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

Over 70% of 1,253 people who attended eight town hall meetings say that nuclear power should be completely eradicated; in Fukushima Prefecture, that number rose to 90%. And 80% of respondents to an internet poll support getting rid of nuclear power entirely. The government is trying to determine how much Japan should depend on nuclear power by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. Two more meetings will be held this week. Tensions were particularly high at the Fukushima meeting, where Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono noted, “Of all the hearings, this is the most important. I’ll listen to all participants sincerely.” The meeting there ran four and a half hours, an hour longer than originally scheduled. Comments from attendees were particularly poignant, and opposition to nuclear power was almost universal. One woman said, “I’m scared. I’m really scared. I’d like the government to think about why people have gathered in front of the prime minister’s residence every Friday since April. That’s not a fad. That’s not a temporary fever. That’s a heartfelt scream from the public.” Another pointed out residents’ ongoing health concerns: “Many people are now aware that the government’s talking of ‘no immediate risk to health’ is tantamount to ‘long-term health risk.’” Her comments were met with applause from the audience. An attendee questioned whether or not nuclear power was even necessary, asking, “Although all nuclear reactors, except for the [two Oi reactors] have been suspended, we are managing to weather the situation this summer.”
 
Originally, the Noda administration planned to establish the new policy by the end of this month, but increased public opposition to nuclear power, including wide-spread weekly protests, may delay that effort until September or even the end of the year. In addition, opinion is now split in the Diet, where “many in the party are seeking a zero-nuclear policy,” according to a member of the Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who was interviewed by the Mainichi Daily News.

Newly-released documents reveal that four out of five nominees to Japan’s new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have accepted remuneration from the nuclear industry within the last year. Although the amounts do not exceed the 500,000 yen limit established by the government, the issue raises concerns about their ability to remain neutral and effectively regulate nuclear power. The public continues to foster widespread distrust in the government and the nuclear industry, in the wake of last year’s Fukushima disaster. The NRC is set to replace the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), as well as the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which, as an offshoot of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), has long been criticized as having conflicts of interest.

In spite of those concerns, Shunichi Tanaka testified before Parliamentary committee hearings, insisting that he would work to fairly regulate nuclear power, including limiting the operating period of nuclear reactors to 40 years. “The system is needed to ensure the safety of old power plants. While the rule won’t be applied automatically, it should serve as a very tough barrier,” he said. “We should strictly check nuclear reactors and take the stance of not allowing those beyond 40 years to operate.” He frankly admitted that the Fukushima plant is still in dire straits, saying, “What is certain is that the situation is not under control.” The Diet is expected to vote on the nominees’ appointments as early as next week. However, Tanaka’s confirmation is far from certain; many Diet members are openly questioning his ability to remain impartial, and asking whether or not a member of the so-called “nuclear village” can win the support of a largely anti-nuclear public.
 
After repeated refusals to meet with organizers of weekly anti-nuclear protests, which have grown exponentially in size since March, media outlets this week reported that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had agreed to sit down with leaders of the Metropolitan Coalition of Nukes. The demonstrations have attracted more than 100,000 people on some occasions, and analysts say that Noda can no longer ignore growing public discontent with nuclear power. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura held a press conference yesterday, during which he said that no meeting has been scheduled. “There is no truth to what has been reported,” he said.
 
A new report by a Cabinet Office investigative committee confirms that members of the nuclear industry levied influence over national energy policy during secret closed-door “study meetings” of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC). As part of their investigation, the team hired a firm to restore over 6,000 emails sent or received by the study meeting chair, who deleted them in defiance of a government order forbidding it. Many of the emails were sent by nuclear industry officials who submitted specific changes and edits to the subcommittee’s final recommendation regarding whether spent nuclear fuel should be disposed of or recycled. JAEC officials previously insisted that the meetings had no effect on national policy.  

Chubu Electric said this week that construction delays will prevent it from restarting its Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka Prefecture until at least 2014, adding approximately 140 billion yen ($1.8 billion) to the price tag. Company officials had originally hoped to bring reactors there online by the end of this year. Much of the delay involves an 18-meter seawall that Chubu is building in an effort to try to prevent power loss in case of a tsunami. However, recent government studies show that a 21-meter tsunami could strike the area, rendering the seawall useless. Thus far, the utility has not announced plans to increase the height of the wall, but said it will make a decision at the end of this month when the government releases more detailed findings. Changes to construction plans could cause significant additional delays and increase costs even more.

In addition, Chubu is dealing with even larger concerns at Hamaoka, as investigators study an accident at reactor #5 in May 2011, during which a pipe burst and sea water flooded the turbine building and flowed into the reactor’s core. Experts have discovered that radioactive water is seeping within the turbine building, and now fear that the core experienced significant corrosion and damage. In addition, they have discovered wide-spread corrosion in piping, pumps, steel partitions, and other equipment, further raising concerns about the reactor’s safety and prompting some to ask whether or not it can even be repaired.
 
