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

More than 100,000 protesters from all walks of life gathered in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park yesterday for the largest rally since demonstrations against a security treaty with the US took place in the 1960s and 70s. Official numbers quoted by Tokyo police underestimated the crowd at 75,000, but organizers reportedly said attendance may have been as great as 170,000. By all counts, it was the largest anti-nuclear demonstration since last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. Nobel laureate and novelist Kenzaburo Oe and popular musician Ryuchi Sakamoto led the rally, which included musical entertainment and speeches by other artists and performers from across Japan. Oe is currently heading a campaign to gather 10 million signatures in support of eradicating nuclear power in Japan; already, almost eight million have been collected.

The rally was attended by a wide swath of Japanese society , including businessmen, families with children, workers, students, and a 90-year old Buddhist nun, among others. One man who was forced to evacuate from his home after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant said, “We can’t accept any resumption of nuclear power operation, as the Fukushima crisis has not been resolved. We want to bring our voice to many people by joining this kind of demonstration.”

On Friday, a similar protest took place in front of Prime Minister Noda’s official residence, attracting over 10,000 people. Anti-nuclear demonstrations have been held there every Friday since March, when the first gathering brought together 300 people. The largely peaceful demonstrations have steadily grown since then, and recently, over 100,000 people joined the movement. Leaders from the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, the citizens’ group organizing the event, say that the Friday rallies, which some are calling the Hydrangea Revolution, will continue as people express opposition to the restart of nuclear reactors across the country, and particularly in Fukui Prefecture, where two reactors were restarted in recent weeks. Yasunari Fujimoto, one of the organizers, vowed, “We want to continue to stage demonstrations as antinuclear sentiment grows among the people.”

Controversy has erupted over a government-sponsored town hall meeting in Sendai, where residents were reportedly invited to share their opinions about the government’s proposed energy plan for the year 2030. Experts studying the issue suggested that the country embrace one of three choices: no nuclear power whatsoever, 15%, or between 20 and 25%. Approximately 170 people attended the hearing, but only nine were allowed to speak. Over 100 people applied to share their views; over 70% of those reportedly wanted to speak out against nuclear power, but were unable to do so. Of the nine people who did speak, one was a Tohoku Electric representative. When he announced his affiliation, the crowd erupted angrily, claiming that the government had manipulated the speaker choices. Three others were from Tokyo rather than the Tohoku region, prompting additional complaints. Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono, who attended the meeting, insisted that the speaker selection process was “totally random.” The government has scheduled a total of 10 meetings, all of which will be conducted by August 3. In addition, it is gathering online opinions through so-called “deliberative polling,” but has been unclear on how that data will be used.

A government panel examining the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is expected to release its final report on July 23. The group has reportedly determined that the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) could have prevented unnecessary radiation exposure for residents in the days following the nuclear meltdowns, had the government shared the data with its citizens. Instead, it chose not to publicize the information, citing concerns about inaccurate weather patterns. In the meantime, thousands of people, including children, fled their homes only to travel to even more contaminated areas.

The Japanese government has announced a new rebuilding plan for Fukushima Prefecture, which was devastated by last year’s nuclear disaster that erupted in the wake of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. The plan will include government decontamination; efforts to reduce radiation exposure levels to 1 millisievert per year or less, which is in line with international standards; and provision of health services for children whose thyroids may have been exposed to radiation. In addition, the Cabinet approved subsidies to promote renewable power sources and build infrastructure. Prefectural officials have voiced loud opposition to nuclear power, saying they want to build “a society not dependent on nuclear power.”

TEPCO

Kazuhiko Shimokobe, the newly-appointed Chairman of TEPCO, is urging the government to move quickly in approving a requested 10.28% rate hike for household consumers. Shimokobe says that the utility needs the increase in order to reconstruct its business. However, expert panels from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the Consumers Affairs Agency (CAA) have recently said that the rate hike should not exceed 9%, and that TEPCO needs to reduce current expenditures by at least 50 billion yen. TEPCO had originally requested that the rate hike go into effect July 1, but that date has been pushed back until September 1 at the earliest.

