Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
WHO Report on Radiation Exposure
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report this week, which downplayed the health effects of radiation exposure, although it admitted that risk of thyroid cancer for women who were exposed to radiation as infants is 70% higher than that of the rest of the population. “A breakdown of data, based on age, gender, and proximity to the plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts,” said Maria Neira, Who Director for Public Health and Environment. In addition, the report showed an increase of 7% for leukemia in men exposed as infants, and an increase of 6% for women exposed as infants. Those increases are considered small. “The WHO report shamelessly downplays the impact of early radioactive releases from the Fukushima disaster on people inside the 20 km evacuation zone who were not able to leave the area quickly,” said Dr. Rianne Teule, Greenpeace International nuclear radiation expert.
She added, “The WHO should have estimated the radiation exposure of these people to give a more accurate picture of the potential long-term impacts of Fukushima. The WHO report is clearly a political statement to protect the nuclear industry and not a scientific one with people’s health in mind.”
Modeling by German nuclear expert Oda Becker, based on TEPCO’s own data regarding radiation released during the nuclear disaster, shows that residents living within 20 km of the meltdowns may have been exposed to hundreds of millisieverts of radiation. What the WHO report emphasized as a small percentage increase in cancers actually translates into increased risk for thousands of people. “The WHO’s flawed report leaves its job half done,” said Teule. “The WHO and other organizations must stop downplaying and hiding the impact of the Fukushima disaster and call for more emphasis on protecting the millions of people still living in contaminated areas.”
Despite its mission to strive for "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” the WHO has had a close relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1959, when the two organizations signed a written agreement to consult and cooperate with one another, and to even change course if mutually beneficial. In part, the agreement reads, “The International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization agree that with a view to facilitating the effective attainment of the objectives set forth in their respective constitutional instruments, within the general framework established by the Charter of the United Nations, they will act in close co-operation with each other and will consult each other regularly in regard to matters of common interest.” Another clause adds, “Whenever either organization proposes to initiate a program or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement.” In essence, the WHO only releases reports on the impact of radiation releases on a population with the approval of the IAEA.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
Atsuhiko Kosaka, head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) office in charge of decommissioning at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, is cautioning that efforts to dismantle the utility’s damaged reactors will be difficult and dangerous for many years. He said that worker safety, including radiation protection and injury prevention, are high priorities, noting, “We are not totally aware of the distribution of radiation levels in areas where no work is under way and where rubble has yet to be cleared.” In some areas of the plant, there is still no electricity, and workers must navigate dangerous, debris-filled areas using only flashlights. “TEPCO’s work is like groping in the darkness,” he said, “and has involved an array of problems. Last winter for example, frozen pipes and pumps in the cyclic water injection system to col down the reactors caused a number of water leaks…We are currently in a ‘whack-a-mole’ situation, with ad-hoc responses used in every problem that arises.”
TEPCO has admitted that it, its contractors, and its subcontractors failed to record radiation dose information to a centralized national database for 21,000 workers assigned to the Fukushima Daiichi plant between March 11, 2011 and March 31, 2012. The omission is significant; workers in Japan can only be exposed to 50 millisieverts per year and no more than 100 millisieverts over the course of five years. Moreover, it highlights the fact that yet again, TEPCO is blatantly ignoring the safety of its workers. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has repeatedly requested the dose exposure information on the 21,000 workers from the utility, but TEPCO officials first blamed computer systems damaged by the tsunami and then said that records compiled by hand after the disaster needed to be entered into digital systems. Now, almost two years later, officials say that they will submit data for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 by the end of next month. Many nuclear workers move from company to company; without data in a central repository, it’s often difficult to keep track of how much radiation exposure each worker has experienced. Nevertheless, records in the central database are only updated one time each year, and Japanese law is unclear about whether keeping those records is the responsibility of the contractor, utility, or a government agency. “No ministry or agency is expected to take the lead because the health of individuals is at stake, and the responsibility is heavy,” admitted one government official.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reiterated his promise to restart nuclear reactors, despite widespread public opposition and concerns about radiation and a repeat of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. “We will create a new culture of safety under the aegis of the Nuclear Regulation Authority and restart reactors confirmed safe,” he said. However, Abe failed to say when those restarts would take place. During his political campaign, he promised to restart idled reactors within three years, but Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the NRA, has said that that timeline is unrealistic. A poll conducted earlier this month by the Asahi Shimbun shows that not one of the nation’s 16 nuclear power plants would pass the NRA’s recently announced safety standards, which will go into effect July 18 (the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant was not included in that poll.) Abe promised that the NRA regulations will be enforced “without compromise.” However, the new requirements, which include protecting plants against earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters, and terrorism, as well as installing filtered vents and providing backup power sources and secondary control centers, are going to be astronomically expensive. The utilities themselves estimate collective costs for retrofitting at almost 1 trillion yen (nearly $11 billion), although that number will probably rise as more specific details emerge about the NRA’s requirements, which are still being finalized. Kansai Electric, which operates 11 reactors nationwide, estimates that its costs alone will top 38 billion yen through the end of next month, including some upgrades already made, and total 285.5 billion yen by March 2018. Those expenses will almost certainly be passed onto consumers and will significantly increase the cost of nuclear power in Japan.
