Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan’s new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led government, headed by Shinzo Abe, who will presumably be named the country’s new Prime Minister, is considering allowing new nuclear reactors to be built and is reconsidering former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s pledge to eradicate nuclear energy by 2040. The move comes despite widespread opposition to nuclear power. “The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration took a stand, but I want to review it,” Abe said. During recent campaigning, the LDP said it would take three years to determine whether existing reactors across the country should be restarted, and would take an additional 10 years to “decide…on a sustainable ‘best mix of power generation’ for the future.”
Regarding the government’s decision to halt construction on any new reactors, Toshimitsu Motegi, who was recently tapped to head the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said, “We need to review the policy. We’d like to make a political decision after we accumulate sufficient specialized expertise.” Three reactors are currently under construction in Japan, with plans for an additional nine in the works. Motegi added, “The government will decide to reactivate [existing] nuclear plants on its own responsibility if they are confirmed safe.”
However, Abe’s hopes for a resurgence of nuclear power in Japan may be an uphill battle. The public is largely opposed to nuclear power and concerns about radiation contamination and residents’ safety remain widespread. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) will not release revised safety standards for the country’s reactors until July, which means that evaluations will not begin until at least mid-summer. NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said, “The basis of our judgment is scientific. Whatever politicians have to say on the issue, it matters to us not at all.”
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear activists in Japan have vowed to continue protesting nuclear power and raising public awareness about the issue through non-violent, positive demonstrations. The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, a group of 13 anti-nuclear groups, has held 36 separate demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence since last March. In July, a demonstration attracted more than 100,000 people from all walks of life.
Status of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO admitted this week that efforts to decontaminate the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will be further delayed. A new process to decontaminate massive amounts of radioactive water that has accumulated there was slated to begin in September, and the utility was building tanks to store radioactive discharge created by the new equipment. However, the tanks need to be raised and lowered in the process, and drop tests confirm that they sometimes break open, releasing radioactive contents. Officials plan to reinforce the tanks and hope to retest them in January.
TEPCO said this week that it will ask the government for an additional 696.9 billion yen ($8.12 billion) to underwrite costs of compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as decontaminating the plant and decommissioning reactors there. If the request is approved, the total amount of public funds used to pay for TEPCO’s disaster would rise to more than three trillion yen.
Radiation Contamination, and Other Effects of the Disaster
The aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster continues to unfold. A new study by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) shows that children in Fukushima Prefecture have the highest obesity rates in Japan, a result, officials believe, of lack of outdoor exercise in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and resultant fear of radiation exposure. An official from the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education noted, “Children cannot play outdoors, even apart from gym classes, so they now engage in less exercise.” The prefecture had the highest rates in the nation for children aged 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, and 17. According to the study, 2.39% of 5-year olds in Japan are obese, but 4.86% in Fukushima Prefecture are obese—the highest rate in the country. Obesity has been linked to numerous health issues and shortened life expectancy.
For the first time, TEPCO is being sued in an overseas court. Eight sailors stationed on the USS Ronald Reagan, which provided disaster relief after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, have filed suit against the company for a combined 9.4 billion yen ($110 million), claiming that the utility did not properly disclose information about the disaster as it was unfolding, and they were unnecessarily exposed to dangerous levels of radiation as a result.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
The NRA is backtracking on a decision to tighten evacuation standards in case of a nuclear accident. Earlier this month, an expert panel advised the agency to evacuate residents within 5 km of a nuclear plant at the first sign of a nuclear emergency, and to evacuate those between 5 and 30 km as soon as radiation levels reached 500 microsieverts per hour. Temporary evacuations would be declared within a week if radiation levels hit 20 microsieverts per hour. The proposed limits are stricter than those of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which requires evacuation when radiation levels reach 1,000 microsieverts per hour. However, some experts on the panel protested the decision, and the agency is now reviewing the standards.
Nuclear Waste Decontamination and Disposal
The Environment Ministry announced last week that efforts to find places to store nuclear waste are behind schedule, and will probably not be completed by March, the original deadline for selecting locations. The Ministry is just now accepting applications from vendors who will conduct environmental assessments of sites, but those tests are expected to take several months. Meanwhile, municipal officials and local residents continue to protest hosting the sites, expressing concern about radiation hazards and contamination. (Source: NHK)
Reactor Safety at Other Nuclear Plants Across Japan
The NRA has determined that 10 faults running beneath Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori power plant in Aomori prefecture are interconnected, and at least some of them are probably active. The decision follows a similar one earlier this month, in which the agency determined that a fault beneath reactor #2 at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture is also active. The announcement could have a profound affect on other nuclear power facilities in the prefecture, by possibly delaying restarts, requiring expensive retrofitting, and further raising the cost of nuclear power.
Tohoku Electric continues to deny that the Higashidori faults are active. However, Kunihiko Shimazaki, the NRA Commissioner who headed a panel of five seismic experts tasked with studying the fault lines, said, “It is our shared understanding that [Tohoku’s] argument that they are not active faults is totally unacceptable.” He added, “The old sketches [provided by Tohoku] lack credibility...There were no facts that made us correct the recognition we reached earlier.” Other plants in the region may now be subject to additional surveys, in order to determine whether or not they sit atop seismically active areas. In Japan, it is illegal to operate a reactor that runs directly over an active fault.