Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Elections in Japan
Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), sent a strong message to the newly elected pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) this week, saying that the agency’s efforts to ensure that Japan’s nuclear reactors are safe will not be affected by political considerations. “Whatever the government is going to be, we do not intend to change safety regulations. They will not change. It would be troublesome if safety regulations were changed [based on politics],” he said. Analysts agree that the LDP’s hopes—along with those in the nuclear industry--that reactors will quickly be restarted now that the LDP controls the Lower House of Parliament may be overly ambitious. “Their hopes might be a little premature, to the extent that they assume their travails are over and income streams ready to go back into the black,” noted Andrew DeWit of Rikkyo University. Tom O’ Sullivan, a consultant working in Tokyo, agreed: “It is unlikely that the LDP-led government will want to interfere at an early stage with the operation of the recently established independent NRA, the creation of which they supported. Any restarts might inflame public opinion, particularly in large urban centers and those prefectures that do not host nuclear power facilities.”
Nevertheless, LDP President Shinzo Abe, who is widely expected to win a parliamentary vote for Prime Minister on December 26, will reportedly replace all members of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI)’s Advisory Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, which is tasked with studying the nation’s energy policy. And, Abe is expected to appoint Akira Amari, a staunch defender of nuclear power even in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, to a newly-created ministerial position overseeing Japan’s economic policy.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which suffered crushing losses in the recent election, plans to choose a new president on December 22 in the wake of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s resignation as party leader. Potential candidates include DPJ Policy Chief Goshi Hosono, who served as the country’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, and National Policy Minister Seiji Maehara. Acting Secretary General of the party, Jun Azumi, said, “In the face of harsh public opinion, our party is faced with the biggest crisis since it was founded.” The party hopes to revitalize by next summer, in time for Upper House elections.
Anti-nuclear activists and politicians are also regrouping in the face of political losses, acknowledging that for some voters, economic factors superseded widespread public safety concerns about nuclear power. Some activists are charging that restrictive internet rules in Japan, which prevent political candidates from using Twitter, Facebook, or even their own websites to educate voters about their policies, have adversely affected the election outcome. “Voters in Japan are forced to choose between the candidates without being able to learn about them,” said Hiroshi Tasaka, a professor at Tama University who is also a proponent of electronic voting. He added, “We have to start by bringing a change to this antiquated regulation,” referring to a 1950 law which forbids distributing written information or images during the campaign period.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said this week that evaluation of idled reactors across the country will not begin until at least July, when new laws regarding reactor safety take effect. The move is a change in stance for Tanaka, who earlier said that safety inspections might begin as early as March, when an outline of the new regulations is released.
Tanaka is criticizing Atsuyuki Suzuki, head of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), after Suzuki downplayed numerous technical issues and breakdowns at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. “Any mistake in terms of formality can happen,” he said, after the head of the NRA secretariat ordered him to investigate last month. “This is a surprising report,” Tanaka said, adding, “His remark is very inappropriate.” Tanaka ordered officials at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), which oversees JAEA, to begin an inquiry.
Status of the Fukushima Reactors
Over a year and a half since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, and one year since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government declared the damaged plant, in what many analysts viewed as a largely political decision, in “cold shutdown status,” Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has admitted that the Fukushima reactors remain “volatile.” TEPCO has yet to determine the state and location of melted fuel in the crippled reactors, a cooling system cobbled together in the first stages of the disaster has yet to be replaced, and vast amounts of contaminated water continue to leak from damaged buildings on a daily basis. The utility is storing 237,000 tons of radioactive water in tanks at the plant’s compound, but only have capacity to store a total of 257,000 tons. TEPCO has destroyed a nearby forest in order to build more tanks with a capacity of 700,000 tons. Those containers are expected to be completed within the next three years.
Referring the to reactors, Tanaka said, “Workers have been obliged to respond with highly stopgap measures. Many devices, such as a purifier for radioactive water, have been installed with no time for sufficient design consideration and safety screenings. The situation surrounding the decommissioning process is volatile, and there is a need for constant reviews in securing safety.” Radiation levels within the reactors remain so high that as of October, they would kill a person within one hour, complicating efforts to repair leaks, locate melted fuel, and remove approximately 3,100 fuel assemblies being stored in fuel pools at all four of the Daiichi reactors. Decommissioning is expected to take at least 40 years, and overall, the situation remains precarious. “Despite the [government-declared] cold shutdowns of the reactors, the cooling functions have been maintained there with no knowledge of where the melted fuel lies and in what state [it exists]. There is a risk of unforeseen circumstances arising if another major earthquake hits,” noted Fumiya Tanabe, former Chief Research Scientist at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, which has since disbanded.
