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

New seismic studies have prompted the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to order checks on faults near and beneath numerous nuclear reactors in Japan. The move came after an expert panel, appointed by NISA, raised concerns about previous studies conducted by nuclear power companies and NISA itself, and prompted Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees NISA, to announce that he will “react promptly [concerning operation of nuclear reactors] if it is learned anew that [any fault in question] is an active fault.” However, those studies are expected to take several months. Japanese law says that it is illegal to build or operate a nuclear reactor over an active fault line. If active faults are discovered, affected reactors could be shut down completely and ultimately decommissioned. One of the NISA panelists questioned how the research could have been approved in the first place, noting, “Experts on active faults would be left speechless if they were shown these results.”

Specifically, seismic experts raised questions about a 300 km fault line that lies directly beneath Hokuriku Electric’s reactor #1 at the Shika power plant in Ishikawa prefecture. The utility has long insisted that the fault was inactive, repeatedly asserting this in permits and official correspondence to NISA in 1987, 1997, and again in 2006. However, Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a professor of tectonic geomorphology at Tokyo University, is questioning the veracity of those claims. “As far as I can tell from the survey maps, I think [that fault] is an active fault. It may even have moved twice. I am very skeptical about the quality of government screenings.” Another geology expert, Toshifumi Imaizumi, a professor at Tohoku University, said about the Shika fault, “I am flabbergasted that this could have passed the appraisal.” Watanabe added, “This has revealed the sloppiness of the reports submitted by plant operators as well as the appraisal by the central government. The responsibility of not only the plant operator, but also NISA and related experts, is extremely large.”

NISA ordered nuclear power plant operators to reassess seismic safety at plants in 2006, but never followed up on those assessments.

Also in question are the #2 reactor at the Tsuruga power plant and the reactors at the Oi power plant, where a 900-meter fault runs between reactors #2 and #3. Both plants are located in Fukui Prefecture. The NISA-appointed experts said that there is currently no way to say that the faults beneath Oi are not active. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently ordered that reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant be restarted, in spite of overwhelming public opposition and concerns about safety of local residents. On Monday of this week, over 100,000 people gathered in Tokyo to protest the restarts and demand the eradication of nuclear power in Japan. NISA said that in spite of the significant concerns of seismic specialists, they would not stop operation of the Oi reactors for now, but conceded that the discovery could eventually affect their operation in the long term. (Source: NHK)

The Japanese government is meeting with harsh criticism after several nuclear power representatives spoke at a series of hearings designed to gather the general public’s input on the nation’s proposed energy policy. At each meeting, where the public is debating whether the nation should rely on 0%, 15%, or 25% nuclear power by 2030, a total of only nine people were allowed to speak—three speakers for each of the three options. Critics are protesting this plan, saying that it falsely represents people’s opinions, since at each meeting, an overwhelming majority of attendees support the total eradication of nuclear power. In response to the outcry, Motohisa Furukawa, Japan’s National Policy Minister, said that nuclear power employees would no longer be allowed to speak at the hearings in order to give private citizens more opportunity to express their opinions. However, the speakers’ efforts may be for naught; analysts widely believe that the government will adopt a 15% plan, in spite of widespread public opposition.

Attorneys have filed a formal complaint with prosecutors in Japan, charging members of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) with “breaching confidentiality.” Last month, reports surfaced, revealing that members of the commission, along with some government officials, secretly gave seven power company representatives of over 500 pages of documents. That access allowed the nuclear industry to ultimately influence the nation’s nuclear fuel policy.

The government has reclassified the village of Iitate, located 40 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, into three zones: one in which residents can return, although contamination levels remain as high as 20 millisieverts per year; one which is restricted, meaning that residents can go to their homes during the day but will not be able to live there for several years, where radiation measures between 20 and 50 millisieverts per year; and one which is considered unsafe and will be uninhabitable for five years or more. Iitate, which had 6,000 residents before the crisis erupted at Fukushima, had to be completely evacuated. Now, a full 54% of residents who have children or are of childbearing age say that they are afraid to return because of concerns about radiation. Government efforts at decontamination have been largely delayed, and there are no plans whatsoever to decontaminate forests and rice paddies that cover 85% of the village.

Japan’s largest labor union, the Japanese Trade Union Conference (which is known as Rengo) is drafting a new policy encouraging an end to the nation’s dependence on nuclear power. The move is a change for Rengo, which at one point supported nuclear energy.

TEPCO

The government has rebuffed TEPCO’s request to raise household electricity rates by 10.28%, reducing the proposed increase to 8.47%, effective September 1. The utility had originally requested that the new rates go into effect on July 1. In addition, the central government is demanding that TEPCO reduce management salaries by 31%, and make cuts on equipment spending.

TEPCO announced it will sell one of its holdings, a hospital that serves current and former employees and their families, after the government said that some costs to operate it—which run 730 million yen annually—could not be used to determine the utility’s requested rate hike. Current market value of the hospital is 8.6 billion yen.

Status of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO removed two unused nuclear fuel rods from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #4, where they were being stored before last year’s nuclear disaster. The spent fuel pool currently holds 1,535 fuel rods, most of them spent. Experts are concerned that the building, which was damaged in a hydrogen explosion and is leaning, is both unsafe and unstable, and a major earthquake could have catastrophic effects. This week’s fuel rod removal process was a test. The bulk of the rods will be removed from the spent fuel pool and placed in a common pool nearby, beginning in December 2013. The fuel removal process is both complicated and dangerous; if the rods overheat, a nuclear meltdown could occur.

Restart of the Oi Reactors

Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) restarted reactor #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on Wednesday; the reactor is expected to reach full capacity on July 25. Reactor #3 was restarted earlier this month, in spite of vehement public opposition to nuclear power.

Contamination

A new study from Stanford University says that radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster will likely kill 130 people but possibly up to 1,300, and could cause as many as 2,500 cases of cancer over the next 50 years. That number would have been much higher, the scientists say, if winds had been blowing in a different direction in the days following the disaster. As it happened, the winds blew out to the sea, depositing 80% of the nuclear fallout into the ocean. The study, which was led by Mark Jacobson and John Ten Hoeve, and was published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science. Jacobson noted that the estimates were highly conservative, and do not take into consideration the effects of cardiovascular and respiratory ailments caused by fallout. “In fact, there is a huge health effect from particles, but we didn’t even calculate those effects.” The researchers also noted that approximately 600 people have already died of exhaustion and exposure, after 160,000 people were forced to evacuate the area around the plant. Others committed suicide in the wake of emotional trauma from the crisis.