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
Massive protests continued in Japan this weekend as tens of thousands of people gathered yet again to express opposition to the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, and to condemn nuclear power as a whole. On Sunday, protesters rallied at Hibiya Park in Tokyo, marched to TEPCO’s headquarters nearby, and then formed a gigantic human chain around the Parliament Building. Crowd estimates varied widely; organizers of the event, The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, estimated attendance at 200,000, but police said there were between 12,000 and 14,000 participants. One organizer noted, “It’s becoming a social movement to an extent we did not initially anticipate.” The protests, which have been occurring weekly since March, been tagged the Hydrangea Revolution, since the flower blooms during June and July and is made up of many tiny flowers, highlighting the fact that the protest has united the voices of many.
Japan may reportedly postpone a long-awaited decision on the nation’s energy policy from August to the end of the year, as opposition to nuclear power continues to grow. The government is trying to decide how much nuclear energy the country should consume by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. By comparison, Japan used 26% nuclear power in 2010. During a series of eight town hall meetings, 70% of attendees expressed support for completely eradicating nuclear power. Three more meetings are scheduled between now and August 4.
Japan has submitted nominations for the newly created five-person Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including its Chairman, to the Diet. The move comes after a firestorm erupted last week when names were leaked to the media, in defiance of Japanese law. Shunichi Tanaka, formerly acting head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), has been tapped as Chair of the NRC. Other nominees include Kenzo Oshima, formerly Japanese Ambassador to the UN; Kayoko Nakamura, project team chief at the Japan Radioisotope Association; Toyoshi Fuketa, deputy director general at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate; and Kunihiko Shimazake, professor at the Coordinating Committee for Earthquake Prediction. Recently, new documentation uncovered by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reveals that two of the nominees, Fuketa and Shimazake, received remuneration from the nuclear power industry for lecture fees. Although the amounts are likely less than the 500,000 yen per year limit, they nevertheless have raised questions about the nominees’ neutrality. Environment Minister Goshi Hosono previously promised, “We will not pick people from the nuclear village.” Nominees are expected to receive Parliamentary approval in August; the new regulatory agency is scheduled to begin operations in September.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is blatantly ignoring calls from experts who are questioning the safety of reactor #1 at Kyushu Power’s Genkai power plant in Saga Prefecture. Experts have raised concerns that the pressure vessel of the reactor, which was first put into operation in 1975, has broken down in response to years of high-level radiation, and is no longer safe. Ductile brittle transition temperature tests, which measure metal strength, have prompted specialists to question why NISA would insist on declaring the reactor safe. “I just don’t understand why the transition temperature is so high. I have doubts about [the pressure vessel’s safety]. The #1 reactor should not be put back in operation,” said Hiromitsu Ito, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo. NISA said it has no additional plans to conduct additional expert panel meetings, and plans to issue a ruling at the end of August.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has released a new report on its actions following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The report says that Ministry officials did not release US radiation data to the public because the issue of disclosing information from foreign entities was not covered in any employee manuals. In addition, it said that various sections of the Ministry should have communicated more effectively with one another. In a press conference, Vice Minister Takashi Kii admitted that during crises, officials should be capable of using their own judgment and making decisions without depending solely on manuals. However, the Ministry continues to insist that its decision to withhold data created by the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) was appropriate, saying that it was “not in a position to release the data to the public,” and that they “cannot be regarded as simulations of real situations.” A recent Parliamentary investigative report directly contradicted that finding. (Source: NHK)
A senior Cabinet officer, Yoshiharu Yamaguchi, has admitted to deleting emails regarding information given to members of the nuclear industry during secret, closed-door meetings of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), in spite of a government directive to preserve all emails. Yamaguchi was on loan to the JAEC from Japan Atomic Power Company, and has since returned to work at the utility. Yamaguchi’s actions have raised suspicion that he was attempting to hide incriminating evidence. A private data firm has been hired to restore the deleted messages.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced it will inspect Tohoku Electric Power Company’s Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture for damage from last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Inspectors will examine fuel pools, cooling systems, and other safety equipment. After the earthquake, Tohoku reported damage to fuel rod containers at reactor #3 there.
In spite of promises to release tapes of videoconference calls made between company headquarters and the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the days following the nuclear disaster there. TEPCO is now threatening significant media restrictions on access. Originally, the utility refused to release the tapes at all, citing “privacy concerns,” but then relented after considerable pressure from Edano. Newly appointed TEPCO Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe admitted in July, “If we do not allow viewing of all the videos, criticism will arise.” However, although it taped footage between 6:30 pm on March 11 and midnight on March 15, TEPCO now says it will only allow reporters access to a total of 150.5 hours, of which only 49 hours will include audio. Access to the tapes will only be granted for 30 hours—all of which means that reporters will only be able to view one fifth of the total number of videotaped hours. Each media outlet is only allowed to send one reporter to the viewing, and no copies may be removed from the viewing facility. Media outlets that do not agree to all viewing conditions will be barred from entry. In response, shareholders who have filed suit against TEPCO executives have asked Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), to intercede.
Analysis of TEPCO’s new household rate hike, scheduled to go into effect on September 1, shows that although the average increase will be 8.46%, households that use more power could see their electric bill rise by 17.9%. The Director General of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, Ichiro Takahara, is urging TEPCO to reduce consumer impact. TEPCO holds a monopoly over power supply in the area. “Consumers cannot choose power firms, and you should seriously consider their situation,” he said. TEPCO also recently created a “peak-shift plan,” where rates would be higher during afternoon hours and lower during morning and evening hours, but the initiative has basically failed. Although the utility estimated that 150,000 households would adopt the new plan, only 600 have signed up so far.
Worker Safety and Contamination
Data released by TEPCO shows that workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant received 16 times more radiation after the nuclear disaster there last March than they did before the crisis began. Between March 2010 and February 2011, workers were cumulatively exposed to 14.9 man-sieverts. However, between March 2011 and the end of February 2012, they cumulatively received 244.6 man-sieverts.
A survey of 1,913 contract and subcontract workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant shows that the vast majority is unhappy with working conditions. Sixty-nine percent said that food was poor, and 62% said they had concerns about radiation safety. Other complaints concerned sanitation, including not enough toilets, and inadequate pay.
For the first time since last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan’s central government has begun decontaminating within the no-entry zone. Efforts are significantly behind schedule, with experts now questioning the government’s ability to fulfill its original promise to decontaminate 11 municipalities within 20 km of the plant by March 2014. Six municipalities are still without initial decontamination plans, and only five have granted approval for work to actually begin. In Tamura City, which was recently reclassified from a no-entry zone to one where residents will soon be able to return, workers have begun soil and brush removal. Approximately 400 houses and 420 hectares of farmland and forests will also be decontaminated. However, efforts are already being hampered by lack of storage space for radioactive soil and waste. Many residents have balked at hosting waste storage sites in their communities, citing safety concerns. The Environment Ministry had planned to build an incinerator in Tamura, but residents have protested that they were only informed of the decision to do so a month ago, and many are now refusing to approve the plan. One resident noted, “I have lingering worries about whether the radiation level will really go down. Even if it temporarily drops, the area may be contaminated again because of the forests.”
Other Nuclear News
In an interview with The Financial Times, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said that the low price of shale gas and discoveries of new gas findings world wide make nuclear power, which is far more expensive, an unrealistic option for the future. “They’re finding more gas all the time. It’s just hard to justify nuclear. Gas is so cheap and at some point, economics rule,” he said.