(This post is by Christine McCann)
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 Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) plans to approve stress tests conducted at reactor #3 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, in spite of the fact that some nuclear experts continue to raise concerns about the plant’s safety. Once NISA issues its official report, the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) will review the evaluation process. If he NSC grants approval, Prime Minister Noda will meet with Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura; Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI); and Goshi Hosono, Nuclear Crisis Minister, in order to determine whether or not to restart the reactor. Currently, only two reactors are in operation in Japan. In spite of repeated doomsday cries by the nuclear power industry of widespread blackouts, Japan has experienced neither blackouts nor power loss.
Meanwhile, a ruling Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) project team has released a report criticizing Japan’s government for attempting to restart any idled nuclear reactors, saying the decision to do so is premature before establishing their safety.
Officials of the Fukushima Prefectural government have admitted that five days worth of data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) sent from the central government to prefectural email accounts was deleted without being read in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Officials are still trying to determine who deleted the data.
Sources confirm that the bill to establish the proposed Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA) has stalled in the Diet, and the entity will not begin operations on April 1, as originally scheduled. Some critics say that the proposed agency was too weak, and would not be able to remain independent from the influence of the nuclear industry or adequately oversee their actions.
Researchers from the government-operated National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, who are studying the 35 km fault beneath the Tsuruga nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, contend that the plant’s operator, Japan Atomic Power Company, knew about the fault line seven years before the team discovered it earlier in March, but chose to ignore the dangers it poses to the plant’s reactors and residents who live nearby. The fault could cause a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, twice as large as that for which the plant was built to withstand. In spite of that, the Mayor of Tsuruga, Kazuharu Kawase, has submitted a petition to Yukio Edano, the head of METI, in an effort to restart the reactors.
Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has rescinded a previous edict that schools use a power-related education subsidy to promote the so-called benefits of nuclear power. Instead, they can now address the dangers of nuclear power, as well as teaching about various forms of renewable energy.
The municipalities of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto, which hold a combined 13% stock in Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), plan to demand that the utility move to “end all nuclear power plants as soon as possible” at Kansai’s shareholders’ meeting in June. However, the uncertain influence of corporate shareholders, who claim a combined 29% of stock, as well as individual shareholders, some of whom are local residents concerned about the safety of nuclear power, mean that the ultimate outcome of the meeting remains in question. KEPCO has been highly resistant to the idea of reducing nuclear power.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has confirmed that Viet Nam intends to purchase two nuclear reactors from Japan. In spite of the fact that negative public opinion is preventing Japan from building new reactors at home, it continues to export nuclear technology to other countries, a move that has not been well received by Japanese citizens.
A new Green political movement is springing up in Japan, largely in response to last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The group, which calls itself Green Active, is building a coalition with another group, Greens Japan, and plans to grant seals of approval to politicians who support renewable energy and the reduction of nuclear power. They hope to form an official Japanese Green Party later this year.
TEPCO has backpedaled on a April 1 rate increase of 17% for some of its corporate customers, after METI Minister Yukio Edano chided them for failing to explain that those companies with contracts that extended past April 1 were not required to pay the increase until their current agreements run out. Edano once again expressed frustration with TEPCO: “It’s jaw dropping. I want TEPCO to rectify its management culture drastically…I cannot determine if [the utility miscommunicated] intentionally, but obviously it is wrong.”
State of the Reactors
High winds led to a small fire this week near reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, when sparks from a welding job set nearby grass in a three square meter area on fire. Workers extinguished the blaze.
TEPCO officials said that new tests using underwater cameras show that although debris from hydrogen explosions is apparent in the spent fuel pools at reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, they do not believe it will hinder efforts to remove the spent fuel. That process is expected to take two years.
Scientists conducting testing of marine life last July and October, including sandworms, sea urchin, and sea potato, found radiation levels that exceeded the government standard of 500 Bq/kg. The discovery is significant, because flounder and other deep-sea fish eat sandworms, which means that radiation is entering the food chain.
The Environment Ministry has discovered exceedingly high levels of radioactive cesium in soil measuring 154,000 Bq/kg on the banks of the Niida River in Iitate Village, within the evacuation zone near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The soil samples were gathered between January 5 and January 27, and were the most radioactive yet collected.
Officials at the Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture now say that more than three tons of radioactive water have leaked from the plant since October 2010. Last week, they estimated that one and a half tons had seeped out. Workers are trying to figure out the cause of the leak and whether or not the contaminated water has reached the ocean.
METI has established new limits for cesium contaminated stone and gravel at 100 Bq/kg. Earlier this year, officials discovered that roads, homes, and condominiums had been built out of radioactive materials because the government had failed to set radiation standards for such building supplies.
TEPCO will reportedly petition the government for as much as 900 billion additional yen to cover new compensation costs for victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, bringing the total amount of compensation funds allotted by the government to over two trillion yen. The updated figures reflect a recent decision by the Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation to award people who will not be able to return to their homes for at least five years. The sum compensates emotional damages; additional recompense will be paid for loss of homes and property. That decision will affect an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 evacuees.
Other Nuclear News
Russia has agreed to build two more nuclear reactors in India, after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa said that work could begin on two reactors at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India’s proposed plant in Kudankulam. Local residents and activists have bitterly protested the reactors over the past seven months out of concern for their safety and that of the ecosystem on which they depend to make a living. Over 150 protesters were arrested and taken to undisclosed locations for interrogation after Jayalalithaa’s announcement, but demonstrations have started again.
Japanese anti-nuclear protestors joined demonstrators in South Korea at a protest this week near two proposed sites for nuclear reactors: Samcheok in Gangwan Province and Yeongdeok in North Gyeongsang Province. Both face the Sea of Japan. One of the Japanese demonstrators, Kenichi Hasegawa, noted, “Our seas, mountains and farmlands were contaminated by radioactive materials. I hope we are the last people who suffer such a tragedy.”
Materials that will be used to build the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement Project (NSC), a hermetically sealed encasement for the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, have begun to arrive in Chernobyl. Twenty thousand tons of steel will eventually be shipped via rail, ship, and vehicle. The structure, which engineers expect to complete in 2015, will allow experts to remotely dismantle the sarcophagus that is currently covering the disaster site. Experts warn that the sarcophagus could soon collapse, releasing radiation into the environment.