Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
In response to last week’s power outage emergency at the Fukushima plant, in which cooling functions were lost for 29 hours at the spent fuel pools of reactors #1, #3, and #4, as well as a shared pool storing 6,377 fuel assemblies , Japan’s central government has ordered TEPCO to install multiple power sources to cooling systems there. The move comes more than two years after power loss resulting from a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to a three separate nuclear meltdowns at the plant. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshida Suga made the announcement during a press conference on Friday. TEPCO has been asked to prepare a report on last week’s incident, and a panel of experts will review it and make recommendations at the end of this month. (Source: NHK)
In addition, Suga said that the utility needs to improve communication with local residents when nuclear accidents occur. TEPCO waited a full hour after discovering the power loss before notifying the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and local municipal officials, but did not report the incident to the media, who could have conveyed the information to the public, for three hours. Just as significantly, NRA officials also did not share the information with the public for three hours after TEPCO first informed them. “We were focused on finding out what was going on at the site,” said TEPCO’s spokesman, Yoshiyuki Ishizaki, “and did not think enough about prefectural residents. In the two years since the accident we thought we had prepared ourselves to quickly make announcements, but we will do so from now on.”
TEPCO is reportedly considering not paying the Environment Ministry 10.5 billion yen, which the agency spent to decontaminate areas around the Fukushima nuclear plant. The government contends that TEPCO owes a total of 14.9 billion yen—10.5 billion of which is due now—under a special decontamination law passed in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear disaster. However, one TEPCO official noted that the company “cannot judge whether it is a demand based on the special law.”
The Mainichi Daily News has revealed that the nuclear power industry, including TEPCO and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), gave at least 18 million yen to the non-profit ASCA Energy Forum, which is run by a commissioner of the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC). METI paid ASCA approximately 10 million yen in 2011 to promote public acceptance of nuclear waste disposal. The organization has refused to reveal details about payments, including how much money it received from TEPCO, even after the nuclear disaster occurred. TEPCO also refused to comment. Earlier this year, the government effectively nationalized TEPCO in order to keep it from failing.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
In yet another chapter of an ongoing scandal, the Asahi Shimbun has published an exposè revealing that contractors accused of underpaying decontamination workers were tipped off before a “surprise” visit by government investigators. Late last year, Asahi published a series of stories uncovering shoddy workmanship by decontamination contractors, in which workers were ordered to throw radioactive materials in rivers and forests, rather than disposing of them properly. In addition, many did not receive government-mandated hazard pay designated for decontamination workers. In November, inspectors from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare interviewed workers at 110 contracting firms. Asahi has now discovered that those companies were told when inspectors would arrive, and in turn, some ordered workers to lie about having received hazard pay. If workers refused, they were told that not only would they lose their jobs, but their coworkers would be fired as well. At least two workers have now come forward and admitted that they lied under duress. Tatsuo Ito, who heads the Tomioka Labor Standards Inspection Office, has admitted to informing staff at Maeda Corporation, one of the contracting firms, of the surprise inspections. And, at one Koriyama contracting firm, a supervisor was recorded telling workers, “You workers will likely be interviewed in an individual basis. I’d be pleased if you told the full amount, not the actual amount you are receiving… The correct answer is 15,700 yen, which is the minimum wage plus the allowance. Each of you may have your own questions, but I hope you will behave in consideration of what could happen to other people,” he said. Such behavior violates Japan’s Labor Standards Law. Analysts believe that the number of affected workers will likely increase.
Records show that Japan’s Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry urged officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) to upgrade emergency off-site control centers (OFCs) at several nuclear power plants, including TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, as early as 2009. However, officials from the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which operated under the umbrella of METI, said that a Chernobyl-like disaster was impossible at any of Japan’s nuclear power facilities. Internal Affairs officials warned that the OFCs, located within 10 km of their respective plants, lacked ventilation systems to shield workers there from high levels of radiation. NISA reportedly said that Chernobyl “was an accident that occurred at a nuclear plant with different design concepts from Japan’s,” adding, “Filters aren’t needed” and “The OFCs have no flaws.” After the meltdowns at Fukushima, TEPCO workers and officials were forced to evacuate the emergency command center when radiation levels surged. In retrospect, one NISA official admitted, “The [NISA] safety guideline at the time stipulated that ‘It is very unlikely that an accident similar to the Chernobyl disaster will occur.’ We followed that view. However, it was a big mistake.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited residents of Fukushima Prefecture this week, observing, “I am reminded that the nuclear disaster has had a significant impact.” He added, “I would like to decide [on restarts] after thoroughly ensuring their safety.” Abe is determined to restart nuclear reactors in Japan despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power and has highlighted the economics of nuclear power, rather than the human costs. “It will be difficult to recover [from the disaster] if there aren’t stable sources of electricity,” he said. Meanwhile, Abe has shown little interest in investing in renewable energy sources.
Demonstrating ongoing opposition to nuclear power two years after the Fukushima crisis first began to unfold, approximately 7,000 residents gathered at a gymnasium at the Asuma Sports Park in Fukushima City, to rally against restarting nuclear reactors in Japan. “We who have gone through the pain of the nuclear disaster have a mission to tell many people about it, so that the memory of the disaster does not fade,” said Sakura Takano, a Minamisoma high school student who spoke at the rally.