and protective gear in case of another nuclear disaster in Japan or other parts of Asia. In addition, the center will develop new radiation detection and monitoring technology, decontaminate areas of Fukushima Prefecture, and establish a centralized international database of the health effects of nuclear disasters. An agreement to establish the so-called IAEA Response and Assistance Network Capacity Building Center was signed by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato during an IAEA three-day ministerial conference on nuclear safety.
Takefumi Anegawa, leader of an internal TEPCO reform task force, admitted this week that “lack of safety culture and bad habits,” as well as “collusion” with the nuclear industry, which were detailed in a Parliamentary investigative report, led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. “We admit, we completely admit, that part of the parliamentary report,” Anegawa said. It is TEPCO’s most open admission of guilt so far.
Reactor Safety at Nuclear Plants Across Japan
An NRA panel of five seismic experts, led by Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, has determined that two fault lines running beneath Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture may be active, a discovery that could lead to decommissioning of the plant. In Japan, it is illegal to operate nuclear reactors on top of active seismic faults. Hiroshi Sato, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said, “There is repeated activity. I believe the faults are active.” The panel conducted a two-day study of the Higashidori plant, and say that no further studies are needed. They plan to present a final recommendation to the NRA on December 20.