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

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda approved restarting reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture this week, ignoring concerns of many local residents and government officials who live within 30 km of the plant, and who would be profoundly affected should a nuclear disaster occur. He made the move after Issei Nishikawa, Governor of Fukui, met with Kansai President Makoto Yagi on Friday night, and announced his own approval the next morning. Fukui Prefecture is home to 14 nuclear reactors, and the economy there has been highly dependent on subsidies from nuclear power companies. Both reactors will not reach full capacity until approximately July 27.

The government will post Ministry of the Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) Vice Minister Seishi Makino at the plant’s off-site emergency response center as the reactors are fired up. Some government insiders have jokingly referred to Makino as a “hostage”, since the response center is located near the sea and at risk of tsunamis, is not earthquake proof, and has no radiation filtration system to protect those inside in case of a nuclear accident. Earthquake upgrades will not be completed until 2016, tsunami barriers will not be done until 2014, and the new ventilation system will not be installed until 2016. External power supplies need to be upgraded, but that will not happen until December 2013. The center is located only 7 km from the Oi plant, and evacuation procedures are not in place for residents in the town, where there is only one main road out of the town. One resident said, “There’s no way we could get out in time if the wind blew radiation this way.” During the Fukushima crisis, the emergency response center was rendered completely unusable for similar reasons.

As Noda was preparing his decision, over 400 demonstrators protested outside of his office, pointing out that the causes of the Fukushima disaster have not yet been fully determined, and safety at the Oi plants has not been assured. Earlier this month, over 10,000 people gathered in Tokyo to protest the reactor restarts, shouting, “Lives matter more than the economy.” One Tokyo resident noted, “There is a huge gap between public opinion in which more people are opposed to resumption of operations, and the decision of the government. I did not want just a few people to make such an important decision.” Meanwhile, the country has been running completely without nuclear power since the beginning of May, and with very little for months before that.

In addition, the announcement sparked international criticism and protests over the weekend in Australia, Germany, Thailand, Rome, New York, Washington, and Seoul. More protests are planned later this week in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a group of 73 current and former mayors from nearby municipalities held a news conference to protest Noda’s decision, accusing the government of conducting insufficient safety tests and restarting the reactors before a reputable nuclear regulatory entity is in place. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), long criticized for conflicts of interest since it exists under the umbrella of METI, which promotes nuclear power, is scheduled to be disbanded and replaced by a new more independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). However, that commission is not expected to be up and running until at least September.  In April, Yukio Edano, the head of METI, stated, “In my opinion, we should wait for the new regulator organizations to be launched to proceed with the process of confirming the safety of reactors [for future restarts].”

However, Edano flip-flopped and agreed to the restarts on Saturday. He later conducted a news conference after Noda’s announcement, where he admitted, “There is no such thing as a perfect score when it comes to disaster prevention steps.” He added, “We understand that we have not obtained all of the nation’s understanding.

Experts point out that Noda may now push for other reactors to be restarted; the first will probably be Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, which has passed the government’s controversial first round of stress tests. However, many analysts say that Noda will have a difficult time doing so before the new NRC begins operation in September. They estimate it will take an additional 10 months for the commission to establish new standards, pushing those restarts to next summer. In addition, the government is scheduled to begin discussions this summer over whether or not nuclear energy should be phased out completely, as the country develops a new energy plan.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Newly released information reveals that the Japanese government ignored US Department of Energy (DOE) radiation data in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster and failed to release it to the public, as thousands of residents unknowingly evacuated to even more highly contaminated areas. The DOE used an Aerial Measuring System (AMS) between March 17 and 19, flying in a 45 km radius around the plant, and measured radiation levels as high as 125 microsieverts per hour in a 30 km-wide area. That data—which measured actual radiation levels, not just predictions—was conveyed twice in emails to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which were then forwarded to both NISA and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). Several MEXT officials have admitted that the information was never forwarded to the Prime Minister’s office. Although the information was sent over a year ago, NISA officials said they are still trying to determine whether or not they received the data. Tokushi Sahibata, professor emeritus at Tokyo University noted, “It was a fatal error in judgment. If the data had been released immediately, the situation of residents evacuating in the wrong direction and becoming exposed to radiation could have been avoided.” The central government also ignored its own System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), which predicted radiation spread in the areas to which residents were fleeing, claiming they did not know whether or not it was accurate. Recent reports show that in fact, officials did know that the readings were reliable.

