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
Ignoring calls from his own party and overwhelming public anti-nuclear sentiment, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda addressed the nation this weekend, saying that he plans to go ahead with restarting two nuclear reactors at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture. He stressed that the restarts would be permanent, dismissing requests from local government officials to bring the reactors online for three months only, in order to avoid a potential power shortage this summer. Noda insists that the reactors are safe, in spite of the fact that the plant has no earthquake-proof headquarters from which it could conduct operations in the case of a nuclear disaster. The plant is built directly over significant active fault lines. Upgrades to the plant will not be completed until at least 2016.
As Noda was giving his address, over 4,000 protesters, including staff of Greenpeace Japan, gathered outside of his residence. One protestor noted, “He pressed the people to reopen the plant, waving power shortages and economic issues in front of us. It was very much like a threat.”
The Fukui Assembly met in a closed-door session closed to the public on Sunday and approved the restarts, after a delay of over an hour while local residents and anti-nuclear demonstrators protested the fact that they could not observe the proceedings. Kansai Electric and major business owners in the area have reportedly exerted significant pressure on decision makers, citing concerns about the economy, and ignoring polls that reveal that the majority of those living within the Kansai region would prefer to conserve electricity rather than restart the reactors. The prefecture has received 346 billion yen ($4.34 billion) in nuclear related subsidies. The next step is for Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa to grant approval, at which point the decision will move to Prime Minister Noda; Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono; Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry head Yukio Edano; and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. That decision is expected to be made on Saturday.
Once Noda grants approval, as is widely expected, experts say that it will take at least six weeks to bring the Oi reactors fully online.
As the Prime Minister prepares to make his decision, members of his own political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) continue to urge him to delay the decision until he is able to convince them that the reactors are safe, and reports have been released on the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster. Last week, 117 members of the Diet--one-third of the party’s leaders—signed a petition protesting the move. This week, just hours before Noda was to speak to the nation, 30 members met again to express continued concern.
In the meantime, a survey conducted by NHK reveals that 57% of local governments near the Oi plant—including 3 prefectures and 11 municipalities within 30 km of the reactors—admit that they would be unprepared to protect and/or evacuate residents in case of a nuclear disaster. An additional 29% said they are only partially prepared. Government officials from Fukui Prefecture and Oi township did not respond to the question.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) continued its probe this week. Former TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu testified that he did not request that all TEPCO employees be evacuated from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. That contradicts reports from Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and METI Minister Yukio Edano. Shimizu insists that he was only requesting that non-essential staff be allowed to leave the compound. Had workers not stayed behind to cool the reactors, the disaster would have been far more catastrophic.
The panel criticized former Prime Minister Naoto Kan for trying to micromanage the process as the disaster unfolded, complicating issues and preventing TEPCO staff from being able to do their work. In addition, they blasted the government for failing to distribute radiation fallout data and for mismanaging evacuation plans, affecting tens of thousands of people.
More than a year after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan’s central government still has not compiled updated nuclear emergency plans to reflect lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As the crisis unfolded last March, evacuation plans failed. Many residents said they learned about the need to evacuate through word-of-mouth or via social media sites, rather than from official government sources. In addition, officials were unable to use offsite command centers because they were not protected from radiation. Since the government changed the emergency preparedness zone around nuclear reactors from 10 km to 30 km, many municipalities have no pre-existing emergency plans in place, and are waiting for instructions from the central government on how to proceed. Analysts say that no plans will be made until the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is established. Currently, the issue is still being debated in the Diet.
A draft report by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) says that government officials were aware that SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information) radiation simulations were reliable in the hours and days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but concealed them for over a month out of concern that the public would panic. Previously, the government insisted that the SPEEDI numbers were unreliable. A new survey conducted by the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) shows that 70% of residents who lived near the plant evacuated at least four times, because messages from the central government were not clear.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) has admitted that it signed two contracts with Toshiba Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. for testing at the Monju fast-breeder reactor, in spite of the fact that the central government is still trying to determine the future of that reactor and has not allocated necessary funding to pay the vendors. The agreements are worth 100 million yen. The Monju reactor, which has been plagued with issues, was idled in 2010 after an accident there, and has never been restarted.
Senior Vice-Minister Hitoshi Goto announced this week that the Cabinet Office will conduct a formal investigation into the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, after recently released documents revealed that a working group conducted closed door meetings with members of the nuclear industry, eventually resulting influencing national nuclear policy.
KEPCO has announced to its shareholders that it will flatly reject all 28 shareholder proposals received, including one from the government of Osaka demanding that the utility abandon nuclear power and stop promising highly-paid positions to retired government officials. The move comes as the company is preparing for its annual meeting on June 27.
Over 1,300 plaintiffs from areas near Fukushima Prefecture have filed a lawsuit against 33 officials from TEPCO, including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, charging that the utility was responsible for causing and then failing to control the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last March.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO workers entered the basements of reactors #2 and #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, in an effort to locate leaks in the reactor suppression chambers there. However, their efforts failed. 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.