(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
TEPCO shut down reactor #6 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture on Sunday evening, leaving just one reactor still operating in Japan: Hokkaido Electric’s reactor #3 at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture. That reactor is scheduled to shut down for routine maintenance on May 5. In spite of repeated doomsday cries by the nuclear power industry of widespread blackouts, Japan has experienced neither blackouts nor power loss.
Newly obtained documents show that NISA was aware of vulnerabilities in Japanese nuclear plants over a year before the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last March, but failed to address them out of concern that the revelations might result in lawsuits against the plants’ operators.
The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) has endorsed the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA’s) approval of stress tests conducted by Kansai Electric Power Company on reactor #3 and #4 at its Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. The decision on whether to restart the idled reactors now moves to the central government, where Prime Minister Yoshihiko 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 to discuss the issue. They are widely expected to approve the restarts as early as next week. Noda, who has been pushing hard to restart the Oi reactors, said this week that he plans to enlist “the entire government” in his efforts.
However, Noda faces an uphill battle in trying to convince local authorities that the reactors are safe for operation. Municipal officials in both Fukui and nearby Shiga Prefectures are bitterly opposed, insisting that the government needs to first determine the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Although a government panel is working on that report, it will not be released until at least July. The governor of Fukui Prefecture, Issei Nishikawa, said, “The government must give clear answers about the impact of the earthquake and the age of the nuclear units [in the Fukushima] accident…There is no change in the stance that we won’t allow the restart of nuclear plants currently under maintenance, unless the government responds to the prefecture’s request.” Fukui Prefecture is home to 13 nuclear reactors. Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada added, “What lessons about safety have been learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident? I believe it is still too early.”
A group of Fukui Assembly members is standing together to demand that the government refrain from restarting the Oi reactors unless it can prove that nuclear power is necessary (currently, every reactor but one in the country has been shut down, and yet no blackouts have occurred) and establish new safety standards that reflect the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
In addition, Haruki Madarame, the head of the NSC, clarified that the NSC endorsement was not a judgment on whether or not reactors should be restarted. Madarame has repeatedly said that a second round of stress tests, confirming that massive radiation releases will not occur in the case of a disaster, needs to be performed before reactors can be determined safe. “I hope there is an evaluation of more realistic, actual figures,” Madarame noted.
The NSC has recently revised guidelines for nuclear plants, covering safety design, resistance to seismic shock and tsunamis, and ability to withstand nuclear meltdowns, as well as overall disaster management. In addition, they call for significantly expanding the evacuation zones around nuclear plants, increasing them from 10 to 30 km. However, no timetable has been established for enacting the new rules, since legislation to create a proposed new nuclear regulatory entity, the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA) has stalled in Parliament, where some members are asking if the agency can maintain independence from the nuclear industry and can meet international safety standards. Originally, the government had hoped to begin operations at the new agency on April 1; now, there is a possibility that the bill may not be passed before this session of the Diet concludes on June 21.
In yet another scandal, four out of 12 members of a Fukui Prefecture panel that will evaluate the safety of restarting Oi reactors #3 and #4 received grants from an organization directly connected to Kansai Electric, the plant’s operator. One additional panelist received grants from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd, the builder of the plant. The grants for the five members totaled 7.9 million yen since 2006. Prefectural officials have no rule requiring that panel members reveal relationships with the nuclear power industry, and say that they will still enlist the panel’s aid in determining whether to restart the Oi reactors. The revelation is sure to raise concerns among local government officials and many residents, who are seriously questioning the decision to evaluate the reactors’ safety before determining the cause of the Fukushima crisis.
In another sign that many local municipalities and Japanese citizens have lost faith in the central government’s ability to regulate the safety of nuclear power, Shiga Prefecture has established its own guidelines for evacuating in the case of a nuclear disaster. Although the government has proposed increasing evacuation zones from 10 km to 30 km, Shiga Prefecture’s own research shows that simulated radiation plumes could extend as far as 43 km from the Tsuruga nuclear plant in nearby Fukui Prefecture, and they have set their zones accordingly. It is the first prefecture to do so.
