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

TEPCO announced this week that workers who were trying to move debris near the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s #3 reactor dislodged a 1.5-ton hoist that had fallen into the pool after the March 2011 hydrogen explosion, sending it tumbling further into the pool. The hoist is now completely submerged, raising concerns that it may have damaged some of the 556 fuel assemblies being stored there. TEPCO officials said that there have been no “significant” changes in radiation levels above the pool and that they will try to determine the condition of the fuel assemblies with an underwater camera.

Japan plans to form a new oversight panel to monitor decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced last week that he wants to speed up the cleanup process there. Members of the panel will be chosen from TEPCO, various government ministries, and corporations that constructed the plant and its equipment. The group will reportedly be tasked with establishing a work schedule and monitoring its progress. Experts estimate that decommissioning the crippled reactors will take approximately 40 years.

TEPCO

Last week, a former member of the Parliamentary investigative panel into the Fukushima nuclear disaster charged TEPCO with willfully obstructing the investigation by actively discouraging panel members from conducting an onsite visit to reactor #1 in order to look for earthquake damage. If such damage were discovered, it would negatively affect the nuclear power industry nationwide. In recorded conversations, TEPCO officials said that a cover constructed over the reactor to prevent radiation from entering the atmosphere rendered the area so “pitch-black” dark that it would be too dangerous for humans to navigate the building. In fact, the reactor cover did allow sunlight to filter in, and the cover was equipped with five mercury bulbs equivalent to the light emitted by 40 automobiles, as well as backup lighting.

In response to the revelations, TEPCO posted a public apology on its website, saying that its official had unknowingly presented erroneous information when he answered a panelist’s question about whether or not the area was safe. However, recordings of the session prove that in fact, no panelist asked about safety conditions, and instead, the TEPCO official issued the warning of his own volition. Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), commented, “If false information was given with the intent to mislead, it will be absolutely unforgiveable.”

This week, the Environment Ministry said that an investigation into companies contracted by TEPCO to remove radioactive waste from Fukushima Prefecture showed that in at least seven projects, workers were not given daily hazard pay as required by law, and that presumably, that money was kept by their employers. In Japan, those who clean up nuclear waste are entitled to 10,000 yen ($108) in hazard pay each day, in order to compensate them for exposure to high radiation levels. Records show that at the very least, hundreds of workers have probably been affected, but analysts believe that in actuality, the number of workers affected could be far higher. However, currently there are no exact figures on how many were cheated out of their pay, because Environment Ministry officials failed to order contractors to release those numbers.  The Ministry investigation was spurred by an Asahi Shimbun expose, first published in November 2012, but officials waited until the end of January before ordering contracting firms to investigate the issue. Despite the admission, the Ministry has no plans whatsoever to either name the companies involved or to punish them, because that “would have a big adverse effect,” explained one Environment official. Under normal circumstances, companies that violated hazard pay requirements would be barred from bidding on future Ministry jobs.

A group of 350 residents from Fukushima, Miyagi, and Ibaraki Prefectures, as well as other areas, plant to file a class action suit against TEPCO and the Japanese government, charging them with damage to health and reputation, as well as demanding that radioactivity levels be returned to pre-disaster levels. The group, which plans to file their lawsuit on March 11, the two-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, joins thousands of other plaintiffs who are in the process of suing TEPCO. (Source: NHK)

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced this week that it plans to digitize and make available to the public more than 900,000 pages of documents from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, internal documents from TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, will not be scanned into the system, because they are not considered government property.  Some of the documents, which include readings from radiation monitoring, information on public exposure to radiation, and evacuation plans, have never before been released to the public. NRA officials expect that the process of scanning and organizing the vast number of pages, which are currently sitting in numerous locations around the country, will take at least two years.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

An expert panel appointed by METI is advising the government to deregulate the energy industry beginning in 2015, in a move called the “biggest postwar reform” of the electricity sector. METI officials plan to submit a bill to the ongoing Diet session. Initially, the government will establish an independent entity to oversee the transition. The new plan would reportedly break the chains of a monopoly currently enjoyed by the nation’s 10 utilities, allowing new companies to enter the market and consumers to choose their own suppliers starting in 2016. Between 2018 and 2020, utilities will be ordered to separate electricity generation and transmission functions into separate companies, and stop passing personnel and other overhead costs directly onto consumers. The new plan will also open the door for renewable energy sources to play a bigger part in Japan. The move comes in response to TEPCO’s request for a considerable rate hike last year. Many consumers, both residential and business, protested the increase, but had no alternative suppliers to whom to turn.

A new poll conducted by Jiji Press in the Kinki region of Japan, which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Wakayama, and Hyogo Prefectures, shows that for the first time, those opposed to nuclear power outnumber those who support it, at 43% vs. 39%. Those opposed to nuclear power listed worry about another massive disaster as their biggest concern, followed by fear of radiation exposure and concern about a lack of permanent storage space for radioactive waste.

Compensation for Victims of the Fukushima Disaster

The government plans to submit a special measures bill to Parliament, in order to extend the three-year statute of limitations for victims of the Fukushima disaster to file claims against TEPCO. Many residents who have cases in mediation have expressed concern that their cases would not be settled before the statute ran out, which could happen as early as March 2014. At the end of last month, 5,063 cases were in mediation, after TEPCO and victims disagreed about the amount of compensation due, but only 1,204 had been settled.