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

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced this week that nuclear plants across the country will be required to build a second control room in order to remotely control venting and cooling functions at reactors in case a nuclear disaster occurs. The mandate, which also requires that the control rooms be resistant to earthquakes and tsunamis and have emergency power sources available, is expected to be unveiled when the NRA publishes new safety standards for nuclear plants in July. However, Shunichi Tanaka, Chair of the NRA, said that the agency will grant an exemption period and will allow power operators to restart idled reactors if they can produce written plans for upgrades, even if the control rooms have not yet been built.

Japan Atomic Power Co. (JAPC) has reported record-setting profits for the first half of this fiscal year. The utility posted 20.9 billion yen ($238 million) in profit, despite the fact that all of its nuclear reactors are currently offline. JAPC has a contractual arrangement with TEPCO and other power companies, in which the utilities pay a combined 76.2 billion yen in fees to JAPC for supplying them with nuclear power—even if they receive no electricity. The profit margin was even larger this year, because JAPC accrued no operating costs for generating power. The cost of those fees is passed onto consumers. The powerful former Chairman of TEPCO, Tsunehisa Katsumata is an outside director at JAPC, raising questions about conflicts of interest.

Writer Kenzaburo Oe has joined forces with writers Satoshi Kamata, Hisae Sawachi, and Keiko Ochiai in order to bring attention to the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Their efforts are a response to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent announcement that he plans to restart idled nuclear reactors, as well as to construct new ones. Oe’s group, called “Citizens’ Committee for a 10-Million People Petition to Say Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants,” plans to hold an anti-nuclear rally on March 9 at Meiji Park in Tokyo, with an eye toward encouraging development of renewable power sources, ending construction on new plants, and ultimately eradicating nuclear power in Japan.

TEPCO

TEPCO is reportedly planning to vastly increase its power production using coal, a process that could have a significantly negative effect on Japan’s production of greenhouse gasses. The company plans to pass the cost of doing so on to consumers. TEPCO’s business plan proposes increasing its electricity supply by 2.6 million kilowatts of power between 2019 and 2021. Coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, as natural gas.

In fact, since the Fukushima disaster, power use in Japan has declined as people have embraced power-saving practices and use of renewable energy has steadily increased. A government source told a reporter from The Japan Times, “This coal-fired thermal power project has nothing to do with electricity demand for the immediate period and toward the future, and there should be no need to boost supplies by 2.6 million kilowatts.” He added, “Perhaps they overestimated their projection because TEPCO will collapse unless they devise a plan to boost sales by assuming growth in demand. At the end of the day, consumers will end up paying for the cost of the unnecessary capital investments.” Earlier this year, TEPCO said that it did not have enough financial resources to invest in renewable energy sources.

Videotape recorded in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 shows that TEPCO failed to send reinforcement staff to help control the unfolding crisis, even after then-plant manager Masao Yoshida urgently and repeatedly requested help.  Officials told Yoshida, “Don’t expect extra workers from the plant,” prompting him to reply the next day with exasperation, “I can no longer force my employees to continue working.” Many workers had already been exposed to dangerously high doses of radiation by then.

TEPCO Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe and President Naomi Hirose met with 30 other company officials last week at the utility’s new headquarters in Naraha, approximately 20 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The office was established to deflect criticism about TEPCO’s glacial response time in dealing with compensation and decontamination issues.  However, officials said that no new decisions about compensation or decontamination were made at the meeting, because officials could not agree on how they should proceed. (Source: NHK)

Evacuation

A new study by researchers at Fukushima Medical University shows that elderly residents living in nursing homes in Fukushima Prefecture died at a rate nearly two and half times higher in in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster than they did the previous year. The group studied records from 34 nursing homes located within 20 km of the Fukushima plant. During the three months after the crisis began, the rate was three times as high as that during the same period in 2010. The researchers believe that the deaths were a result of the stress of evacuating long distances, as well as substandard care received at temporary evacuation facilities. In addition, the study revealed that most of the nursing homes are not prepared to protect residents in case of a nuclear disaster. Seiji Yasumura, a professor at Fukushima Medical University who worked on the study, noted, “The latest study revealed the surveyed facilities lacked concrete evacuation plans and procedures, and furthermore had not conducted evacuation drills. Hospitals are better prepared for disasters than institutions for the elderly. The central and local governments need to address this.”

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Officials from Osaka Prefecture are planning to incinerate 36,000 tons of radioactive waste that was sent from Iwate Prefecture. Although the waste contains less than 8,000 Bq/kg of cesium, which is the government limit for incineration, some residents have raised concerns that the vast amount of radioactive waste being burned will create hazardous conditions. Opponents of the plan have sent 2,232 letters and petitions to Osaka municipal assembly members, and a coalition of 27 groups sent a petition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, requesting that he ask Osaka to halt the incineration, scheduled to happen within the next month.