Bowing to pressure from Yukio Edano, head of METI, TEPCO has finally agreed to release video tapes from teleconferences conducted between its central offices in Tokyo and the Fukushima power plant in the days immediately following the nuclear disaster there. The tapes reportedly include footage of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan angrily chastising TEPCO officials for a request to evacuate all personnel from the plant. If they had done so, the resulting disaster could have been far more catastrophic. TEPCO has vehemently denied that it made such a request, and up until now, has refused to release the tapes citing “privacy” concerns.

The Governor of Niigata Prefecture, Hirohiko Izumida, said he will not grant approval for the restart of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, in spite of the utility’s recent efforts to lobby for putting it back online. Izumida said that TEPCO and the government need to determine the causes of the Fukushima disaster before they can restart other reactors. Speaking to TEPCO Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe and President Naomi Hirose, Izumada said, “It is regrettable that both of you began talking about restarts as soon as you took office.” (Source: NHK)

In the meantime, TEPCO said it will not make a decision for years on whether to decommission reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as all four reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daiini facility. Fukushima Prefecture officials as well as residents are bitterly opposed to allowing any reactors to be restarted in the prefecture, and have said it will not grant approval for bringing the reactors online. But TEPCO has ignored their request, saying they will not make a decision for several years. Meanwhile, maintaining all six reactors is costing the utility 90 billion yen each year, a cost they are trying to pass along to consumers in newly-proposed rate hikes.

A group of 159 residents from Iitate village has filed a claim for $50 million in damages against TEPCO with the government arbitration body. The group is charging TEPCO with responsibility for radiation exposure, mental suffering, and permanent damage to their homes and property, which has rendered it uninhabitable. The village is approximately 30 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where last year’s nuclear disaster occurred. Forty-one of 70 households from the Nagadoro District in Iiatate are involved in the suit, with more expected to join. Currently over 3,000 complaints have been filed against TEPCO, but only 10% have been settled. The arbitration body has accused TEPCO of purposely delaying the compensation process. (Source: NHK)

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has advised the municipal governments of Hokkaido, Shizuoka, Ishikawa, and Ehime Prefectures to change the location of emergency control centers designed to provide communications and support and to utilities and local governments in the case of a nuclear disaster. Currently, the control centers are all located within 5 km of nuclear reactors. During the Fukushima disaster, TEPCO’s emergency control center was rendered completely useless because of high radiation levels, but 16 months after the disaster, some prefectures still have not moved to make their plants safer.

Status of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO announced a robot has discovered extremely high levels of radiation in the basement of reactor #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, measuring up to 360 millisieverts per hour. However, workers lost control of the robot and were forced to abandon it because radiation levels remain fatally high, and humans are unable to enter the reactor building. The utility is still trying to determine where the building is leaking; failure to find leaks and fix them may delay or prevent workers from removing melted nuclear fuel and eventually decommissioning the damaged reactors. (Source: NHK)

Officials from TEPCO say that they are preparing to conduct a test run in which they will remove two unused fuel rods from the spent fuel pool at reactor #4, in preparation for eventually removing the 1,535 rods that are being stored there. The process is both complicated and dangerous—the rods must be lifted by a large crane and inserted into a container on the fifth floor, which will then be lowered out of the building and mover over to the so-called “common pool.” If the fuel overheats in the process, it could release radioactivity. However, leaving the fuel rods in the spent fuel pool is an equally dangerous option; the building housing #4 was heavily damaged in last year’s hydrogen explosions after the nuclear meltdowns, and the building, which lost its roof, is leaning and considered highly precarious. (Source: NHK)

Engineers from the Chiba Institute of Technology announced this week that the have created a new type of robot, nicknamed “Rosemary’ to help workers at TEPCO navigate the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where radiation levels remain too high for workers to enter. Rosemary is designed to replace the ill-fated Quince robots, one of which became trapped in a reactor. Rosemary is reportedly more robust than Quince and can carry more weight.

Restart of the Oi Reactors

NISA officials announced that emergency alarms sounded on two different occasions on Sunday evening and on morning at reactor #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, signaling that the emergency backup generator was malfunctioning. The reactor is scheduled to go back online tomorrow and reach full power later in the week. NISA said that the restart will continue as scheduled, in spite of the fact that the backup engine for the generator may now be useless.