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

Popular anger about Prime Minister Yoshihiko’s decision to restart the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture this weekend continues to grow, as protesters flock to large-scale demonstrations in Tokyo. On Friday, over 100,000 protesters gathered in front of Noda’s official residence to express anger and concern about the reactors’ safety (reports about attendance vary between 17,000 and 180,000). Demonstrations have been held there every Friday since March, but the number of protestors has been steadily growing as a result of word of mouth and notices posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. The Japanese media has devoted little coverage to the events, in spite of the fact that the Japanese people do not traditionally engage in protest. Last week, 45,000 people gathered in front of the residence, but this week that number more than doubled. The group was demographically diverse, and included businessmen, senior citizens, and women with small children. One protester, Yoko Kajiyama, said, “Japanese have not spoken out against the national government. Now we have to speak out or the government will endanger us all.”

Additional protests took place in other areas around the country, including in Nagoya, Nakasaki, Kumamoto, and in Osaka, where over 2,000 people gathered at KEPCO’s headquarters.

Officials from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) travelled to several municipalities last week, in an effort to apologize for failing to publicize US radiation data in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan also failed to release predictions of how the radiation would spread from its own System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI). As a result, thousands of people, including children, unknowingly fled from their homes to areas with even higher levels of radiation. NISA officials met with residents from Katsurao, Namie, Futaba, Tamura, Kawauchi, Okuma, and Tomioka.

Restart of the Oi Reactors

Ignoring widespread public opposition, Kansai Electric Company (KEPCO) restarted reactor #3 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture on Sunday evening. Officials reported that criticality, the point at which self-sustaining nuclear fission occurs, was reached on Monday morning at 6 am JST. The reactor is expected to begin generating power on July 4 and will reach full capacity on July 8. Reactor #4 will be restarted July 17. Hundreds of protesters blocked the road to the reactors, with some chaining themselves to the gate of the plant.

Meanwhile, local residents are struggling to devise their own evacuation plans in case of a nuclear disaster there. In spite of its rush to restart the Oi reactors, the government has not provided adequate evacuation planning for those who live nearby. A single two-lane road leads out of town, and the one train, which runs infrequently, is often cancelled as a result of weather-related problems. Fukui Prefecture officials estimate that traffic jams mean it would take at least eight hours to evacuate to nearby Tsuruga in the case of a meltdown. 

TEPCO

Newly appointed TEPCO Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe and incoming President Naomi Hirose announced this week that they intend to push for the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors in Niigata Prefecture by April 2013. Public opposition to the restarts remains strong, and both officials admitted that obtaining local consent will be an uphill battle. Shimokobe acknowledged  that TEPCO needs to improve its communication with customers and the public at large, and said that he will move to sever the relationship between former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and the utility. Katsumata was recently declared an official “corporate friend” of TEPCO.

Later, Shimokobe and Hirose met with evacuees from the Fukushima disaster who, fifteen months after the nuclear crisis there, are still unable to return to their homes because of excessive radiation contamination, and are living in temporary shelters. Many evacuees expressed anger and dissatisfaction about the way TEPCO has handled the crisis, including glacially slow processing of compensation payments. The Mayor of Futaba, Katsutaka Idogawa, noted, “Many of our townspeople are exhausted and spending their time here hopelessly every day. They are full of distrust [for TEPCO] and we want you to take firm responsibility for compensation.”

A power struggle is developing between officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which is tasked with promoting nuclear power, and those from Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), as they try to determine whether or not TEPCO’s efforts to reduce costs, including a wage reduction, are adequate in the face of the utility’s recent request for a 10.28% household rate increase. CAA panel members asked why TEPCO plans to continue paying employee bonuses (with the sole exception of this summer.) They are not expected to approve TEPCO’s proposal. METI panelists said that the cuts, which would still pay TEPCO employees higher than average wages, are adequate.

Yukio Edano, the head of METI, is criticizing TEPCO for its recent refusal to release tapes of videoconferences conducted in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The calls record conversations between company senior officials and Masao Yoshida, then-General Manager of the Fukushima Plant. Questions have arisen about whether or not TEPCO planned to evacuate all of its employees from the plant. Had they done so, the disaster could have been even more catastrophic. A group of 42 shareholders who are suing the utility filed a formal request with the Tokyo District Court in order to keep the tapes from being erased. TEPCO has claimed that so-called “privacy issues” prevent the tapes’ release, an excuse at which Edano scoffed: “From the outset, I have always called on TEPCO to disclose the videos. I don’t understand why they won’t do so… All they have to do is blur the faces of everyone other than senior officials.”  Junichi Matsumato, a high-ranking TEPCO official, was unapologetic. “We have, at present, no plan to disclose them,” he said.

State of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors

The cooling system at the spent fuel pool of reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant unexpectedly stopped on Saturday, resulting in an almost 10 degree temperature increase over 33 hours before the system was restarted. TEPCO officials said they do not know why cooling stopped, but suspect that there was a problem with the uninterruptible power supply (UPS). The spent fuel pool contains 1,535 fuel rods and has been widely labeled as precarious by nuclear experts; if they melt down, the Tokyo metropolitan area, with a population of 35 million, would have to be evacuated.

Contamination

A study of radiation contamination in Fukushima children between the ages of birth and seven years, conducted by the Isotope Research Institute in Yokohama, revealed 141 urine samples containing as much as 17.5 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. Those children with the highest contamination had eaten home-grown fruits and vegetables grown in Fukushima soil.

Officials from Japan’s Environment Ministry said this week that samples of 23 varieties of freshwater fish caught in rivers and lakes in Fukushima Prefecture between December and March of this year were contaminated. Some samples contained as much as 2,600 Bq/kg, far exceeding the government’s legal limit of 100 Bq/kg.

Other Nuclear News

French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) has ordered 32 nuclear power plants nationwide to make sweeping safety upgrades, a process expected to cost 10 billion euros. ASN Chief John Christophe Niel cautioned, “A lot of people think that Fukushima is behind us. In fact, it’s ahead of us.”