TEPCO workers successfully removed a 470 kg steel beam from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #3. The beam was accidentally dropped into the pool in September as workers were trying to remove debris. Another steel beam, a piece of equipment weighing approximately 30 tons, and large pieces of concrete still remain underwater and will eventually require removal before the utility begins the dangerous process of removing radioactive fuel rods from the pool.
TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said that he intends to request a second government bailout of the ailing company from newly elected members of the pro-nuclear LDP. The utility previously requested additional funding from the DPJ in November. The current cap on government aid is 5 trillion yen, but TEPCO anticipates that costs for compensation to victims of the disaster, decontamination, and decommissioning of the crippled reactors could easily exceed 10 trillion yen.
Meanwhile, Hirose said that the company has not yet decided whether to decommission the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant, located just 10 km from the site of three meltdowns at the Daiichi facility. Municipal leaders have been adamant that all nuclear reactors in the prefecture should be shut down, and public opinion strongly supports that goal. TEPCO also hopes to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. It insists that the reactors there are safe, in spite of an announcement this week by the NRA that an event discovered earlier this month, in which two rods in a spent fuel pool there came into contact with one another, was a level one incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). That assessment is provisional. NRA officials determined that the rods were touching as a result of being loaded “in an abnormal situation,” potentially creating a situation in which water was not able to flow freely through the bundle and allowing heat to build. The incident could have led to a major nuclear accident.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Newly released correspondence reveals that a Fukushima Prefectural panel tasked with determining radiation exposure to residents in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster willfully discouraged efforts by a local Assembly member, Junko Yaginuma, to store children’s baby teeth so that they could later be tested for signs of radioactive strontium-90. The element, which accumulates in bones and teeth, has been linked to childhood cancer. A government official sent an email to committee members, saying, “Are there any findings or information that suggest there is not much point in storing baby teeth? It is not the assembly person who asked that question but appears to be an argument made by anti-nuclear people, so we don’t wish to take up the question.”
When asked about the prefectural government’s email, Yaginuma expressed little surprise. “I thought it was a negative answer to my question, but they were doing things like this behind the scenes. That’s an insult to the people of the prefecture.” The news follows a revelation last month that the same task group conducted secret, closed-door meetings in an effort to manage and coordinate expert opinions at public forums on radiation effects and public health after the nuclear disaster. In the meantime, a Chiba dental clinic has sent approximately 200 children’s teeth to an independent laboratory in the United States to be tested for strontium-90. “I can’t believe that the Fukushima Prefectural Government is reluctant even to call for [storing the teeth]. It has abandoned its responsibility to protect children,” said Takemasa Fujino, who heads the dental clinic.
Nuclear Waste Decontamination and Disposal
Members of the local assembly in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, have passed a no-confidence motion against Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa, after he refused to attend a meeting between central government officials and municipal leaders on a plan to construct facilities in the town to store radioactive waste. By law, Idogawa now has the option of either resigning or dissolving the town assembly, in which case a new assembly would be elected. If that group also passes a no-confidence vote, he would be removed from office. The Assembly previously voted on two other no-confidence motions against Idogawa, but those efforts failed to garner a required three-fourths majority.
Reactor Safety at Nuclear Plants Across Japan
A five-person NRA team of seismic experts, led by Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, has determined that two faults running beneath Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori power plant in Aomori Prefecture should be classified as active. NRA commissioners, under the leadership of Shunichi Tanaka, will make a final decision about the faults on December 26. If the faults are determined to be active, the utility would be forced to make significant upgrades and reinforcements to the plant’s compound, a process that could easily take years to complete. Earlier this month, the team concluded that a fault running beneath reactor #2 at the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture is also active.
In an apparent admission of the dangers of large-scale tsunamis and earthquakes at its Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, Chubu Electric Company has announced that it will increase the height of a seawall being constructed there to 22 meters. The wall was originally planned to be 18 meters high. Even after data showed that a 21-meter tsunami was possible, the utility continued to insist until now that the 18-meter wall would be adequate protection.
Municipal leaders in Hokodate approved public funding to underwrite a lawsuit against Electric Power Development Co. (commonly known as J-Power), which plans to build the Oma nuclear power plant in nearby Aomori Prefecture. The lawsuit charges that the safety of Hokkaido Prefecture residents would be compromised in case of a nuclear disaster at the plant.