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
Hokuriku Electric Power Company, which operates the Shika nuclear plant in Ishikawa Prefecture, has submitted plans for a new seismic survey to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The move comes after scientists discovered what they believe to be an active fault directly beneath Shika’s reactor #1. If the fault were indeed found to be active, Hokuriku would, by law, be required to decommission the reactor. The utility plans to bore a two-meter wide tunnel beneath the reactor in order to directly study the fault line. Local government officials are calling upon NISA to supervise the Hokuriku study, expressing distrust in both the utility and the government regulatory agencies. In 1987, the Hokuriku said that seven fault lines beneath the plant were inactive, an assessment supported by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees NISA. Experts from the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) agreed. Hokuriku again insisted that the faults were safe in 2006. The fault lines have not been reassessed in the last 25 years, and no new data has been discovered, but seismic experts who recently reviewed the plant’s data expressed shock and disbelief that the utility, as well as regulatory agencies, could have declared the faults inactive.
A government panel will meet later this year to determine whether or not to decommission Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, after 400 tons of seawater flowed into the #5 reactor building when a pipe ruptured there last year. Five tons of that water gushed into the core of the reactor. An ongoing evaluation by the utility confirms that the salt water caused considerable corrosion and damage, including to machinery used to manipulate control rods. However, Chubu is fighting against the decommissioning.
Japan has named Shunichi Tanaka, former deputy director of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), as Chairman of the newly-formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), expected to begin operations in September. The new entity will replace NISA, which as an arm of METI has long been accused of having conflicts of interest. METI is responsible for promoting nuclear power. Many are criticizing the choice, saying that Tanaka is too close to the so-called “nuclear power village” in Japan, and will not be able to effectively regulate the industry.
Government Investigation into the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
A final report released this week by the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations has elicited strong responses and considerable resentment from local municipal government officials and residents, who point out that the disaster is still ongoing in their communities. The report says that TEPCO and government regulatory agencies failed to adequately prepare for a nuclear disaster because of the so-called “safety myth,” the mistaken idea that nuclear power was so safe that an accident could never happen. A resident from Minamisoma in Fukushima said, “Local residents were concerned about faults in the safety measures and ways of handling emergency issues [at the Fukushima Daiichi plant]…for years before the disaster. But TEPCO turned a deaf ear, assuring us that no accident could possibly occur.” Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa asked, “Why is it a ‘final’ report, when tens of thousands of people are still evacuated and the disaster is ongoing?” Residents have demanded apologies from TEPCO and the central government.
The government investigative report said that Japan needs to reconsider preparations for major disaster prevention, and recommended that the investigation into the Fukushima disaster be extended, since radiation levels at the plant remain so high that it’s not safe for humans to enter the reactors to determine the actual cause of the nuclear meltdowns there. In response, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono announced on Tuesday that the investigation will continue under the newly-created NRC, which is slated to begin operations in September, once the five-person panel has been approved by Parliament. “Certain things have been revealed in the report, but some things are still unknown,” Hosono admitted. “We need to set up an adequate investigation team under the new regulatory body. The government is responsible for determining the cause of the accident.”
In spite of Hosono’s announcement, Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa said that Futaba no longer trusts the government investigation, and the city will conduct its own independent examination of the disaster. “Why can they say for sure [that no earthquake damage occurred at the plant] when they cannot do a sufficient study of the inside [of the reactors]? I cannot trust the report and don’t feel like reading it.”
State of the Fukushima Reactors
Scientists from the University of Tokyo, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), and other institutions announced details of a new study this week, which show that workers’ efforts to release steam from the core of reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant resulted in massive radiation releases in the days following last year’s nuclear disaster. Radiation leaks from reactor #2 were 10 to 20 times greater than those from reactors #1 and #3, which also experienced nuclear meltdowns. The researchers believe that radiation escaped through cracks in the containment vessel. The JAEA’s Masamichi Chino called the radiation leaks “serious” and said they require further investigation. (Source: NHK)
Although contamination levels near the reactors have gone down since the disaster first occurred 16 months ago, reactors #1, #2, and #3 continue to emit approximately 10 million Bq/hour of radioactive cesium. The majority of the radiation comes from a hole in the wall of the top floor at reactor #2, a result of last year’s hydrogen explosions. Also compounding efforts to decommission the reactors—a process that could take 40 years or more—is ongoing leaking radioactive water, which is still building up in the reactor basements as well as those of nearby buildings. Currently, TEPCO reports that 100,000 tons of contaminated water has accumulated, but that number continues to grow, raising concerns about storage.
