Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
The Mayor of Oi, Shinobu Tokioka, has announced his approval for restarting reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. Issei Nishikawa, Governor of Fukui, is expected to follow suit today. That decision will leave the final restart authority in the hands of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who plans to meet with Yukio Edano, the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI); Goshi Hosono, Nuclear Crisis Minister; and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura on Saturday, before Noda leaves the country on Sunday. Kansai Electric officials said that even if reactors #3 and #4 are restarted on Saturday, the will not achieve full power until July 27 at the earliest.
In an effort to quell widespread public anti-nuclear sentiment and concerns about the safety of restarting the Oi reactors, Japan will station two high-ranking officials, Deputy Trade Minister Seishu Makino and nuclear regulator Shinichi Kuroki, within 7 km of the Oi plant. Officials from the Environment Ministry have jokingly referred to the two as “hostages.”
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
A study by the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission of 20 offsite Emergency Response Centers located near nuclear plants shows that all are located between 2 and 13 km from nuclear reactors, and only two contain radiation filtration systems, placing them at risk of being unusable in case of a nuclear disaster. Many are located close to the sea and at low elevations, increasing the risk of damage by tsunamis. In addition, a new survey conducted by Kyodo News reveals that nine of 17 emergency response centers are not earthquake proof. The Oi Emergency Response Center, where Prime Minister Noda is pushing to restart two nuclear reactors, is not earthquake proof, is located only 7 km from the reactors, and is less than 12 meters from the sea. In a nuclear emergency, the chances of it being rendered unusable are significant.
Members of both ruling and opposition parties in the Diet have agreed to establish an independent five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission by September. The new entity will replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which was highly criticized for conflict of interest while operating under METI, which is tasked with promoting nuclear power. As part of the new bill, a nuclear disaster preparedness council, including all cabinet ministers, will operate under the direction of the Prime Minister.
In addition, the Diet voted to limit operation of nuclear reactors in Japan, but left the age at which they need to retire open ended for the time being. Prime Minister Noda had pushed for the limit to be set at 40 years, with the option for extending that limit to 60 years. The bill will allow the proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make the final determination. The 40-year age limit of reactors has been highly controversial, as many raise concerns about the safety of aging reactors.
A new report from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) reveals that continued testing of the Monju fast-breeder reactor over the next decade—be required in order to put it into practical use--will cost Japanese taxpayers an additional 300 billion yen ($3.8 billion). Alternately, if the government chooses to end development on the reactors and simply maintain it, costs will only be between six and eight billion yen. The Monju fast-breeder reactor was long considered the linchpin of the Japanese nuclear cycle, hypothetically allowing spent fuel to be recycled into so called MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. However, the reactor has been plagued with technical problems and cost overruns for years.
Fukushima Prefectural officials have admitted that they asked researchers from Hirosaki University to stop measuring internal levels of radiation contamination of iodine-131 immediately after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, because testing was “stirring uneasiness” among residents. “It’s all right to measure environmental levels, but testing people stirs uneasiness, so we would like you to stop it,” one official from the prefecture’s Local Medical Care Division reportedly said. Radioactive iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days, so failure to conduct testing at those early stages means that that research was forever lost. Currently, very little data on internal exposure to iodine-131 exists. A Hirosaki University researcher noted, “If proper tests had been carried out, then we could have accurately evaluated the effects of the nuclear crisis, and residents would have felt more at ease.”
Anti-nuclear activists led by Nobel laureate Kenzeburo Oe submitted 7.48 million signatures to Takahiro Yokomichi, Speaker of the Lower House this week, calling for the permanent elimination of nuclear power in Japan. Their efforts were a direct response to the nuclear crisis last year at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The group plans to gather a total of 10 million signatures, and say that they will submit the remaining signatures, once collected, to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Journalist Satoshi Kamata, another leader of the group, said, “We want to put an end to the politics that put economy and money ahead of our lives and health.” Following presentation of the signatures, group leaders met with 40 anti-nuclear members of the Diet.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded to members of the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission this week, who roundly criticized his actions as the nuclear crisis unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last year. The panel accused him of micromanaging and distracting TEPCO workers from the emergency. In a blog post, Kan wrote, “It was indeed unusual for the Prime Minister’s Office to get directly involved, but we were dealing with a disaster more serious that either TEPCO or the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ever envisioned. That the Prime Minister’s Office did what was necessary was fact.” He added, “TEPCO could not inject water into the reactors on its own, and it was my office that ordered the Self-Defense Forces and other units into action. I still believe that, as NISA was not functioning, my office could not avoid getting directly involved in managing the crisis.”
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission announced that it will cease its efforts to create a new national nuclear policy, after last week’s revelations that a working group held closed-door meetings with nuclear industry insiders and solicited their input for and provided advanced copies of a draft report on nuclear policy.
TEPCO is admitting that it studied the effect of a 13.5-meter tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2006, and determined that all power at the plant would be lost should a such a large tsunami strike the coast there. Staff estimated that making upgrades to prevent power loss would cost $25 million. TEPCO never addressed the issue. In 2008, the company again studied the effects of a 10-meter tsunami, but made no upgrades. After last year’s triple nuclear meltdown, which was caused by power loss after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami, the utility insisted that no one could have predicted that type of natural disaster.
TEPCO is now blaming Japan’s central government for its failure to effectively communicate with the Japanese public after last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, including releasing information in a timely manner. Although experts said within days that three reactors there had melted down, TEPCO took more than a month to make that pronouncement. In a draft of a soon-to-be-released final assessment of the disaster, the utility claims that government officials “restricted” its announcements. “Because we had to seek approval from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency [on publicity matters] the timing of the announcement and content were restricted.”
Forty-two TEPCO shareholders have filed suit against 27 former and current presidents and chairmen of the utility, charging that they ignored scientific warnings of a potential catastrophic earthquake and tsunami at the plant. They are demanding 5.5 trillion yen ($70 billion) in damages.
State of the Reactors
Workers from TEPCO have once again failed in their efforts to find the cause of major leaks in the suppression chamber of reactor #2, after using infrared cameras. Radioactive water continues to leak into the chambers at a significant rate. Currently, the water level in each chamber, which is 9 meters (29.5 feet) in diameter, exceeds 5 meters (17 feet). TEPCO will not be able to remove damaged, molten fuel from the reactors until the leaks are repaired. TEPCO said that they will continue to search for other methods.
Other Nuclear News
Local opposition and anti-nuclear sentiment continues to build in communities near California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), where numerous technical issues and worn steam generator tubes have raised significant safety concerns. Many are calling for the plant’s closure. Southern California Edison (SCE), the plant’s operator, said it expects the plant will be offline at least through August, and possibly longer. Gary Headrick, the founder of San Clemente Green, noted, “Edison just keeps giving us more and more things to question. One thing after another keeps happening: there’s an ammonia leak, or false alarms with the sirens, or a little fire here and there.”