Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Diet Report on the Causes of the Fukushima Disaster

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono is rejecting assertions by a parliamentary investigatory panel that government interference, particularly by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, worsened the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Hosono, who was then an advisor to Kan, defended the Prime Minister’s actions and said it was the only way that they could get timely information. The Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) final report, issued at the end of last week, said that Kan’s office ordered then- TEPCO plant manager Masao Yoshida to stop injecting seawater into the Fukushima reactors as they were melting down, out of concern that the reactors would be irreparably damaged. Yoshida ignored the order, but if he had not, the disaster could have been far more catastrophic. (Source: NHK)

The report, the first of its kind in Diet history, has received widespread coverage in both Japanese and international media, in part because an English translation of the report summary was released the same day as the report, an unusual move in Japan. NAIIC Chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, spoke in English at 10-member commission’s press conference. He noted, “We owe the world an explanation on how this could happen in Japan. The truth is very painful for us to admit, but it is difficult to grasp without intimate understanding of how our society works. That’s why I am making an effort to explain this to the global community.”

Much of the report focused on the culture of collusion that exists between the nuclear industry and its government regulators, a situation that has resulted in nuclear plants being unprepared for natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks. Japan was in “a vulnerable condition, without any guarantee that [nuclear power plants] would be able to withstand earthquakes and tsunami. The roles of regulators and those to be regulated were reversed, and regulatory authorities became a ‘slave’ of electric utilities. As a result, the monitoring and supervisory functions with regard to nuclear safety had collapsed.”  Haruki Madarame, Chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), agreed, saying, “It was a terrible mistake to not have thought about the possibility of a severe accident. Japan is nowhere close to approaching international safety standards. In a sense, [current] safety evaluations are being conducted based on technology from 30 years ago.”

The report’s assessment that the magnitude 9.0 earthquake may have caused damage to the plant is causing a stir in nuclear and international media circles. Although final assessments cannot be made until the reactors themselves can be examined, which may not happen for years as a result of dangerously high radiation levels there, the report raises significant questions regarding TEPCO’s insistence that the tsunami caused all damage at the plant. For instance, TEPCO’s own records show that some emergency generators at the Fukushima plant shut down when tsunami waves were still one and a half kilometers away, and at least two minutes before the tsunami struck the coast. Leaking water was also reported on the fourth floor of reactor #1 before the tsunami hit, indicating that pipes may have cracked. Katsuhiko Ishibashi, Professor Emeritus of Seismology at Kobe University, warns that other reactors in Japan may be vulnerable: “What needs to be done now is to hastily evaluate the situation at other nuclear plants so that nothing like this happens again.” Goshi Hosono, Nuclear Crisis Minister, has admitted that the earthquake, not just the tsunami, may have affected equipment at the plant.

Shockingly, a survey of 10,000 evacuees conducted by NIAAC as part of the their investigation revealed that by the end of the day on March 11, 2011, over 80% of residents who lived near the plant were still completely unaware that a nuclear accident had occurred or even that there were any problems with the reactors. More than half of the respondents did not learn about the disaster unfolding at the plant until the evening of March 13; many of those learned through television, radio, and internet reports, as opposed to direct communication from local and central government sources. Lack of communication led to major issues in evacuation; more than 60% of evacuees were forced to relocate four or more times, with 20% forced to move to six or more locations.

In addition, a NAIIC survey of 5,500 TEPCO and contract workers show that most were uninformed of the dangers involved in containing the disaster and were unprepared with appropriate protective clothing and dosimeters. Only 47% of TEPCO employees were told of the extreme danger they were facing; an astounding 95% of contracted employees and 98% of subcontracted employees received no such briefing. One TEPCO employee noted, “There was virtually no information about the accident at the plant.” A subcontractor added, “At that time, there was never any health supervision or monitoring of radiation doses. I am worried about the amount of radioactive substances that may have built up in my body.” The authors of the report concurred: “Radiation exposure risks should have been thoroughly disclosed. There was also a problem in nuclear accident preparedness. Many of the workers had not been trained in how to work in the even of a nuclear accident.”

