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
A new poll conducted by Japanese public television station NHK reveals that a vast majority of the Japanese public wants to significantly reduce the nation’s dependence on nuclear power. Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 26% of Japan’s power supply came from nuclear energy. Now, 74% of those polled said that rate should be reduced to 15% or less, with 34% of those saying that nuclear power should be completely eradicated. (Source: NHK)
Tohuku Electric Power announced this week that it discovered damage to a fuel rod container in a storage pool at reactor #3 at the Onagawa nuclear power plant. Workers were using an underwater camera to inspect the container when a large chip several centimeters wide, along with 12 chipped places, was discovered. Officials from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) have ordered the utility to determine if the damage was caused by last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake. This type of damage is highly unusual and has never before been reported by a Japanese nuclear operator. If the damage was indeed caused by the earthquake, the discovery will have grave ramifications for nuclear reactors across Japan. Tohuku insists that the fuel rods are safe and undamaged, and said it will also inspect reactors #1 and #2 at the plant. (Source: NHK)
Japan’s new nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), will launch operations in September, according to government officials. The NRC was originally slated to be created on April 1, but the legislation became embroiled in parliamentary wrangling. The new entity, in keeping with the National Government Organization Law, will be highly independent. It will replace NISA, long criticized as having conflicts of interest as an arm of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which regulates nuclear power. In addition to creating new safety standards, the NRC will oversee reactivation of nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. However, members of the five-member commission need Diet approval, and experts say that delays in the launch are possible if there are issues with their appointments.
The Mayor of Futaba, Katsutaka Idogawa, has lashed out at Japan’s central government for its failure to share US radiological data about the spread of radiation in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Idogawa was speaking as an unsworn witness before the House of Councillors’ Budget Committee. He lamented, “If the information has been disclosed efficiently, I would have changed residents’ evacuation routes. Above all, I am in a position of protecting residents.” Idogawa exhibited significant emotion during the speech, adding, “Being told things like ‘it’s all right because radiation doses are at such and such a level of millisieverts’ really makes me furious. I cannot accept this cover-up.” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was present, apologized for the government’s failure.
Renowned seismologist Yoshiaki Kawata is warning that up to 400,000 people could die along Japan’s Pacific Coast if a triple earthquake strikes along the so-called Nankai Trough. Government estimates from 2003 predicted that the death toll from a magnitude 8.7 quake would be far less, approximately 25,000. Kawata’s estimate assumes that the earthquake would occur at night, when the majority of the population is asleep and less likely to quickly escape. If the temblor strikes during the day, that number would be reduced to 120,000. Kawata noted, “The prediction is much more severe than the death told from the Great East Japan earthquake. But the 400,000 figure is not groundless conjecture. I want people to fully understand how dangerous it would be and to think about disaster prevention measures.” The prediction is likely to raise additional questions about safety at nuclear plants in the region.
NISA said it will conduct onsite inspections at Kyushu Electric’s Kawauchi power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, Hokuriku Electric’s Shika plant in Ishikawa Prefecture, and Kansai Electric’s Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, after results of stress tests were submitted by the operators. The government-ordered stress tests, which are conducted by the utilities themselves, have been highly controversial. They use computer simulations to check for preparedness against earthquakes and tsunami, but ignore other natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Haruki Madarame, the Chairman of the NSC, has said they are not adequate measures of safety at nuclear power plants.
Court proceedings have begun as a group of 132 residents living near TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture attempt to halt the restart of the reactors there in 2014. The plaintiffs say that Niigata is at significant risk for earthquakes and tsunami, and that the Fukushima disaster shows that TEPCO is “unqualified” to operate nuclear power plants. The plaintiffs said, “We will never countenance TEPCO operating nuclear reactors after it has so badly contaminated our hometowns, and has yet to clean them up. Nuclear plants, which cause unpredictable damage, must not be constructed…TEPCO has neither the qualifications nor the capability to operate and manage nuclear plants.”
The Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, also known as Gensuikin, will hold annual meetings this year in Fukushima, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, focusing on nuclear power plants and radiation contamination and exposure. The anti-nuclear organization is working toward eradicating nuclear power and weapons.
Under pressure from the government and Yukio Edano, the head of METI, TEPCO finally said it would release video from teleconferences conducted between plant officials and TEPCO’s headquarters, as well as the Prime Minister’s office, in the days immediately following last year’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Edano has been urging TEPCO to release the tapes, and a group of TEPCO shareholders had sought a court-order to prevent the utility from erasing them, but until now, TEPCO insisted it could not release the video because of “privacy concerns.” The recordings are expected to shed light on whether or not TEPCO planned to evacuate all of its staff from the cripple plant, a move that could have led to far more catastrophic consequences, as well as issues regarding venting of the reactors and cooling them with seawater.
In response to criticism from the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), which slammed TEPCO for only releasing a total of 17 photographs of last year’s tsunami hitting the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the utility has released an additional 33 pictures. The company apologized once again for failing to communicate effectively with the public and residents who were affected by the nuclear disaster. (Source: NHK)
Status of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO announced this week that it has completed debris removal in the upper section of reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Work to remove the debris began last November.
Restart of the Oi Reactors
Reactor #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture is scheduled to go back online next Wednesday, July 18. KEPCO officials say they expect it will begin generating full power by July 25. Reactor #3 reached full capacity earlier this week, in spite of massive anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, which drew over 150,000 people. Such demonstrations are highly unusual in Japan, but concern about the dangers of nuclear power has been significantly increasing since the Fukushima disaster. The government has recently announced it will lower power saving restrictions from 15% to 10% in the Kansai service area. However, a federation of seven prefectures served by KEPCO said that they might keep the previous 15% guidelines in place.
An independent study conducted by the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) of 1,080 children in in Fukushima Prefecture says that they received lifetime thyroid gland doses of radiation, although most were low-level. Previous government reports said that their doses were zero. In spite of the new data, the government said that it has no plans to inform parents, citing concerns about unnecessarily producing anxiety. In March 2011, the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) recommended that additional studies be conducted on the effects of radiation in children in Fukushima, but the request was rejected by the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, out of concern that it would raise parents’ fears.
Japan is lobbying members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China and South Korea, to lift restrictions on food exports from Japan. The limits were first put in place last year out of concern for radiation contamination after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Agricultural exports fell by 7.4% in 2011, and exports of seafood dropped by almost 11%. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering lifting its own import restrictions this fall.
Other Nuclear News
Allison McFarlane, an Associate Professor at George Mason University in Virginia, was sworn in this week as the new Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). McFarlane replaces Gregory Jaczko, who became known for his controversial management style and his efforts to make American nuclear plants safer after the Fukushima disaster, which were often met by resistance by his fellow commissioners, many of whom had previously worked within the nuclear industry.