Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said this week that the agency will no longer accept applications from nuclear power operators hoping to extend the lifetime of reactors 30 years or older, until new safety regulations are compiled and go into effect in July. The government had already required operators of aging reactors to conduct safety assessments, but now all existing reactors will be expected to meet numerous new requirements before being allowed to restart.
Those requirements, most of which were announced this week and last, will make it more difficult for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to restart the country’s idled reactors within three years, as they had hoped. The NRA’s Tanaka noted, “In terms of earthquakes and tsunamis, I’m sure our safety standards will be the toughest in the world,” and reiterated his view that the LDP’s three-year plan is too ambitious. Nuclear power analyst Tom O’Sullivan agreed, saying, “It is unlikely that any of the idled reactors will restart prior to September due to ongoing investigations of seismic issues at certain plants and due to the fact that safety standards have still not been finalized by the NRA. Local approvals will also be necessary for restarts, adding a further layer of complication.” The majority of the public does not support long-term use of nuclear power in Japan.
The updated rules include safety requirements that operators provide a secondary control room in case the first is destroyed or cannot be accessed because of high radiation levels; installation of filtered vents to prevent massive releases of radioactive materials into the environment; and retrofitting of plants to protect against earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks. Before the Fukushima disaster, the government allowed utilities to essentially police themselves, permitting them to decide whether or not they needed to prepare for earthquakes or tsunamis. Some of those preparations had a hefty price tag, and the companies insisted that such natural disasters were so unlikely that they weren’t worth planning for. They were wrong.
Perhaps most significantly, the NRA said that it will now expressly prohibit nuclear reactors and associated safety equipment from being built on active seismic fault lines. The agency is changing the definition of “active” from that which moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years to any movement within the last 400,000 years. Experts say that numerous reactors across Japan could be affected, and in depth tests will need to be conducted to ensure their operability under the new regulations. Previously, the government presented guidelines on reactor placement, but they were non-binding suggestions. The new regulations are called standards rather than guidelines.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Tanaka specifically mentioned reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Currently, the Oi reactors are the only two operating nationwide. However, Japanese law requires that all reactors be taken offline for routine inspection every 13 months. The Oi reactors will be due for legally required maintenance in September. Assuming that no other reactors have been restarted, Japan will, for the time being, once again operate as a nuclear-free nation, as it did for several months last year.
In addition to new regulations regarding reactors, the NRA also released new rules this week concerning evacuations around nuclear disasters. Previously, the government said that anyone living within 5 km of a nuclear disaster should evacuate immediately. However, the NRA has amended that standard, saying that those outside of the 5 km zone should evacuate immediately or stay indoors if radiation levels reach 500 microsieverts per hour. If people remain indoors, they should then evacuate once the radiation plume has passed. That standard is significant in that it is stricter than international guidelines, which say that residents should evacuate when levels reach 1,000 microsieverts per hour. In addition, the NRA’s proposed rules say that residents should leave within one week if radiation levels reach 20 microsieverts per hour. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) recommendation is 100 microsieverts per hour.
In other news, the NRA plans to train experts and inspectors at nuclear power plants to deal with nuclear disasters, since the Fukushima crisis revealed that neither the government nor private industry had the technical expertise necessary to deal with multiple nuclear meltdowns in the midst of natural disasters. Once trained, a team of 10 experts, under the direction of NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa and Director General for Emergency Response Masaya Yasui, will reportedly be dispatched if another crisis occurs.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
The assembly in Niigata Prefecture has rejected a referendum that would have called for a public vote to determine whether seven reactors at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant should be allowed to begin operating again, after being kept offline in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Despite widespread public opposition to the move and more than 50,000 signatures requesting a vote, the assembly, which is dominated by members of the pro-nuclear LDP, said that the central government, not the people, should decide whether reactors there should be restarted.
However, the new NRA standards regarding fault lines beneath reactors may be an impediment to the LDP’s goal. TEPCO released documents this week showing that there are faults beneath reactors #1, #2, #3, #5, #6, and #7. The fault below reactor #2 was found to have volcanic ash believed to be 240,000 years old, which could lead to it being classified as an active fault. Studies will be conducted on all of the fault lines.
The mayor of Futaba, Katsutaka Idogawa, is resigning. The Futaba town assembly voted unanimously in a no-confidence motion, after Idogawa failed to attend a meeting with central government officials regarding storage of nuclear waste there. After the no-confidence motion, Idogawa dissolved the town council, but all members are running again unopposed and are expected to be reelected.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO is once again saying that it plans to dump massive amounts of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, although it says it will remove enough radiation to bring the wastewater within legal limits. The water is used to keep melted fuel at Fukushima’s crippled reactors cool; the utility has struggled to store it, and is running out of space to do so. However, officials admitted that they will need to obtain the consent of local governments and others before disposing of the water into the sea. After the Fukushima nuclear crisis first began, TEPCO dumped radioactive water into the ocean and did not admit it did so until after the fact. The move caused an international outcry, including from nearby countries worried about food safety and the effect on food exports. Just last week, fish measuring more than 2,500 times the legal limit of radioactive cesium was found in waters just off the Fukushima nuclear plant.
This week, TEPCO released an additional 312 hours of video footage of teleconferences recorded between March 23 and 30 and between April 6 and 12, 2011, as the nuclear crisis was first unfolding. The footage shows debate about whether or not reactor #1 should be vented, as well as rising temperatures in #5. TEPCO blocked audio in the tape 1,133 times and distorted video images 347 times, but did include a section revealing that officials were aware of a highly radioactive water leak, but ignored it for two weeks.
Prosecutors trying to charge TEPCO with professional negligence resulting in death and injury as a result of the Fukushima nuclear crisis questioned former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former president Masataka Shimizu this week, but their efforts may be an uphill battle. In spite of its own internal studies that showed a major tsunami could inundate the plant and flood critical safety equipment, TEPCO continues to insist that there was no way they could have predicted the 2011 disaster. Moreover, it may be difficult to prove that radiation caused deleterious health effects on the population.