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

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a Diet panel investigating the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, announced that it will interview former TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, who was overseeing the Fukushima Daiichi plant as during last year’s nuclear crisis. The panel had previously said that it would wrap up its work following an interview with former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who testified last week, but considerable controversy has arisen regarding whether or not TEPCO planned to abandon the plant as the disaster was unfolding. Government officials, including Yukio Edano, the head of  METI, and former Prime Minister Kan insist that Shimizu made that request. If all workers had evacuated, the effects of the disaster would have been far more catastrophic.

International nuclear experts are criticizing efforts by the Japanese nuclear industry to stockpile surplus plutonium for use in reactors using MOX (mixed-oxide) fuel, a combination of plutonium and uranium. The MOX plan was a key component of the Japanese nuclear cycle and was supposed to allow reuse of spent fuel, resulting in a self-contained cycle. However, reprocessing has turned out to be more expensive than simply disposing of spent fuel by burying it, and the process itself has encountered numerous technical difficulties and public opposition. Japan currently has 35 tons of plutonium stored worldwide, and hopes to produce another half ton within the next nine months, raising global concerns that terrorists might obtain some of it and produce nuclear bombs. Experts point out that the industry has missed its own deadlines for how and when it will use the plutonium it’s already set aside. Frank Von Hippel, a Princeton University Professor and former Assistant Director for National Security at the White House, expressed alarm. “It’s crazy. There is absolutely no reason to [produce more]. There really is a credibility problem here. They keep making up these schedules, which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

Documents obtained by the Asahi Shimbun reveal that three academicians appointed to a Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) expert panel studying the safety of the Monju fast-breeder reactor project received 16.1 million yen in payments from the nuclear industry between 2006 and 2010. JAEA said it does not examine conflicts of interest in donations made to its experts, but is investigating the issue. The incident further reveals the heavy influence of the nuclear power industry on Japan’s universities and the research sector at large.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) has admitted that one of its working groups advised nuclear power operators to “write a composition” on why dealing with total power loss at nuclear plants was unnecessary. The working group later produced a report that did not address loss of cooling functions. TEPCO’s failure to plan for loss of power and cooling led to a triple nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last March, following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Shikoku Electric is working to restart nuclear reactors at its Ikata power plant in Ehime Prefecture. However, those efforts have stalled while members of the Diet continue to debate the best way to establish a new nuclear regulatory agency, after the Fukushima nuclear crisis exposed Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s (NISA) inadequacies and conflicts of interest as a regulator under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which works to promote nuclear power. The new agency was originally scheduled to begin operation on April 1, but deliberations became stalled in the Diet. In the current debate, opposition parties are pushing for legally guaranteed independence, including control over personnel and budgetary decisions. The government is advocating for control of the entity by the Environment Ministry.

In an effort to promote energy-saving awareness, Japan’s Environment Ministry has launched a new service advising homeowners on how to conserve power. Residents can submit a questionnaire summarizing their daily electricity use to one of 42 centers located across the country. Experts will compare their power usage to that of other families, and suggest ways to conserve power. Home consultations are also available.

TEPCO

TEPCO has obtained permission from approximately 83% of its employees to reduce pension payments, in an effort to cut personnel costs as the utility requests permission to enact a significant rate hike on households. The new plan, which will go into effect in October, will guarantee retirees a 2.5% minimum yield, down from the current range of 3.5% - 6.5%.

Analysts are criticizing TEPCO’s recent “peak shift” power rate proposal, which provides different rates depending on the time of day. Experts say that few households will save money, and although TEPCO hopes to have 150,000 subscribers to the new plan by August (which is still only 1% of its 20 million residential consumers), only 130 households have signed up so far. Company officials admitted they have not adequately advertised the new option. One expert noted, “The new rate seems to be just a way for TEPCO to dodge public criticism over planned rate hikes by showing their efforts to alleviate the burden.”

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

Toru Hashimoto, the politically powerful Mayor of Osaka, has suddenly rescinded his objections to restarting the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, after a long and vocal fight against the restarts. His efforts included threats to topple the Noda administration’s government, which is led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). On the evening of May 30, Hashimoto was still saying that he was “fundamentally opposed” to the restarts, but suddenly did an about-face the next morning with little explanation. “I am, in effect, approving [restarting the reactors],” he said. Recently, Hashimoto had softened his stance and suggested that the reactors be temporarily restarted just for three months, to deal with a power crunch predicted by Kansai Electric, operator of the Oi reactors. Kansai’s estimates have not been independently verified by any third-party experts. In addition, Hashimoto retracted his remarks about taking over the government from the DPJ. The Governor of Shiga Prefecture, Yukiko Kada, also vehemently opposed the restarts but is now indicating she may grant approval.