Chairman Kurokawa, while speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, warned that the dangers of the Fukushima crisis are still very real. “Fukushima remains at a very high risk, not only because of the spent fuel issues, but also because of its fragile structure,” he said.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Massive anti-nuclear demonstrations continued in Japan this week, as 150,000 people came out to protest the restart of the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, and demand the eradication of nuclear power. Increasing numbers of protestors have been gathering in front of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s residence each Friday since March. Japanese media has given very little attention to the story, in spite of the fact that this week’s gathering was the largest protest in front of the Prime Minister’s residence since 1960, when demonstrators gathered to voice opposition to a revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Word has spread via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, attracting a widely-diverse crowd. Vehement opposition to nuclear power continues to grow after a Diet-appointed investigatory panel highlighted the fact that collusion between the government and the nuclear industry led directly to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Noda is reportedly no longer leaving his residence on Friday nights in order to avoid the growing crowds, which are orderly but vocal. Nevertheless, he continues to refuse to meet with any of the protestors, in spite of repeated requests.

Former commissioners of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), as well as other government sources, have admitted that the five-member commission held weekly, closed-door, undocumented meetings for more than a decade, including many that discussed significant aspects of the nation’s nuclear policy, as well as the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle policy. No minutes were kept, in spite of the fact that failure to do so at government meetings is illegal in Japan. Recently, the JAEC came under fire for holding closed-door meetings with members of the nuclear power industry, whose comments influenced the Commission’s decisions. One Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) official who attended the weekly gatherings said that the meetings “played a role in framing ideas within the nuclear power village and to fill voids that opponents [of nuclear power] could take advantage of.”

TEPCO

The government-run Dispute Reconciliation Committee, established to arbitrate disputes between TEPCO and victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is criticizing the utility and accusing it of purposely trying to delay legal settlements with victims. In almost 16 months, over 3,000 complaints have been filed, but only 10% have been settled. The Committee is working to establish punitive fines for the delays, a rare move in Japan. (Source: NHK)

Officials from Fukushima Prefecture have filed a request with TEPCO for reimbursement of 6.3 billion yen in damages connected to last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The costs, which include purchasing contaminated beef from farmers who fed their livestock cesium-contaminated straw, cover a one-year period. Prefectural officials say that they will continue to bill TEPCO as more costs accrue in coming years.

TEPCO’s request for a 10.28% consumer rate hike, originally scheduled for July 1, will probably not be approved and activated until at least September, and is likely to be less than the utility originally requested. Experts from METI say that the rate increase should be reduced to between 9.0 and 9.5%; Jin Matsubara, the head of the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), which also influences final approval, said that the rate should be lower than 9.0%, and has advised TEPCO to make additional cuts to personnel expenses.

Restart of the Oi Reactors

Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) reports that the #3 reactor at the Oi nuclear power is now running at full capacity, as of 1:00 am yesterday. It is the first reactor in Japan to be brought back online since the Fukushima nuclear disaster sixteen months ago. KEPCO admitted that cooling functions at the plant were threatened on Saturday, when a large school of jellyfish clogged the seawater intakes at reactor #3, forcing the utility to reduce power at the reactor in order to prevent it from overheating. Jellyfish are a common threat to nuclear plant cooling functions, and an issue that the industry has not successfully been able to tackle.

Reactor #4 is scheduled to go online on July 17, and is expected to reach full capacity on July 25. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the restarts in spite of ardent public opposition to the move. Kensaku Miyamoto, a local farmer, lamented the lack of safeguards at the plant: “No evacuation plans, levees, or vent filters have been set in place. Anxiety felt by the local people has not been taken into consideration at all.” Kiyoko Shimada, another protester, pointed out that profits take higher priority for Kansai than does the safety of local residents, noting, “Kansai Electric has restarted the reactor without sufficiently proving its safety as it prioritized corporate interests. Kansai Electric has never changed its way, even after the Great East Japan Earthquake.”

In response to the restarts, the Japanese government is lifting power restrictions in areas served by Kansai Electric, as well as Chubu Electric and Hokuriku Electric Power Companies. KEPCO consumers were originally asked to cut power usage by 15%, but the government has now lowered that number to 10%. Original power-saving estimates were based on electricity usage during the summer of 2010, which was one of the hottest on record.

Contamination

Almost a year and a half after fallout from Fukushima nuclear disaster contaminated the forests of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan’s Environment Ministry is trying to figure out how it will decontaminate the wooded areas. Many local residents are concerned that forest decontamination will spread to their homes as a result of wind and water runoff. Contamination maps show that 70% of the areas requiring government decontamination are forests.