Chubu Electric is postponing plans to being construction on a new reactor at its Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. The work was originally scheduled to begin in 2016, but in light of the public’s concerns about nuclear safety and lack of faith in the government’s stress tests, as well as new studies showing that the Hamaoka plant sits on a large fault line and is at significant risk of being struck by a major earthquake in the near future, the utility has shelved the project.
A group of scientists from Hiroshima University, Nagoya University, and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, among other institutions, have discovered two new, active faults that place the Tokai and Kanto regions (including Tokyo) at risk for earthquakes as powerful as magnitude 9.
Longtime diplomat and president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Sadako Ogata, is criticizing Japan’s efforts to export nuclear technology to other countries. “I wonder if it is appropriate to take technology that did not work well in one’s own nation to the outside world,” Ogata said.
A draft version of TEPCO’s business plan, formulated by the utility and the government’s Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, shows that Japan’s central government will assume two-thirds of TEPCO’s voting rights, including authority to choose outside board members and oversight of major decisions, such as mergers and management changes. In exchange, the government will inject more than a trillion yen ($12.1 billion) of public funds into TEPCO. The plan reportedly calls for breaking TEPCO into four companies, responsible for procuring, transmitting, and retailing power, as well as managing corporate affairs. In addition, the business plan stipulates that TEPCO will eventually provide consulting services to power companies in countries with emerging nuclear programs, in order to raise additional revenue.
Meanwhile, in light of the government’s recent decision to award six million yen to each victim of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster who is unable to return to his or her home for at least five years, TEPCO will request up to 900 billion additional yen from the government to cover compensation costs, bringing the total amount of government assistance to over 2 trillion yen. This amount does not include the 3 trillion yen injected into TEPCO to keep it afloat.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO is reporting that the results of an endoscopy into reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant show that water levels are far lower than previously thought. The utility had estimated that water in the reactor, which is required to keep melted fuel cool and prevent recriticality, was approximately three meters deep. In fact, it is only 60 cm deep. TEPCO insists that the fuel is not in danger of overheating, and continues to pump in nine tons of water every hour. However, experts say that the low water levels show that leaks in the containment vessel are far greater than previously thought, and may make repairing and decommissioning the crippled reactors even more difficult. TEPCO attempted an endoscopy in January, but the effort failed because the scope used was too short.
Researchers from Tokyo University’s Radioisotope Center are conducting a study on radioactivity in cedar pollen. Initial results confirm earlier hypotheses that radiation levels are low, and “so far, pollen does not seem to be a main source of [radioactive] cesium” when inhaled by humans. The average measurement was approximately 0.082 microsieverts per week, which is small. The Center will continue to gather samples through April 14, as pollen and allergy season continue.
Other Nuclear News
Leaders from 53 nations are convening this week in Seoul, South Korea at the second Nuclear Security Summit, in order to discuss how to protect nuclear power plants from terrorism and natural disasters. The Netherlands has been chosen to host the next Summit, in 2014.
The Metropolitan Council of Busan has submitted a unanimous recommendation to the President of South Korea, asking that the Kori nuclear power plant be permanently shut down. Last month, the plant chief at South Korea’s Kori Nuclear Power Plant, near Busan, intentionally ordered workers to conceal a significant power failure, raising questions about the safety of nuclear power in South Korea and the ability of its nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), to monitor reactors. Both external power sources and a backup generator failed. Plant officials did not report the incident for over a month, and only did so when a member of the Busan Assembly accidentally heard about it at a restaurant, and ordered an investigation into the matter. In addition, no emergency warning was issued to local residents, in spite of a legal obligation to do so.
Over 1,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators gathered to protest against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant last week, after a judge ordered that the State of Vermont could not prohibit the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from extending the plant’s 40-year license, which expired this week, by 20 years. More than 130 demonstrators were arrested, including a 93-year old woman. The Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, expressed frustration that the plant, which is owned and operated by Entergy Nuclear, has been allowed to stay open over the vehement objections of local residents: “I am very supportive of the peaceful protesters gathered today in Brattleboro to express their—and my—frustration that this aging plant remains open after its agreed-upon license has expired.”