Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Newly-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that he intends to review (and possibly reverse) the previous administration’s declaration that it would eradicate nuclear power in Japan by 2040. He also reiterated an earlier statement by Toshimitsu Motegi, new head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), that the government is considering building new reactors on top of the 48 that are currently idled across the nation. Motegi made the statement just hours after Abe had named his new Cabinet, adding, “We need to reconsider the previous government’s policy of seeking zero operations of nuclear plants.”

Prime Minister Abe said, “New reactors will be totally different from those at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant that caused the crisis. We will be building them with consent obtained from the Japanese people,” apparently ignoring the fact that in July, 70% of respondents at 11 town-hall meetings held nationwide said that they opposed nuclear power, and exit polls conducted by Asahi after the recent Lower House Elections showed that 78% of respondents favored immediate or eventual eradication of nuclear energy. Currently, three reactors are currently being built, and plans for nine more have been drawn up.

Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has long been an ardent supporter of nuclear power, and recent appointments signal that Abe intends to follow suit. He promoted Takaya Imai, former Deputy Director of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy under METI, to be his policy aide, a position with far-reaching influence and power. Imai has close ties to the nuclear industry and in the past, was responsible for managing nuclear technology exports to Viet Nam.

The LDP said that it will take the next decade to study and review the nation’s energy policy, including deciding how much Japan should depend on nuclear power, and said it would decide whether to restart the nation’s 48 idled reactors within three years. However, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) may put the brakes on the power industry’s ambitions. Shunichi Tanaka, Chair of the Authority, said he believes that three years is not enough time to determine whether or not the reactors can safely be restarted.

Moreover, Abe’s plans to reignite the nuclear industry may be thwarted by the New Komeito Party (NKP), which formed an alliance with the LDP with the understanding that its views would be respected. Members of NKP campaigned on promises for a “nuclear free future,” and a written agreement between the LDP and NKP signed on December 25, just days before Abe was named Prime Minister, stated, “Restarts of nuclear reactors will depend on the NRA’s decisions, based on expert knowledge, that places foremost priority on safety in line with international standards.”

Analysts are questioning whether or not the LDP will be able to reenergize the nuclear industry in the face of widespread public opposition, which has sparked the largest demonstrations and rallies since the 1970s. Some suggest that Abe will wait until Upper House elections occur this summer before making any radical changes. Takuya Hattori, head of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum and a former high-ranking TEPCO executive, noted, “The LDP won [the election], so will nuclear power be pursued? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The point is whether the nuclear industry can show how deeply it regrets the Fukushima accident and how far it can change itself.” Tadahiro Katsuta, an associate professor at Meiji University, said that the NRA is currently promoting strong safety standards, but added, “You don’t know what form of pressure could be exerted on the NRA commissioners. [Anti-nuclear] public opinion could also be a factor that is affecting [the commissioners] now, so if people start to become mum on the issue, the NRA’s stance could change.”

Residents of Fukushima Prefecture, with the assistance of Tokyo-based attorney Yoshitaro Nomura, have drafted a basic human rights statement in response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, which devastated their homeland and forced many into what may be a permanent state of exile. Nomura has been assisting victims in negotiating with TEPCO regarding compensation. The statement says that the disaster deprived residents of their right to pursue happiness, in direct violation of the Japanese Constitution.  Nomura hopes to attach 100,000 signatures to the statement, in an effort to encourage national and local leaders to address residents’ concerns. He said, “Those who caused the accident switched from having responsibility to escaping from responsibility. In essence, they are trivializing the disaster, cutting the amount of compensation and announcing the crisis is over.” He added, “What did the administration do in the wake of the Fukushima crisis? The government delayed giving evacuation orders. Now it is giving priority to economic recovery over the health of residents.”

TEPCO

METI head Toshimitsu Motegi said this week that the government will designate several tens of billions of yen as part of a supplementary budget, in order to cover costs of decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. The move further increases the costs of the disaster directly covered by taxpayers and indirectly raises the cost of nuclear power. Motegi said that the money will cover research and development of new equipment that can be used by other power companies as their own reactors reach old age and need to be decommissioned. “It is necessary to divide roles between what the utility companies will do and what the government will do,” he added.

TEPCO has established a new “Fukushima recovery headquarters” at the Daiichi plant’s central base of operations, the so-called “J-Village.” The utility hopes to conduct research on dismantling and decommissioning reactors there, as well as to create a central location for compensation efforts and radiation studies. Naomi Hirose, TEPCO’s President, said that the center will “fulfill [the company’s] responsibility” for the 2011 nuclear crisis. However, some analysts are questioning whether or not TEPCO, which is in dire financial straits as a result of the nuclear disaster and struggling to find workers, can adequately handle the task.

Radiation Contamination, and Other Effects of the Disaster

United States and Japanese sources have revealed to Kyodo News that the US spent a special nuclear response team to Japan immediately following the outbreak of the Fukushima disaster, but radiation data it provided to the Japanese government was ignored, and in fact, high-ranking government officials were not even aware of the team’s presence until more than a week after they arrived. The US reportedly sent its Consequence Management Response Team (CMRT), which is affiliated with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an agency of the Department of Energy, at the request of US Forces Japan, the US Embassy in Tokyo, and under the orders of the White House National Security Council. The CMRT was sent to Fukushima in order to protect US servicemen who were assigned to Fukushima on a humanitarian mission after the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The group of 33 experts conducted radiation testing using sophisticated equipment and manned 100 flight operations between early March and May 28, 2011. Yukio Edano, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary, admitted that had he had access to the radiation dispersion information, different decisions might have been made. “We did not get any briefing [about the CMRT.] We established areas within 20 km of the plant as an evacuation zone before [we knew about the operations.] People in areas 20-30 km away were recommended to stay indoors. I cannot exclude the possibility that we would have recommended people who lived in the northwest of the plant to evacuate from those areas earlier [if they had had the CMRT’s radiation data.]” Namie Assembly Chairman Kazuhiro Yoshida expressed incredulity and anger at the disclosure, saying, “It is outrageous that the government did not inform us about the radioactive data at that time.”

Reactor Safety at Other Nuclear Plants Across Japan

Officials from the NRA said this week that they will postpone a decision on whether or not fault lines running beneath reactors at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture are active. Japanese law prohibits operation of reactors if active fault lines run beneath them or the safety equipment necessary to operate them. Reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant are currently the only reactors operating in Japan; all others remain idle in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The government can issue an immediate demand for shutdown in the case of “imminent danger,” though the law is written in such a way that that could be difficult to prove until an accident occurs. NRA Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, who led the expert team, said that four of the five members believe that the fault may be active, but one member, Atsumasa Okada of Ritsumeikan University, was uncertain. Shimazaki added that Okada did not rule out the possibility that the fault is active. The group will meet again this month to continue discussions.