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began inspections this week at Tohoku Power’s Onagawa nuclear plant in Miyagi Prefecture, in order to determine whether or not the reactors there suffered damage during last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake. (Source: NHK)

TEPCO

Japan injected 1 trillion yen ($12.78 billion) into TEPCO this week in an effective government takeover, in order to prevent the utility from declaring bankruptcy. In addition, 2.5 trillion yen in public funding will be used to underwrite compensation to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. TEPCO customers are being forced to accept an average rate hike of 8.47% to cover costs of decommissioning the reactors, decontaminating large areas still covered with radioactive debris, and maintaining reactors #5 and #6, in spite of the fact that they most likely will never be restarted. Decommissioning costs are still undetermined—Yukio Edano, head of METI, has noted that TEPCO “is unable to predict even the amount of reactor decommissioning costs—but experts estimate they could eventually reach several trillion yen. By contrast, the utility’s shareholders and its creditors will bear little financial burden. Costs for stabilizing the reactors are expected to cost 50 billion yen annually, a process that may take decades to complete. In exchange for the cash infusion, the government will assume 50% voting rights in the company, and could increase to more than two-thirds if current efforts to make the company solvent fail.
 
In response to widespread public outcry, pressure from the media, and exhortations from Yukio Edano, head METI, TEPCO announced this week that it will relax restrictions on reporters’ ability to screen recordings of videoconferences conducted between the utility’s headquarters and its Fukushima Daiichi power plant in the days immediately following last year’s nuclear disaster. Originally, TEPCO refused to release the tapes in any capacity, claiming “privacy concerns.” However, the company relented after additional legal threats from TEPCO shareholders who have already filed suit against the ailing utility, but said that it would allow only one reporter from each media outlet access during a period of 30 hours—in effect, granting access to only one-fifth of the 150.5 hours of tape that TEPCO is releasing. Company officials once again backtracked after Edano publicly criticized the decision, calling it “a token disclosure,” and said that news organizations will be able to send more than one reporter. The viewing period will extend over approximately one month, although reporters must view the footage at TEPCO headquarters. However, names and faces of employees will be blurred, and the coverage only extends between 6:30 pm March 11 through midnight, March 15, 2011. TEPCO continues to refuse to release any tapes from March 16, and the public will only have access to an abridged version, created and edited by TEPCO itself.
 
Prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the actions of government officials and TEPCO executives in the wake of last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, following a recent Parliamentary investigative report that determined that the Fukushima meltdowns were “a profoundly man-made disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” The move comes after 1,300 Fukushima Prefecture residents filed suit against the executives, charging professional negligence for ignoring warnings about potential earthquakes, tsunamis, and power loss. Similar investigations were launched in Tokyo and Kanazawa, and prosecutors have vowed to work with one another and share their findings.
 
State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO announced this week that it plans to affix cameras to balloons next month in order to assess the condition of the top floor of reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after a hydrogen explosion blew the roof off and showered the area with debris during last year’s nuclear disaster. Spent fuel rods were being stored on the top floor, and workers need to eventually figure out how to safely remove it. The reactor is now sheathed in a protective cover in order to reduce radiation leaking into the atmosphere, preventing overhead inspections.

Restart of the Oi Reactors

Shunichi Tanaka, nominated to be Chairman of the newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has vowed to shut down reactor #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s (KEPCO) Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture if experts determine that faults directly beneath the plant are active. “There is the possibility that sufficient consideration was not given to appraising the effect from tsunami and quakes triggered by ocean trench earthquakes as well as evaluating active faults. If effects from active faults are found as a result of new studies, the commission should seek to stop operations,” Tanaka said. In fact, no new data has been discovered, but rather, experts are questioning why the government and KEPCO repeatedly said the faults were inactive, when experts believe that the data proves otherwise.  The Oi reactors were recently restarted, in spite of vehement public opposition to the move.

Worker Safety and Contamination

Following last week’s reports that some contractors were forced to cover personal radiation detection equipment (dosimeters) with lead shields to produce lower readings, or risk losing their jobs, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has asked TEPCO to introduce new protective gear that features a see-through area through which dosimeters can be viewed by others. However, workers assigned to especially contaminated areas will be exempt from wearing the new gear, since they must protect themselves with tungsten, which is more effective against high levels of radiation.

Contamination

Almost a year and a half after last year’s nuclear crisis, Japan is reducing the radius of the no-entry sea zone near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant from 20 km to 5 km. Up until now, ocean waters there were considered too contaminated to enter. The nuclear disaster has had a chilling effect on the livelihoods of fishermen, who have been unable to sell their catch because of radiation fears, and have had to employ longer, more expensive, and time-consuming routes because of the zone restrictions. (Source: NHK)