Hashimoto admitted that his decision was politically motivated, and amazingly, acknowledged that safety is no longer even a consideration. “It is not politically realistic to stick to the argument that nuclear reactors should not be restarted unless their safety is fully ensured.” He had been heavily lobbied by the nuclear industry, including Kansai Electric Chairman Shosuke Mori, as well as central government officials.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said he plans to visit Fukui Prefecture to consult with Governor Issei Nishikawa, but delayed the trip from Saturday, when it was originally scheduled. Nishikawa indicated he did not want to meet with him until the government responds to his proposal that the restarts be limited to three months, in an effort to deal with supposed power shortages this summer.

Nishikawa has requested that Noda appeal directly to the Japanese public, in light of increasing opposition to reactivating the reactors. In a poll conducted by the Mainichi Daily News between June 2 and 3, 71% of respondents urged the government not to rush reactivating the Oi reactors.

In addition, Nishikawa said that high-ranking government personnel need to be stationed near the reactors, the government should establish a new nuclear regulatory agency, and the nuclear industry must determine how it will dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel. Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said he would consider the requests.

Concerns about safety remain very high in the public consciousness, and this weekend, an editorial in widely read newspaper The Japan Times strongly criticized the government’s actions, pointing out that the stress tests used to determine safety at the Oi plant are merely computer simulations whose effectiveness has not been verified by third-party experts. In February, the Chairman of the NSC, Haruki Madarame, asserted that stress tests were not an adequate means of determining reactor safety. “If the central government decides to restart the Oi reactors, it will be clear that it has not given serious thought to the nuclear catastrophe at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” the editorial stated.

Yukio Edano, the head of METI, said this week that if the Oi reactors are restarted, they will not operate at full power until at least mid-July, because it takes six weeks to bring them completely online. Accordingly, Japan will enact a voluntary power saving initiative beginning July 2 and running through September 28, and may institute rolling blackouts in the Kansai region, served by Hokkaido Electric, KEPCO, Kyushu Electric, and Shikoku Electric, for approximately two hours a day. Those operators provide power for 40 million people. The power saving initiative encourages residents to reduce power use by between 7% and 15% over the course of the summer. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has vowed to take “ultimate responsibility” for deciding whether or not to restart the Oi reactors, is scheduled to meet with Edano, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura as early as this week to make a final decision.

The Union of Kansai Governments, which includes leaders from Osaka, Hyoko, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, Tottori, and Tokushima Prefectures, as well as Osaka and Sakai Cities, released a statement this week that read in part, “The judgment on the issue [of restarting the Oi reactors] is only provisional and we strongly request [that the central government] make its decision on the premise that the reactivation will be limited.” However, the Noda administration has so far refused to consider only a temporary restart, and is now announcing that it has obtained “understanding from affected areas.”

Decontamination

A year after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan continues to struggle with an estimated four million tons of radioactive debris, which resulted from last year’s earthquake and tsunami and was subsequently contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Over 90% of that debris is still waiting to be disposed of, because many cities and towns refuse to accept it out of fear of spreading contamination. Last week, protestors in Kita Kyushu City blocked trucks carrying debris from Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures for over eight hours. Before the nuclear crisis, the government-imposed limit of radioactive cesium in debris destined to be buried in landfills was 100 Bq/kg. Post-Fukushima, that limit has been raised to 80 times the original limit, or 8,000 Bq/kg.

Other Nuclear News

A former General Manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), as well as former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and California Power Authority (SPA) is speaking out about the dangers of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in California. S. David Freeman submitted an op-ed piece to the Sacramento Bee this week, in which he said that both the SONGS facility and Diablo Canyon need to be shut down immediately. Freeman wrote, “San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are both disasters waiting to happen: aging, unreliable reactors sitting near earthquake fault zones on the fragile Pacific Coast, with millions or hundreds of thousands of Californians living nearby. Does that sound alarmist? I’ve been in the utility industry for 40 years, and I have come to realize that you have to be blind not to be an alarmist about nuclear power…It’s time to look beyond the failed experiment with nuclear power and look to the future [of renewable energy].”  He added, “Anyone who says last year’s catastrophe at Fukushima was an aberration is literally whistling past the graveyard. The risks are real, and it’s time to get rid of these time bombs before they go off.”

Staff from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have submitted draft safety recommendations for American nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The document, referred to as an “interim safety guidance” (ISG), is available for public comment through the month of July. Nuclear operators have until December 31, 2016 to comply with the safety recommendations—possibly leaving reactors vulnerable until then—but only if they choose to do so: the ISG is not mandatory, and operators are not required to comply.