Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) plans to distribute iodine tablets to residents living within 5 km of a nuclear reactor, according to draft guidelines that the agency hopes to put into place next month. Originally, the NRA discussed distributing iodine tablets to those living as far away as 50 km, but decided against it out of concern that side effects—including allergic reactions and hypothyroidism—could become unnecessarily widespread. Instead, residents outside of the 5 km zone will be ordered to evacuate if radiation levels reach 500 microsieverts per hour, and will be administered iodine tablets if needed when they arrive at evacuation centers. Experts caution that while iodine tablets can prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid gland and causing cancer, they do not protect against other radioactive nuclides, such as cesium.
In addition, the NRA plans to mandate background checks for workers at nuclear plants, acknowledging that Japan is the only developed country without an established counterterrorism program designed to protect nuclear reactors from terrorist attack. Currently, workers at nuclear plants need only present a single form of identification when hired, such as a driver’s license, and are not screened for criminal records, substance abuse, and debts that could make them vulnerable to influence by terrorist organizations. Japan’s nuclear operators employ over 60,000 people per year. The US and countries in Europe have conducted such background checks for the last decade, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended them in both 1999 and 2011. Japan has reportedly balked over individual invasion of privacy concerns that such background checks might pose. The NRA hopes to present its counterterrorism plan at the international Nuclear Security Summit in March 2014.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
In a significant development almost certain to permanently shut down Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said this week that a fault running immediately below reactor #2 there is very likely active and has shown movement within the last 400,000 years. The initial draft report stated, “If new knowledge is obtained, the judgment could be reviewed. However, at least at this point, the fault at the plant site is highly likely an active fault that needs to be considered in terms of seismic design…It could impact the critical facility right above.” Japanese law prohibits nuclear reactors from operating over active faults, and the agency recently decided to tighten guidelines from seismic movement within the last 120,000-130,000 years to any movement within the last 400,000 years. The decision could have significant impact on other reactors across the country. NRA Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, who led the team of experts that examined the fault, said that the NRA is still compiling its final report and is open to listening to the opinions of other experts. Japan Atomic continues to insist that the faults are not active, and said that it will conduct yet another survey in the area.
In an interview with Kyodo News, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the government plans to take a significant role in decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, which were crippled during the March 2011 nuclear disaster there, “without further delay.” Experts estimate that process will take approximately 40 years. Abe said that it will be “impossible” for TEPCO to handle the task on its own, but did not elaborate on the cost of the government’s involvement or whether taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab, rather than TEPCO.
In addition to ordering his administration to review former-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s promise to eradicate nuclear power by 2040, Abe said that Japan will no longer be able to meet a promise made in 2009 by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama that Japan would reduce greenhouse gasses by 25% from 1990 by 2020. Abe added that Japan will establish a new goal before the next United Nations conference on climate change, which will convene in November. The decision is likely to elicit vocal criticism from other countries.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) announced this week that it plans to encourage businesses to conserve power under a new “advisory system”, as part of the Electricity Business Act, which it submitted to Parliament yesterday. Ministry officials say that the new plan is an effort to reduce potential power shortages during the hot summer months. However, the system is non-binding and there are no penalties for those who refuse to comply. Currently, the government issues formal electricity usage restrictions when power shortages loom; these carry a fine of up to a million yen for transgressors. Companies have complained that these fees are too high, in spite of the fact that the fines are rarely paid. Between July and September 2011, the Environment ministry charged over 800 companies with failure to adhere to a mandate for businesses to cut electricity consumption by at least 15%. But, no fines were charged after the Ministry said it determined that all 831 violations were “not deliberate.”
State of the Fukushima Reactors
A new expose by the Asahi Shimbun reveals secret correspondence sent on March 14, 2011, as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was beginning to unfold, between US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, and Ichiro Fujisaki, then Japan’s Ambassador to the United States. Several sources confirmed that the cable was highly critical of Japan’s response to the nuclear crisis, and expressed grave concern about the situation at reactor #4, where 1,535 fuel rods were stored (and remain) in a spent fuel pool there and were in danger of overheating and melting down. “The US military believes that the #4 reactor is in danger. It feels every step should be taken to cool the reactor, including using [Japan’s] Special Defense Forces…The United States has made various preparations to deal with the nuclear accident. The President is also very concerned,” the cable read. On March 15, the day after Mullen’s cable was sent, an explosion occurred at reactor #4, and radiation alarms were triggered at the United States’ Yokosuka Naval Base, located approximately 300 km from the Fukushima plant. Military officials did not publicize the incident, but immediately ordered the evacuation of women and children on the base. Japan’s laws regarding confidentiality and civil servants are strict, and Fujisaki refused to admit that the cable existed even after he left his post. When asked if he had seen the communication, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “I don’t remember.”
Over 500 residents of Fukushima Prefecture plan to file suit against TEPCO, charging that those who were voluntarily evacuated from areas near the Fukushima nuclear disaster were not properly compensated and have suffered emotional distress over health concerns and discrimination from potential radiation exposure. The group of plaintiffs is the largest ever to file against TEPCO in relation to the Fukushima disaster, and their request for damages could be significant: they are requesting 250,000 yen each up front, and an additional 80,000 yen per month for pregnant women and children until the reactors are decommissioned, a process expected to take 40 years. In addition, they will later file for expenses incurred during their evacuation. The group will formally file their complaint on March 11, the two-year anniversary of the disaster.
Nuclear Waste and Decontamination Efforts
Japan’s beleaguered decontamination industry is once again under fire, as contractors charged with decontaminating municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have been accused of illegally dismissing workers without paying them a mandatory 30 days compensation fee, in blatant violation of the country’s Labor Standards Law. The companies, which received lucrative government contracts worth 34.2 billion yen ($378 million) to clean up areas contaminated by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, say that they let workers go because heavy snows in the area have forced work stoppages. However, Japanese law still requires that workers be given either 30 days advance notice or payment for 30 days work. In one firm, approximately 60 workers were laid off with no advance notice; in another, dozens more lost their jobs, but none received any form of compensation. The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare said that it will investigate the issue, but admits that so far it has done nothing. “We are closely watching the effects of the snow, but we have yet to acknowledge there is a wage problem,” said one official. The decontamination contracts mandated that all work be completed by the end of March, but officials say that schedule may now be delayed because of weather-related challenges.