(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The government panel investigating the Fukushima nuclear disaster invited five international nuclear experts, including Andre-Claude LaCoste, the head of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and Richard Meserve, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to provide insight into the Fukushima crisis. The experts said that although operators should be responsible for nuclear accidents, the lines between TEPCO and the government’s roles were blurred. Meserve noted that Japan needs to analyze safety culture in light of the disaster, and stressed that decisions about how to respond during emergencies, as well as technical assessments, should be the purview of onsite experts, as opposed to political decisions made by the government. The experts also criticized both the government and TEPCO for a lack of transparency.
An independent committee investigating the Fukushima nuclear disaster has concluded that the central government’s failure to adequately monitor radiation in the first days of the crisis was a result of poor communication among various branches of government, and raises questions about the nation’s ability to manage “key functions” in an emergency. One panel member noted, “The flow of information stagnated at the bottom of a small pot of compartmentalized bureaucracy and administration, barring resources from being utilized.”
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono is being criticized for meeting with Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the Chair of an independent, bi-partisan parliamentary panel appointed to investigate the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Hosono said he was meeting with Kurokawa to explain the new nuclear regulatory agency that will be established in April, the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA). Kurokawa has questioned the effectiveness of the proposed entity. However, critics say that the meeting compromised the integrity and neutrality of the panel.
Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa said that he will not approve the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear plant until the government establishes more comprehensive safety standards, including lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear crisis. He is also demanding that the government explain why nuclear plants are necessary. The Mayor of Oi, Shinobu Tokioka, said he does not believe that the government will be able to win residents’ approval by March, when Kansai hopes to restart the reactors. Currently, only two reactors in Japan remain in operation; both are scheduled to shut down by May of this year.
Hokkaido Electric announced that it may continue operating reactor #3 at its Tomari plant—one of just two reactors remaining in operation in Japan—until May rather than April, as originally planned. Although reactors are legally required to go offline every 13 months, Hokkaido is now saying that the first five months that the #3 reactor was operating was a test period, not commercial operation.
The Mayors of Futaba, Hirono, and Namie boycotted a meeting with Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono and Reconstruction Minister Tatsuo Hirano this week, after the media reported that the Environment Ministry is planning to purchase land for radioactive waste disposal sites before the mayors had been informed of the move. Katsutaka Idogawa, Mayor of Futaba, complained, “I felt a great deal of fear about the government making decisions behind our back. I have a high level of distrust in the government.” Hosono said he hopes to reschedule the meeting.
The cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe have formally petitioned Kansai Electric to reduce reliance on nuclear power, and to disclose information on electricity supplies in the area. The three cities, which own a combined share of 12.45% of Kansai, plan to address the issue at the next shareholders’ meeting.
A Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) panel studying the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant said that the government should distribute potassium iodine tablets to all households within a 50 km radius of nuclear reactors before a nuclear crisis occurs. After the Fukushima disaster, many municipalities did not distribute potassium iodine, which has been shown to prevent thyroid cancer after exposure to radioactive iodine. Although past recommendations advised only those under 40 to take the tablets, the panel recommended that all residents take them, as thyroid cancer can also occur in older people.
In addition, the NSC panel said that hospitals specializing in radiation exposure should be built outside of evacuation zones for safety and accessibility reasons, and need to cooperate with nearby hospitals, in order to prepare for nuclear disasters.
Over 700 people protesting the restart of the #2 reactor at Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture formed a human chain almost one kilometer long. The protesters are pushing for the plant to be decommissioned.
Yukio Edano, the Head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) is reportedly calling for the dismissal of TEPCO’s entire 17-person Board of Directors at the company’s shareholders’ meeting in June. The newly appointed chairman will be an outsider, but many government officials are calling for younger TEPCO employees to fill other Board positions.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has ruled that the death of a 60-year old man who died at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last May was due to overwork, and has awarded compensation to his family. The man, who worked through the night wearing heavy protective gear, was employed by a company subcontracted by Toshiba. It was the first such ruling associated with the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has completed a three-week long evaluation of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in an effort to evaluate the ongoing viability of its cold shutdown status. In spite of the fact that TEPCO is unable to determine the location of melted fuel in three of its reactors, and numerous leaks of radioactive water have been identified over the past few months, NISA said it found only “minor” problems.