A subgroup of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, a division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), will meet in March to begin talks regarding Japan’s energy policy over the next decades, including the role nuclear energy will play. The previous government administration, under the direction of former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, had promised to eradicate nuclear power by 2040, but current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the country is financially dependent on nuclear power, despite the dangers it poses and rising public backlash in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The new subgroup will reportedly have 40% fewer members than the previous working group; Jiji News reports that nuclear power opponents are the ones missing from the ranks in the revised group.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The NRA has released its revised nuclear safety regulations. They will go into effect on July 18, at which point utilities will be eligible to submit applications to restart the 48 reactors that are currently offline nationwide. In addition to regulating reactor safety, they also mandate distribution of iodine tablets to those who live within 5 km of a nuclear reactor; immediate evacuation for those within 5 km, even if no radiation has been released; evacuation for those living beyond 5 km of radiation levels reach 500 microsieverts per hour; and evacuation within one week if they reach 20 microsieverts per hour. Municipal officials are required to submit evacuation plans and nuclear disaster plans by March 18, but many have said they will not be able to submit them on time because they are just now receiving evacuation guidelines. In the meantime, the updated rules are already stirring up controversy. NRA officials recently released a draft version of the standards for public comment, and unexpectedly received an unprecedented 3,155 comments, many requesting iodine distribution for those outside of the 5 km radius and stricter evacuation guidelines. However, the agency did not make any major changes, leading some to charge that they are ignoring public opinion.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
Almost two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, residents in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate continue to feel its effects in myriad ways. Population numbers across the three prefectures have dropped precipitously. In response to the nuclear crisis, records show that overall, 72,000 people have fled the area out of fear of radiation exposure and because they cannot find jobs and infrastructure no longer exists to support residents. That number takes into account large numbers of evacuees (for instance, in Fukushima Prefecture, 150,000 people still have not returned to their homes) as well as those areas to which they have fled and where the population has increased, such as in Sendai and Rifu. However, experts surmise that the exodus numbers are probably far greater; many evacuees have had to keep their former addresses on record in order to ensure receipt of compensation from TEPCO. “Many residents will likely move their residential registration when preferential measures for evacuees and compensation come to an end,” noted one town official in Okuma. The exodus has disproportionally affected the young; in Fukushima Prefecture, 82% of the population decline was for those 40 years of age and younger. In Kawauchi, where only 400 residents of the 3,000 who originally lived there have returned, 80% are 50 years old or greater.
Similarly, the population loss has affected schools, which are struggling to survive. This week, Namie Elementary School, the only remaining public elementary school remaining in the town, said that not one first grade student has enrolled for next year, placing the future of the school, and indeed, the town, in question. The vast majority of families evacuated in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and many have decided not to return, both because they are concerned about radiation contamination and because they are loathe to uproot their children again. Before the nuclear disaster, approximately 1,000 students attended six different schools in Namie. Now, only 30 students remain at Namie Elementary; next year, after the sixth grade class graduates, there will be only 18.
Radioactive Waste Disposal and Decontamination
In response to strong local opposition—and admitting that it failed to effectively communicate with residents and municipal officials—Japan’s Environment Ministry said this week that it will reevaluate plans to establish permanent nuclear waste disposal centers in Tochigi, Ibaraki, Miyagi, Chiba, and Gunma Prefectures for storage of so-called “designated waste” containing 8,000 Bq/kg or more of radioactive cesium. Ministry officials acknowledged that “there was a lack of communication with local governments,” and said they plan to provide better explanations of why the waste needs to be stored there—but did not explain how that will allay residents’ fears about radiation exposure. Originally, the Environment Ministry said that waste storage would begin in summer of 2014, but that deadline will now almost certainly be significantly delayed, as structures to store the contaminated waste have not yet even been built. In the meantime, radioactive waste is being stored in countless places around the country, often near schools, homes, and water sources, and in many instances, secured only by a plastic tarp.