Hideo Kishimoto, Mayor of Genkai in Saga Prefecture, has proposed taxing spent fuel rod storage at the Genkai power plant. The town received significant subsidies—up to 10 billion yen over the course of each reactor’s average 40-year life span, as well as property taxes—in order to convince them to accept the danger of having a nuclear plant in their backyard. Shizuo Tsusumi, who heads Sayonara Nuke, an anti-nuclear organization, said, “It is wrong to get remote communities to accept danger in exchange for money.” Another environmentalist noted, “Nuclear related money is like a drug: you get addicted once you receive it.”

Kenzaboro Oe, Nobel laureate and anti-nuclear activist, presented 7.5 million signatures decrying the use of nuclear power to Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura last week. The petition requested that nuclear power be abolished in Japan, and criticized the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Oe’s group plans to hold an anti-nuclear rally on July 16, at which 100,000 people are expected to protest.

State of the Reactors

TEPCO announced that exceedingly high levels of radiation have been found on a floor 4.5 meters above reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The discovery signifies substantial radiation leaks, although the utility admitted it could not confirm the route of the leaking radiation. The contamination was discovered after workers used a robot to assess damage there. Radiation levels measured 880 millisieverts per hour. The issue raises concerns about TEPCO’s ability to decommission the reactor. Workers will need to remove fuel from the containment vessel, but cannot do so until they repair the damaged reactor. That process will be difficult if high levels of radiation prevent workers from gaining entry.

Workers have installed a 4 cm thick steel plate weighing 60 tons over the spent fuel pool at reactor #4, in an effort to prevent more rubble from falling into the pool, which contains 1,535 spent fuel rods. TEPCO hopes to begin dismantling some parts of the building, a process that is expected to create a lot of debris.

Contamination

Fishermen from Fukushima Prefecture plan to begin test fishing this week, after voluntarily refraining from fishing in contaminated waters off the coast of Fukushima for over a year. Catches will be tested for radiation but will not be released for sale to the public. If radiation levels remain low, the fishermen, who belong to the Soma-Futaba Fishermen’s Union, will fish again on June 20 and 27, at which point radiation levels will once again be tested. Radioactive cesium has bound with the mud at the bottom of the ocean, and many bottom-feeding fish have shown radiation levels exceeding government limits. TEPCO has agreed to compensate fishermen for lost wages, and recently agreed to also compensate for decreased sales value of fish as a result of negative publicity and radiation fears. 

Local officials in Okuma, home to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, have approved test planting of rice, carrots, spinach, and other vegetables in order to determine whether new crops there will be contaminated. Okuma lies in the evacuation zone around the plant and is considered uninhabitable. The tests include planting some vegetables in plots where 5 cm of soil has been removed in an effort to decontaminate it. Officials hope to learn whether those efforts have been successful.

Other Nuclear News

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has determined that design errors caused excessive wear in steam generator tubes in two reactors at Southern California Edison’s (SCE) San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant has been offline for four months as the NRC investigated those and other safety concerns. The NRC approved the generators, which were replaced just two years ago at a cost of $670 million, as identical replacements for the generators that had been there previously. However, environmental group Friends of the Earth has charged that SCE made changes to the design without approval from the NRC. NRC Regional Administrator Elmo Collins admitted that the interior of the old and new reactors “look substantially different.” Issues with steam generator tubes have been discovered at other plants in the past: at San Onofre’s Unit 1 in 1992; at the Trojan plant near Portland in 1993; and at Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania during the 1990s. If tubes break, radiation could be released into the environment, placing workers and the public at risk. Approximately 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, which is located between Los Angeles and San Diego. The NRC said it has not scheduled a date by which the reactors will be restarted, noting, “These are significant technical issues. They are not resolved yet.”

In a separate revelation, the NRC announced last week that numerous security issues were discovered at San Onofre, but would not elaborate on them, citing safety concerns.