Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Government Investigation into the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
The Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations, a government-appointed panel tasked with investigating the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, released its final report today but urged the government to allow it to continue its investigation. Panelists said that all causes of the crisis have not yet been uncovered, because ongoing fatally high levels of radiation at the reactors have prevented in-depth investigations. In addition, it urged the government to determine why over 600 people died during the course of long-term evacuations.
The report laid blame squarely on both TEPCO and government regulatory agencies, including the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC). Repeatedly, the authors said, TEPCO and government agencies perpetuated the so-called “nuclear safety myth,” an idea that nuclear power plants are immune to large-scale natural disasters, and as a result, there is no need to even plan for them. “Both the government and companies should establish a new philosophy of disaster prevention that requires safety and disaster measures against any massive accident and disaster…regardless of event probability,” the report noted. “Because the government and power utilities, including TEPCO, were biased by the safety myth, thinking they would never, ever face such a serious accident, they were unable to realize that such a crisis could occur in reality. This appears to be a fundamental problem.”
In particular, it referenced a “lack of safety culture” and criticized the NSC for failing to fully explore issues around failed power sources at nuclear plants as far back as 1992. Panelists faulted NISA for undermining efforts to establish broad evacuation plans out of concern for raising fears about nuclear power. The report added that intervention from former-Prime Minister Naoto Kan further complicated the issue, and was detrimental.
And, it repeated similar findings of a Diet-appointed investigatory panel, which released its own report a couple of weeks earlier: the disaster was caused by human error at the hands of TEPCO. Failure to adequately cool reactors, prepare for a tsunami, and establish an emergency crisis center that was safe from earthquakes and high levels of radiation were all highlighted. In addition, the report authors noted TEPCO’s efforts to influence a government taskforce studying the effects of earthquakes on the nuclear plants. The utility urged them to downplay the influence of an earthquake that occurred 1,000 years ago, which is very recent in geological terms.
Significantly, the report raises questions about the current state of safety at nuclear reactors across Japan, not just those at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in spite of so-called “safety steps” taken since the disaster occurred. Yotaro Hatamura, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo, chaired the panel.
A major scandal began to unfold this week, as Build-Up, a TEPCO subcontractor, admitted that one of its foremen at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant ordered workers to cover dosimeters, equipment used to measure radiation doses, with lead in order to reduce the readings. Workers were likely exposed to much higher radiation levels than TEPCO reported. When some workers balked at the order, the foreman threatened them with loss of their jobs at that plant and any other nuclear site, and they were eventually forced to leave the worksite. Twelve workers were directly involved in this incident, but three refused and were ordered to leave the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The foreman later admitted that he was worried that he would be questioned about the wide range of dosimeter readings between those who used the shields and those who did not. Although the man initially denied those claims, he eventually admitted he ordered his staff to use the lead shields, and the Asahi Shimbun newspaper obtained an audio recording of him ordering them to do so. Workers were threatened with loss of their jobs if they chose not to comply.
The workers, who were assigned to place insulation around pipes carrying highly radioactive water in an area littered with large amounts of radioactive waste, were forced to make their own shields out of a special lead plate. Officials from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare are now searching for the shields at the Fukushima complex, after workers said they were instructed to discard them there so no damning evidence would be left in Build-Up vehicles. The incident is a blatant violation of Japan’s Industrial Safety and Health Law. In Japan, workers are limited to accumulated-radiation exposure of 50 millisieverts per year; the foreman was trying to get around that limit. The foreman reportedly said that he had repeatedly used this trick himself in the past, and has worked in nuclear plants around Japan for the past 20 years. However, he is now insisting that this incident was a one-time event. Build-Up is being investigated to determine whether others at the company were also involved.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Anti-nuclear protests continue to grow in Japan, as more people express concern about the dangers of nuclear power. On Friday, approximately 90,000 people gathered in front of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s official residence in Tokyo. The demonstration, the sixteenth since March, was held just two days after reactor #4 at the Oi power plant was restarted, in spite of widespread local opposition. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama joined this week’s event, another sign of dissent in Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), where disagreements about nuclear energy are threatening his power. Smaller protests took place in other parts of the country, as 900 people gathered in Hokkaido Prefecture, 400 people rallied in front of Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) in Nagoya, and 1,800 protesters demonstrated in front of KEPCO offices in Osaka. One protester in Tokyo mused, “What impresses me most is people never gave up. The crowd is getting bigger and bigger. Even on a rainy day like today, we see this many people gathering. It’s amazing.” Traditionally, political protests in Japan have been highly unusual.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration had hoped to begin appointments for the newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) this week, but efforts were thwarted after members of Parliament protested when the names of potential nominees were released to the media before the Diet had voted on them. According to Japanese law, such a breach could prevent those nominees from receiving Diet approval, although lawmakers have now agreed to make an exception. The government reportedly plans to appoint Shunichi Tanaka, former chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and former President of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, as NRC chairman. His nomination is being criticized by many analysts, who say he is too close to the nuclear industry. The government has postponed debate about the nominees, but hopes to formally submit the names to the Diet in the next week or so. The new regulatory entity, which will be legally independent, will replace NISA, long criticized for having conflicts of interest as an arm of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which works to promote nuclear power.
Newly obtained documents reveal that in the days following last year’s nuclear disaster, Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Science (NIRS) created a website in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), designed to determine the amount of radiation to which residents near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were exposed. They originally hoped to gather responses from more than 10,000 residents. However, the effort was stifled after Fukushima prefectural officials protested, expressing concern that the website would raise the public’s fears. One local official was quoted as saying, “We don’t want you to hold a briefing that may fuel residents’ anxiety.” As a result, NIRS officials backed down and agreed to collect radiation information only in writing. The return rate using those methods was ultimately only 22.6%.
A local citizens’ group has gathered 178,000 signatures—far more than the required 62,000—in an effort to demand a referendum on nuclear power in Shizuoka Prefecture, where Chubu Electric is attempting to restart three nuclear reactors at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant. Residents are concerned that the plant, which researchers warn is at risk for a catastrophic tsunami, is unsafe, and want the governor and local assembly to allow the referendum to take place.
Compensation for Disaster Victims
Japan announced new compensation guidelines for victims of the Fukushima nuclear crisis last week, after months of complaints that TEPCO is delaying payments to those who were forced to evacuate and have endured mental suffering and lost their homes and businesses. The new rules state that victims who cannot return for at least six years will be reimbursed for the full value of their homes. Those who have only limited access to their homes will be eligible to receive at least 50% of the value, and residents who live in areas where the evacuation orders are being lifted can apply for 33% of their homes’ value. Additional predetermined amounts will be awarded for furniture and other household goods, as well as mental suffering. Fishermen and farmers will receive a lump sum equaling five years’ income; salaried workers will be eligible for two years’ income.
Contamination and Food Safety
Octopus and sea snails caught off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture went on sale in Miyagi Prefecture this week, the first time in almost a year and a half that locally-harvested seafood has been sold outside the prefecture since before the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The nuclear disaster has had a crippling effect on fishermen and farmers in the area, many of whom have not yet recovered their livelihoods.
Over sixteen months since last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan still has no comprehensive plan to deal with widespread contamination, including disposal of vast amounts of radioactive soil and other waste. Local officials are now complaining about the lack of government support, which run counter to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s campaign promises from last Fall. Opposition from local residents, who fear radioactive waste in their communities, has further complicated the issue.