(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono announced this week that Japan is drafting new regulations for nuclear power providers, including limiting the life of most reactors to 40 years. Although utilities can apply for extensions, Hosono said that those will be granted rarely and only when companies can prove that facilities are in good physical condition, and that they are capable of safely maintaining them. In addition, the government will for the first time legally require power companies to create contingency plans in the case of nuclear disaster.
Japan is considering placing nuclear plants under public control, and may separate power generation and distribution functions. Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said, “Nuclear plants are owned by private utilities, but the state is responsible for compensation and decontamination work [post-Fukushima]. It can no longer be permitted for the [utilities] to enjoy the benefits of the system…Either they’ll continue to manage nuclear plants while paying huge insurance premiums or they’ll relinquish the benefits they currently enjoy and ask the state to bear the cost of compensation.” Although Japan’s Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damage provides for unlimited liability by utilities, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) is unable to afford huge compensation and decontamination expenses, and the government has had to shoulder those costs. In addition, critics have complained that the current system in Japan limits opportunities for new providers, including those of renewable energy sources.
Shikoku Electric will halt operations at its Ikata reactor in Ehime Prefecture later this week for regular maintenance. It will mark the first time the entire plant has been offline since 1994. Only five of the nation’s 54 reactors will remain in operation: Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari 3 (Hokkaido Prefecture); TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 5 and 6 (Niigata Prefecture); Kansai Electric’s Takahama 3 (Fukui Prefecture); and Chugoku Electric’s Shimane 2 (Shimane Prefecture).
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba resumed nuclear cooperation talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week in Ankara. Japan hopes to export nuclear equipment and technology to Turkey, in spite of the fact that most people in Japan disapprove of the idea.
Records show that the 10 lawmakers from whom TEPCO purchased the most fundraiser tickets include Yukio Edano, the current head of METI, as well as three former METI Ministers: Akira Amari, Kaoru Yosano, and Takeo Hiranuma. METI regulates the nuclear power industry. TEPCO officials admitted that Yosano and former Foreign Minster Taro Aso were seen as “long-time sympathizers for the electric power industry.” Although TEPCO pledged in 1974 to cease making contributions to political figures, it spends an average of 50 million yen ($650,000) on tickets to fundraising events annually. Most expenditures were less than 200,000 yen so they could be omitted from politicians’ funding reports.
State of the Reactors
Japanese government officials have admitted that John Roos, United States Ambassador to Japan, pressured then-Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto to pour water on the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 16, 2011, after the government temporarily halted spraying from helicopters because of high radiation levels. On March 17, the US advised American citizens to evacuate all areas within 50 miles (80 km) of the plant.
Scientists are studying how to use elementary muon particles from space in order to develop images of melted fuel in reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The process would work similar to an x-ray. The density of nuclear fuel is greater than that of steel, allowing images of the melted fuel to appear on specialized film. Because of high radiation levels, TEPCO workers have been unable to determine where the melted fuel is in the reactors.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
Officials of Okuma and Futaba, home to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, are raising concerns that the towns may not be able to be repopulated for decades. Annual radiation exposure in some areas of the town has been estimated at more than 100 millisieverts, which is five times greater than that which is safe for human exposure. Other areas have been measured at more than 50 millisieverts per year. Although the government has said that residents may not be able to return for five years or more, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) estimates it will take more than five decades for radiation to return to safe levels.
Japanese parents are expressing concern about food safety and radiation levels in the Tochigi city of Nikko, a popular tourist destination for students, which is located 140 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Nikko is the site of numerous temples and shrines, and approximately 80% of Japanese students travel there on field trips each year. In June, the Science Ministry measured cesium levels of 100,000 to 300,000 Bq/kg in Nikko’s soil.
Fukushima Prefecture officials announced that all rice harvested in 2012 will be voluntarily tested for radioactive cesium contamination before being shipped. The prefecture will subsidize new, more efficient testing equipment to streamline the process. If testing were conducted using currently available equipment in the prefecture, experts estimate the process would take approximately 30 years to test rice produced each year in Fukushima. The new equipment will allow the process to be completed in several months.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
The government has identified 102 municipalities in eight prefectures that are eligible for decontamination funds. The designation means that radiation levels in parts of the municipality have measured at least .23 microsieverts per hour when sampled one meter above ground. Forty of the municipalities are within Fukushima Prefecture. Under new legislation, local governments will draw up plans to decontaminate radioactive areas, but the central government will underwrite the cost. Some municipalities, however, have chosen not to apply for available funding, out of concern that the designation will hurt tourism and the reputation of locally manufactured items.
Researchers are raising concerns that massive decontamination efforts in Fukushima Prefecture could result in large-scale ecological destruction. Over 1,000 square kilometers of Fukushima Prefecture will need to be decontaminated, a process that may involve removing up to 31 million cubic meters of contaminated soil, tree bark, dead leaves, and branches. Scientists warn that effects on the ecology of the land could be severe and may pose a threat to some insects, fish, birds, and other animals, especially those that are already endangered.
Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato is expressing frustration over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s request to store radioactive waste in Fukushima Prefecture, in light of Noda’s announcement last month that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is now “under control.” Sato insists, “We can call it under control only when evacuated people can come home.” The Fukushima Prefectural Assembly unanimously passed a resolution imploring the government to retract the assessment.