Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO is scrambling to determine the cause of steam rising from the fifth floor of reactor #3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant, site of the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns. The fifth floor is home to the reactor’s spent fuel pool, where 500 spent fuel rods are stored. The steam was first discovered at 8:20 am yesterday (July 18) and continued throughout the day; darkness eventually made it difficult to determine if it was still being released. Officials say that so far, no radiation, temperature, or pressure changes have been found, and no criticality (the point at which self-sustaining nuclear reactions occur) has been encountered. Mayumi Yoshida, a TEPCO spokesperson, said, “We do not believe an emergency situation is breaking out, although we are still investigating what caused this…We think it’s possible that rain made its way through the reactor building and, having fallen on the primary containment vessel, which is hot, evaporated, causing steam.” Yoshida did not clarify why no steam appeared when it rained previously over the past two years and four months, since the reactor first began to melt down. Nevertheless,workers are prepared to inject boric acid into the reactor if needed, to slow the rate of fission and prevent a nuclear chain reaction. Clean up work there has been discontinued for the time being.


Despite ongoing issues at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose met with residents from the village of Kariwa this week, in an attempt to sway them to grant permission to restart reactors #6 and #7 at the company’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. The effort has been an uphill battle: so far, the local assembly there is reportedly divided, and Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida has said in no uncertain terms that he will not approve a reactor restart until the root causes of the Fukushima disaster are uncovered. That process could take years.

Nuclear Regulation Authority and Reactor Restarts

This week, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) conducted its first meeting to assess 10 nuclear reactors across Japan, to determine whether or not they will meet new safety requirements that were enacted earlier this month. The reactors in question are Kyushu Electric’s reactors #1 and #2 at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture; Hokkaido Electric’s reactors #1 and #3 at its Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture; Shikoku Electric’s reactor #3 at the Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture; and Kansai Electric’s reactors #3 and #4 at the Takahama plant, as well as reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant, all located in Fukui Prefecture. In order to improve transparency, which was previously lacking in Japan’s nuclear regulation, this meeting was open to the public. Operators were asked to outline measures they have taken to improve reactor safety. The evaluation process is expected to take six months, at which point utilities will need to obtain consent from residents and local government leaders in order to bring reactors back online.

Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) filed a complaint against the NRA this week, claiming that the safety agency’s request to submit a report by July 31 on what would happen to a spent fuel pool at reactor #2 of the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture if a major earthquake strikes is illegal. It’s the first time that a utility has filed such a protest under an administrative appeal law. The NRA’s order follows a report submitted by its seismic experts, who determined that a fault line running beneath it is active. JAPC has disputed that report, and says that complying with the NRA’s demand regarding the spent fuel pool would be tantamount to agreeing with the seismic assessment.Nevertheless, officials said that they will submit the report on time rather than risk further delaying the reactor’s restart. Japanese law prohibits operation of any nuclear reactor that sits on an active fault line. Further raising concerns about safety issues, the Tsuruga reactor’s spent fuel pool contains 1,700 nuclear fuel rods, which would be highly vulnerable if a massive earthquake were to strike.

A five-person team of NRA seismic experts, under the direction of Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, has completed a two-day on-site investigation of fault lines running beneath Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s (JAEA) Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. However, the team says that far more information is needed before they can determine whether or not the faults are active. There are eight so-called “crush zones” beneath the reactor, and experts have expressed concern that they could move in tandem with a fault line located 500 meters from the reactor, which is known to be active. The NRA has asked JAEA to perform further studies on a wider area surrounding the plant. If the zones are determined to be active fault lines, analysts say that Monju’s chances of being restarted are very poor. The Monju reactor, originally designed to be a central part of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, is currently in a state of limbo after the NRA’s Shunichi Tanaka cited JAEA for a “lax safety culture.” Construction on the plant was begun in 1986, almost 30 years ago, but because of numerous safety issues, cover-ups, and technical issues, it has only operated for a total of 250 days, and produced electricity for one single hour. It’s widely considered a failure. So far, the project has cost Japan more than 1 trillion yen.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Even before TEPCO’s latest fiasco at the Fukushima plant began to unfold, public opinion about the disaster and nuclear power in general was already very negative. A new poll of 1,200 residents across Japan, conducted by a research team from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, reveals that a whopping 94% do not believe that the Fukushima disaster has been settled. Thirty-three percent of those polled said that they do not trust government information about the nuclear crisis, and a combined 85% said that nuclear power should be eradicated either immediately or eventually. Perhaps most strikingly, 23% said they believe that another major nuclear disaster “will occur”; an additional 57% said that another disaster “will probably occur.” Respondents ranged in age from 15 to 79 years, and evenly selected from 200 different locations across the country. Study leader Hirotada Hirose noted, “An effective nuclear policy is impossible unless the central government wins the understanding and support of not only local residents living in areas that host nuclear plants, but also the support of all the people in Japan.” The group has submitted a report outlining their findings to the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan has filed a defamation suit against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a 2011 newsletter, Abe said that Kan “mishandled” the Fukushima nuclear disaster and called for his resignation. The newsletter is still archived on Abe’s website. Kan complained, “Abe has ignored my relentless requests to retrieve the posting and to apologize. He has left them online even during this Upper House election campaign. His false accusation defames me and harms the credibility of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the DPJ government at the time.” Kan later admitted that all of his “relentless requests” were posted on his own blog. “I repeatedly asked Abe on my blog to delete the information. I can’t imagine an avid online user like Abe would not get my message.” Abe had no comment.