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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced at the end of last week that it had fired Tetsuo Nayuki, Director-General for Nuclear Regulation Policy, for sharing a draft report on seismic conditions at Fukui Prefecture’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant with officials from Japan Atomic Energy Company, the utility’s operator. The draft, which stated that fault lines running beneath the Tsuruga complex were likely active, was not released to the public until a week after it was given to the Japan Atomic officials, clouding the NRA’s promise that it would embrace both neutrality and transparency in its dealings.

Nayuki, who was a senior-level official, met with officials from Japan Atomic, including one of its directors, seven separate times on his own. NRA bylaws require that meetings conducted with utility operators include at least two representatives from the NRA, and that minutes be kept of such meetings, which will then be posted to the NRA’s website. However, there is an exception for those meetings intended to “exchange pleasantries.” NRA Deputy-Secretary General Hideka Morimoto admitted, “The distinction between the visits to exchange pleasantries and substantial meetings is not always clear.” He added, “The document was a summary of discussions during open-door meetings of an expert panel, and contained no confidential information. But he acted extremely unwisely, because neutrality was an important part of his duties.” Nayuki has admitted to wrongdoing.

One of the expert seismologists who drafted the NRA’s report on Tsuruga, Yasuhiro Suzuki, expressed dismay at the news that Nayuki had leaked the findings. “We have been doing our best to draw up a trustworthy report. It is embarrassing that an official of the NRA Secretariat acted in a way that could arouse questions about that trustworthiness.” Another NRA employee lamented, “We, at the forefront, will be most affected. Local residents may look at us with distrustful eyes.” Although he was fired, Nayuki has not been banned entirely from government work; he will return to a previous post at the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).

Nuclear Politics in Japan

The Asahi Shimbun reported this week that the United States considered evacuating approximately 90,000 American citizens—including, notably, all military personnel—from Japan in the first days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold. State Department officials working with the US Embassy in Japan went so far as to charter a total of four planes at Narita and Haneda Airports to evacuate Americans. Ultimately, the US government only refrained from doing so because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Department of Energy determined that weather patterns were such that radiation plumes would not directly affect Tokyo. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Rust Deming, Director of Japan Affairs at the State Department, met with Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, with whom Campbell had a long-time professional relationship, to express anger and frustration at the way Japan was handling the crisis. Campbell made clear that the US felt that Fukushima was a potentially catastrophic event that needed to be addressed by the Japanese government, rather than just managed by TEPCO, which was clearly bungling its response. In the end, the US decided to issue evacuation orders for all Americans living within 80 km (50 miles) of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a far larger area than that of the Japanese government, which ordered evacuation for those within 20 km of the meltdowns.

Japan plans to develop large wind transmission grids in Hokkaido and Tohoku, ultimately tripling the nation’s wind power output to 7.5 million kilowatts. Currently less than .1% of the nation’s power is generated by wind. Wind power is less expensive than solar and geothermal power, and at 10 yen per kilowatt-hour generated (as of 2010), costs approximately the same as natural gas-generated thermal power. The government estimates that nuclear power generation costs 8.9 yen per kilowatt hour, but this figure does not take into account the cost of compensating victims of the Fukushima disaster, cleaning up hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated waste and radioactive water, and decommissioning the crippled reactors. TEPCO’s liability could be as high as 25 trillion yen, which will be passed onto consumers or charged to taxpayers, increasing the cost of nuclear power dramatically. The wind transmission project will begin in 2013 and is expected to take a decade to complete, at a cost of 310 billion yen ($3.3 billion).

State of the Fukushima Reactors

This week, TEPCO released 2,145 photographs, many taken by workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, of the nuclear meltdowns there, as well as of damage caused by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and hydrogen explosions as the disaster was first beginning to unfold. Nevertheless, the utility refused to publish an additional 849 photos, claiming “protection of sensitive data” concerning proprietary technology. Some of the pictures are available for download on TEPCO’s website.

TEPCO

The government announced this week that it will give TEPCO an additional 696.8 billion yen ($7.5 billion) in taxpayer money to cover compensation costs owed to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This money is separate from 156.4 billion yen allotted last week to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) in order to speed up decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The new compensation funding brings the total amount of government assistance to over 3 trillion yen ($32.3 billion).

TEPCO said this week that it will post a net loss of 120 billion yen ($1.29 billion) for the 2012 fiscal year, almost three times more than the 45 billion yen ($485 million) it originally predicted. In addition, it predicted an operating loss of 275 billion yen ($2.9 billion)—higher than the 225 billion yen ($2.4 billion) loss it estimated. 

Prosecutors interviewed the former head of the now-defunct Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), Haruki Madarame, this week. The prosecutors, who represent a group of residents from Fukushima Prefecture, are trying to prove that officials from the government and TEPCO are criminally negligent in their handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, resulting in death and injury. They are charging the officials with failure to disclose radiation dispersal information gleaned from the System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), as well as failure to adequately prepare for a large tsunami, in spite of the fact that TEPCO was aware that such a natural disaster could occur as far back as 2008.

In addition, prosecutors confiscated written testimony of former Fukushima Daiichi Plant Chief Masao Yoshida, who is suffering from esophageal cancer and after-effects of a stroke, and is too ill to withstand questioning. A government investigation team collected hours of testimony from Yoshida during numerous sessions. They questioned him about why he failed to make preparations to prevent flooding and power loss in case a massive tsunami struck, even after TEPCO became aware of the possibility of such a natural disaster in 2008. Yoshida reportedly believed that the chance of such a disaster happening was so miniscule that it wasn’t even worth addressing.

However, Yoshida and others who testified were told that their conversations with the team would be kept private, and were not advised that they could remain silent or else risk incriminating themselves. As a result, some legal analysts say that the prosecutors’ efforts may be an uphill battle. Legal scholar Yoshihiko Ikeda, a professor at Tokai University, noted, “The global trend is to place more emphasis on uncovering the causes of disasters [rather than pursuing blame]. The government should quickly make relevant rules for disaster probes that also take punishment for negligence into account.”

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Researchers from Fukushima University say that they will use a robot carrying a camera, shovel, and dosimeter to determine whether mud at the bottom of Inawashiro Lake in Fukushima Prefecture is contaminated. Earlier tests of the lake water did not show excessively high levels of radiation, but residents and tourists have expressed concern that sediment at the bottom of the lake may have been contaminated by runoff from nearby rivers. Tourism in the area has suffered significantly since the Fukushima disaster in 2011; last year, only 60% of tourists visited the area, compared to before the nuclear crisis began.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal Efforts

For the first time, workers from Japan’s Ministry of the Environment have begun to remove radioactive waste and debris left over from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami from areas near Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture. The area was previously off-limits because radiation levels there were so high. Officials estimate that 183,000 tons of debris need to be removed, but their efforts to do so have been hampered by local residents, who expressed opposition to hosting five temporary storage sites. Residents are concerned about radiation contamination.