Japan has approved a request from TEPCO for an 8.46% rate hike for residential customers, set to go into effect September 1. That rate is less than the 10.28% increase TEPCO originally requested; a government panel said that the utility needs to instead reduce its own spending on personnel and other costs.
Public anger over a scandal involving TEPCO contract workers, who were forced to wear lead shields over dosimeters as they worked in order to hide the amount of actual radiation they were receiving, continues to grow and has prompted the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare to order an investigation into whether or not other TEPCO contractors and subcontractors follow similar practices and have falsified radiation exposure data. Tatsuya Hariu, spokesman for the Labour Division in Fukushima Prefecture, said, “If other companies got away with doing this as well, that would be incredible. It would be something that impacted everyone who works at nuclear plants. We’re not just targeting [Build-Up, the company in question]; we’re looking into whether other companies properly recorded radiation exposure.” Ministry officials have ordered TEPCO to review its records and submit names of any contracting and subcontracting workers who have logged unusually low radiation readings. The utility has already been criticized for poor record keeping.
An expose by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reveals that contract nuclear workers are paid considerably less than regular TEPCO staff, and subcontractors often make only 30% of what regular TEPCO workers earn. They are often required to do the most dangerous work in poorer conditions. Approximately 2,700 of 3,000 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are contracted and subcontracted. Many experts believe that a great deal of these workers are there illegally, in violation of Japan’s Employment Security Law. This often means that they are poorly vetted and with short contracts. Many are afraid to speak up about dangerous conditions for fear of losing their jobs. Although 47% of TEPCO employees working at the Fukushima plant on March 11, 2011 said they were told that the reactors were at risk of meltdown—already a concerningly low number—only 5% of contract workers and just 2% of subcontractors were told that their lives might be at risk.
In addition, records from reports submitted to NISA by nuclear power companies show that contracted and subcontracted workers receive as much as four times radiation as those directly employed by utilities. Kazumitsu Nawata, a Professor of Economics at the University of Tokyo first warned in 2008 that contracted workers were at risk. “The use of contracted workers will make it more difficult to secure adequate safety standards,” he said at a nuclear power symposium that year. However, industry-based attendees dismissed his concerns.
Staffing issues at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where decommissioning could take 40 years or more, are expected to become more dire as the years pass. The number of workers willing to do such dangerous work is shrinking, and many of those can no longer work at nuclear plants because they have reached maximum legal levels of radiation exposure. Currently, that limit is 50 millisieverts annually. Experts say that fear of job loss as a result of reaching those limits may motivate some contracted workers to hide their exposure levels, as the workers from Build-Up did.
Compensation for Disaster Victims
TEPCO announced this week that it will begin accepting compensation claims for victims who have suffered psychological and emotional distress as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Victims will receive a lump sum according to how long they will be forced to remain away from their homes. Those who cannot return for at least five years or more will receive six million yen ($76,700); residents who are expected to return within two years will be awarded 2.4 million yen ($30,700), and those who are able to return to their homes in the near future will get 1.2 million yen ($15,300). Additional compensation for unemployment and damage to homes and property will also be awarded.
Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) said this week that radioactive strontium-90 from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been discovered in 10 prefectures: Ibaraki, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, and Kanagawa. Collection data was unavailable for Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures. Ministry officials say that the concentrations are low-level and do not pose significant risks for humans. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 50 years, and accumulates in human bones, which can lead to cancer.
Restart of the Oi Reactors
Reactor #4 at KEPCO’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture reached full operating capacity on Wednesday, according to the utility. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently ordered the restart, along with that of reactor #3 at the Oi plant, in spite of widespread public opposition to the plan. The move has prompted massive weekly anti-nuclear protests, which continue to grow in cities around the nation.(Source: NHK)
In response to the restarts, Japan said that it will cut power-savings goals for hospitals and manufacturers in the Kansai region from 10% to 5%
KEPCO is now saying that it plans to restart two more reactors at its Takahama power plant, which is also in Fukui Prefecture, in the near future. “We think Takahama’s reactors #3 and #4 are most promising,” said KEPCO President Makoto Yagi. That announcement was met with sharp disapproval from Yukio Edano, the head of METI. “[Yagi’s comments] are very unpleasant remarks,” he said.