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

After months of in-fighting in Diet discussions, Japan’s central government has agreed to accept a plan by opposition parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party, to establish an independent five-member nuclear regulatory commission. The ruling party, DPJ, had pushed for a regulatory agency that would exist under the auspices of the Environment Ministry, which would have control of personnel and budgeting. However, the newly accepted plan means that the entity will have legally-guaranteed independence and maintain control over its own budget and personnel decisions. The arrangement is similar to that of the Japan Fair Trade Commission. Currently, nuclear issues are regulated by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). That arrangement came under fire as a conflict of interest after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. NISA falls under the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which works to promote nuclear power.

Members of the Diet from all three political parties agreed that employees who work at the new entity, which will be called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), will be unable to return to agencies or ministries from which they came before they began work at the NRC. The so-called “no-return rule” is an effort to maintain independence from METI, which works to promote nuclear power.

In addition, they agreed to grant the Prime Minister responsibility for issuing technical instructions, including whether or not to inject water into overheating reactors, in case of a nuclear crisis.

Tatsujiro Suzuki, Vice Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), said this week he believes that Japan needs to abandon its long-standing plan to recycle nuclear fuel, and instead, bury spent fuel. Suzuki noted, “It’s better to clarify the stance to withdraw from total reprocessing. Regardless of the scale of the atomic power, I could not find positive rationality to proceed with [reprocessing].” He added that using fast-breeder reactors carries too many uncertainties.

A new poll released June 5 by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of the Japanese public says that the country should reduce its dependence on nuclear power. Last year, even as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding, that number was only 44%. In addition, the survey revealed that 80% of respondents are dissatisfied with the way the central government has handled the disaster. Fifty-two percent expressed concern that they or family members have been contaminated by radiation.

A newly released memo from a 2006 NISA meeting reveals that Kenkichi Hirose, then-Director General of NISA, opposed efforts by the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to widen evacuation zones near nuclear plants. “Why do you want to rock a sleeping baby?” he asked. During the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the evacuation zones were inadequate and had to be increased after the fact, causing significant confusion among residents. Hirose was reportedly concerned about maintaining positive relationships with local governments hosting nuclear plants.

NISA has drafted approval to extend the lifespan for reactor #2 at Kansai Electric Power Company’s (KEPCO) Mihama plant in Fukui Prefecture. The reactor will be 40 years old in July. A bill to restrict the age of reactors to 40 years except in “exceptional circumstances” is currently moving through the Diet, but has not yet been passed. Experts, including Hiromitsu Ino, Professor Emeritus of Materials Science at the University of Tokyo, expressed criticism of NISA’s move, in light of the fact that the proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet been established. “It is not appropriate for NISA to conclude that the extension is ok. That decision should only be given after a new nuclear regulatory agency is set up.” In addition, analysts point out that KEPCO has yet to submit stress test results on the reactor to NISA, in spite of the fact that they are legally required to do so in order to restart reactors.

A METI advisory panel has calculated that the percentage of nuclear power used in Japan will fall between 0% and 26% in 2030. The panel is studying power usage in the country and how that will affect the nation’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has changed its website after receiving numerous complaints about a webpage that explained nuclear power through a cartoon comparing radioactive material to an angry wife, and the radiation itself to her haranguing her cowering husband. A spokesman for JAEA apologized and admitted, “This discriminates against women, which is inappropriate.”

TEPCO

TEPCO is finalizing its in-house report on what happened during last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, just in time for its annual shareholders’ meeting on June 27. Contrary to interim reports released by the government and a private, independent organization, TEPCO’s report will reportedly deny all responsibility for the disaster, saying that the crisis could not be helped and its response was appropriate. Conversely, the government and private reports state that workers lacked knowledge and skills that could have prevented the hydrogen explosions that led to three nuclear meltdowns. In addition, the utility insists that the plant experienced no damage whatsoever as a result of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck last March. In the meantime, former TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu will testify this week before the Diet regarding the disaster, as controversy continues to swirl around whether or not TEPCO tied to evacuate all of its employees from the plant as the disaster was unfolding. Had they done so, the crisis would have been far more catastrophic.

Household consumers strongly objected to TEPCO’s proposed average 10.28% rate increase this week, as METI hosted public hearings on the issue. Most residents expressed frustration that the utility has not made enough effort to cut operating costs, and instead is trying to pass them along to consumers. The ministry also gathered over 600 electronic responses via its website, most of which were highly critical of TEPCO and the rate hike. Another hearing will be held this weekend.

A METI panel investigating TEPCO’s recent request for an average 10.28% rate hike for household users said that the utility’s estimate of crude oil for use in its thermal plants is 5.9% higher than the average price for crude oil in the first quarter of 2012, according to official trade figures. TEPCO’s estimates for coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are also higher than average. Those costs are used to estimate costs of electricity, which the company then passes along to consumers.

State of the Reactors

TEPCO admitted this week that a water circulation fuel pump, responsible for keeping the spent fuel pool cool at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor #4, failed, allowing water in the pool to rise from 34ºC on Tuesday to 42ºC on Wednesday. A backup pump was used by also failed. One of the pumps was eventually restarted; the utility hopes the water will cool back down over the course of the week.

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

One-third of lawmakers belonging to Prime Minister Noda’s own political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are urging him to hold off on restarting the nuclear reactors at the Oi power plant, out of ongoing concerns about safety. Their petition states, “It is clear from surveys that the majority of the people think that we can survive this summer by conserving energy and transferring electricity among regions. We urge you to consider the fact that there is insufficient agreement within the party and among the people and the feelings of the 160,000 victims of the disaster, and be all the more cautious about a decision to restart the reactors.” The 117 lawmakers, including two former prime ministers, one former party leader, and two current cabinet members, point out that Noda has failed to meet five safety conditions for the Oi reactors outlined this spring by the DPJ, and no evacuation plans are in place. One member complained, “In the first place, the causes of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have not been specified.” Public opposition to the restarts continues to rise.
 
The Governors of Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, Keiji Yamada and Yukiko Kada, are demanding that the central government only restart the Oi nuclear reactors for three months, in order to stave off a supposed power crunch. The two leaders submitted a seven-point proposal to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, including a demand that municipalities located within 30 km of a nuclear reactor be given representation in the newly proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Although Prime Minister Noda was scheduled to make a decision on restarting the Oi reactors this week, the government will reportedly now delay the decision in light of party opposition, lack of commitment from municipal leaders, and increasing public outcry about safety concerns.

Analysts say that the rapid reversal of opinion on restarting the Oi reactors by politicians in the Kansai region is a result of extreme pressure by Kansai Electric, the plant’s operator, which has been threatening rolling blackouts, as well as that of local business leaders who are suddenly threatening to relocate businesses. Safety of the nuclear reactors was not mentioned.

Nobel prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe joined 3,000 demonstrators this week in an effort to protest the restart of the reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant. The group is trying to gather 10 million signatures against the restart; so far, they have gathered 7.5 million.

Other Nuclear News

Former New York State Mayor Ed Koch is speaking out about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and warning US citizens about nuclear power and the government’s response: “The American public should learn from the Japanese nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. The Japanese government did not tell its people the truth about the need for evacuation and other dangers, and I believe that no government, including our own, will [not do so] under similar circumstances, because a nuclear catastrophe is so great that the government is at a loss on how to deal with it. So they will lie to gain time within which they can, hopefully, come up with a coherent policy of survival. Our government should have learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima that nuclear energy plants are currently too dangerous to continue, and the existing plants should be shut down.”