Temperature levels at reactor #2 rose again this week by almost 20 degrees. TEPCO said that it is investigating issues with a thermometer, but said that no signs of criticality are present.
TEPCO plans to use underwater robots to repair basement areas of containment vessels at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, which have been flooded with radioactive water. Workers may also attach a camera to a ten-meter long pole, in order to examine the interior of reactors #1, #2, and #3. The utility will not be able to remove melted fuel from the containment vessels—a process that is expected to begin in 10 years—until the vessels have been repaired.
In addition, the utility plans to install a new water-purification system at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in September, in order to reduce the amount of contamination leaking into the ocean from the crippled reactors and holding tanks that store radioactive water.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
A government report released last week revealed that areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant where radiation levels exceed 50 millisieverts per year may be declared permanently uninhabitable. Previously, the Environment Ministry estimated that residents would not be able to return for decades. In the town of Futaba, radiation measured as high as 470 millisieverts per year in some areas.
The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has endorsed new stricter regulations regarding levels of radioactive cesium in food. The updated standards permit up to 100 Bq/kg in most food products (down from 500 Bq/kg), 50 Bq/kg in baby food and milk, and 10 Bq/l in drinking water. The revised regulations will take effect in April, although farmers will be granted a transitional period for beef, rice, and soybeans.
Very high levels of cesium, measuring as much as 2.47 million Bq/kg, were discovered in dust from sewage sludge being processed in a plant in Koriyama. Workers there were trying to melt the sludge in order to store it.
Officials from Fukushima Prefecture have discovered highly radioactive ash from wood stoves in Minamisoma. Cesium levels in the ash measured 240,000 Bq/kg, 30 times the government limit for ash, which is 8,000 Bq/kg. In nearby Kawamata, ash used to heat baths measured 163,00 Bq/kg. Environment Ministry officials believe that the wood was contaminated as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) has reduced the radius of the no-fly zone over the Fukushima Daiichi plant to 3 km, down from 20 km, as a result of lower levels of radiation leaking from the plant into the atmosphere.
Environment Minister Goshi Hosono is lobbying officials from both the ruling and opposition political parties, in order to persuade local residents to accept earthquake and tsunami debris from Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. Many municipalities have been reluctant to do so out of concerns about high radiation levels. The Ministry had hoped to dispose of an estimated 220 million tons of debris from those areas by March 2014, a goal that Hosono now admits is unrealistic. Currently, only 5% of the debris has been removed.
Researchers from the National Agricultural Research Center, as well as Taiheiyo Corp., which manufactures cement, are working to develop technology that would remove up to 99.9% of radioactive cesium from soil. The process involves heating soil to 1,350ºC, and capturing cesium with filters. Although the filters themselves will then become highly radioactive and require disposal, the scientists hope they will take up less room than the soil itself.
A government panel overseeing compensation issues connected to the Fukushima nuclear disaster is expected to advise TEPCO to make lump sum payments to those victims who will be displaced from their homes for five years or more, in an effort to allow them to build new lives. The panel’s report will be published next month, but the amount of the compensation has yet to be determined.
TEPCO has agreed to pay higher compensation than originally planned to one of the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, after the Center for Dispute Resolution for Compensating Damages from the Nuclear Power Plant Incident reached a settlement with the utility for additional compensation for damage to the victim’s home and furniture. The case could set a precedent for other victims who have yet to have their disputes settled.
Other Nuclear News
India is cracking down on anti-nuclear activists, and has focused its efforts on three aid organizations, accusing them of being controlled by foreign interests from the US and Scandinavia. The aid organizations have vehemently denied the charges.