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

State of the Fukushima Reactors

A high-ranking former Diet member is charging TEPCO with intentionally misleading a Parliamentary investigative panel when it asked to inspect reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant for earthquake damage. If such damage is discovered, it will have serious and wide-ranging implications for the nuclear industry nationwide, in a country that is riddled with faults and experiences frequent earthquakes.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a member of the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said that his panel asked TEPCO to inspect the building housing reactor #1 in order to determine whether or not it had sustained damage from the massive 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake. TEPCO workers had reported seeing water leaking on the fourth floor of the building. Experts believe that breakdown of the condensers contributed to the subsequent nuclear meltdowns, but the utility has always insisted that the earthquake played no part in that aspect.

However, in a meeting that was audio recorded, Toshimitsu Tamai, former Chief of Corporate Planning at TEPCO, told commission members that the building was completely shrouded in pitch-black darkness because of a cover that had been installed over the building, and entering would be exceedingly dangerous. In fact, the roof of the cover allows 16% of sunlight to filter through, and the walls allow 10% light to enter. The cover is equipped with five mercury bulbs, which produce light equal to the headlights of 40 automobiles. An additional five mercury bulbs serve as backups. “If you get lost [in the dark], you would run into areas with dreadfully high levels of radiation. You would face a considerable danger and could be thrown into a panic…I might say it would be better if you would not go ahead with something so reckless,” Tamai insisted. He also showed commission members a photograph of the building but said that it had been taken before the cover was installed. That was a lie, although TEPCO now insists that it was an innocent error. Eventually, swayed by Tamai’s warnings, the panel decided to forgo the inspection. “We concluded that it would be dangerous to carry out the inspection at a completely dark site,” Tanaka said. He has filed a formal request for further investigation to the Diet. “TEPCO’s explanation was absolutely false and seriously obstructed the investigation,” he added.

TEPCO

Japan’s Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, a government-backed entity created to assist in victim compensation in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, announced this week that a business plan submitted by TEPCO last May might need to be revised. The business plan depends on restarting seven boiling water reactors (BWRs) at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture beginning in April, in order to revitalize the utility’s financial prospects. However, the NRA is drawing up new safety regulations for nuclear reactors and won’t even begin to screen applications for restarts until July.

The NRA regulations include a requirement to install radiation-filtering vents in BWRs, a process that could be both expensive and time-consuming. And, a team of NRA-appointed seismic experts recently determined that faults running beneath reactors #1 and #2 at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa may be active, which would result in their decommissioning. Fault lines also run below reactors #3, #5, #6, and #7. “We have no choice but to review the plan at an appropriate time,” said Yoshiharu Kawabata, Steering Committee Chairman at the Fund. However, TEPCO thus far is refusing to admit that its business plan may need to be revised. “We will review the plan if necessary, but we want to keep it as is for now,” insisted TEPCO’s President, Naomi Hirose.

More information is emerging on the role of organized crime in the reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, which is still reeling from the aftereffects of the 2011 nuclear disaster there. Billions of dollars are at stake. At the end of last month, prefectural officials arrested a yazuka crime gang leader, Yoshinori Arai, from Yamagata Prefecture. Arai was charged with sending workers to decontaminate areas of Fukushima Prefecture, but keeping half of their salary. After years of close ties between organized crime and the nuclear industry, which were chronicled by journalist Tomohiko Suzuki in his 2011 book, Yazuka and Nuclear Energy: Diary of an Undercover Reporter Working at the Fukushima Plant, the government finally declared it illegal to hire members of crime syndicates, and TEPCO said it would sever its relationships with the yazuka gangs. But layers of contractors and subcontractors have made that difficult to monitor. Currently, Fukushima police are investigating a total of 37 allegations of mob involvement in reconstruction efforts.

Meanwhile, concerns about dangerous radiation levels and stigma of working in the nuclear industry have presented challenges to TEPCO, its contractors, and subcontractors, who are struggling to find enough people to clean up a massive nuclear mess. Suzuki noted, “[The gangs] find people and send them to the site,” often preying on the homeless, unemployed, and mentally handicapped to do the most dangerous work.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shunichi Tanaka spoke before Japan’s Upper House of Parliament this week, vowing to make the country’s nuclear regulations the strictest in the world, after admitting that currently, the nation’s nuclear safety rules are less stringent than international standards. Tanaka said that he will send agency officials to enlist the opinions of international organizations.

In response to last week’s scandal, in which NRA official Tetsuo Nayuki was fired after secretly slipping documents assessing faults beneath their Tsuruga power plant to officials from Japan Atomic Power Company over a week before they were released to the public, the agency announced that from now on, its officials will be prohibited from meeting with utility representatives without another NRA official present for any meeting lasting longer than five minutes. Proceedings will need to be recorded and made public. Before, officials were allowed to meet with power companies in one-on-one meetings if the gatherings were intended purely to “exchange pleasantries.” However, 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 reportedly met with officials from Japan Atomic eight times.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

In an ongoing expose, the Asahi Shimbun reported this week that Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met with Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, on March 16, 2011, to discuss the ongoing nuclear disaster that was unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Fujisaki suggested that the US decision to recommend voluntary evacuation of all Americans living within 80 km (50 miles) of the damaged reactors was a political decision. Campbell, who had forged a long-time professional relationship with the Ambassador, angrily responded that the issue was one of Japan’s survival rather than political fodder. He stressed that the US was unhappy with the Japanese government’s lack of leadership, accusing it of letting TEPCO take the lead in the disaster. Campbell implied that Japan was also not being entirely forthcoming about the severity of the disaster and the risk involved.

A panel comprised of the heads of three investigative probes into the Fukushima nuclear crisis, sponsored by the government, parliament, and a private entity, is preparing a draft report that will reportedly urge Japan to share all records regarding the disaster, both nationally and internationally. The report recommends in part that the government “conduct a thorough investigation into the accident and the damage caused by it, and compile and share records with people inside and outside of Japan.”

Safety Conditions at Other Nuclear Power Plants in Japan

NRA officials announced that an employee-in-training stopped emergency power supplies at reactor #3 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture when he mistakenly touched a circuit breaker, causing water levels in a cooling water pressurizer to increase. The power was off for approximately one minute. Fukui officials insist that the plant is safe and NRA inspectors found no irregularities, but the incident highlighted how easily power sources to critical cooling equipment at reactors can be interrupted.