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
TECPO officials report that they have disconnected all equipment from a switchboard that was disabled by a rat last week, leading to loss of cooling functions for more than 29 hours at four of seven spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those spent fuel pools are home to 8,800 nuclear fuel assemblies that could melt down if allowed to overheat. The rat was electrocuted after running across cables on the switchboard, which had been sitting on a truck outdoors since March 2001 and was also exposed to the elements. The incident elicited significant international criticism and highlighted TEPCO’s lax handling of the crippled reactors and critical safety equipment, more than two years after a massive nuclear disaster that led to three core meltdowns. The utility said that cooling functions have now been connected to switchboards in indoor, rat-proof locations.
This week, TEPCO expanded areas eligible for compensation for loss of profits as a result of contamination fears, as well as costs of radiation testing, to Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. Producers, processors, and distributors working in the forest, fisheries, and agricultural sectors will be eligible. Six other prefectures, including Fukushima, are already eligible for such compensation.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced this week that it plans to launch an investigation into the root causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which resulted in three core meltdowns in March 2011. In addition, panel members will explore the total amount of radiation that leaked from the plant during the meltdowns, several hydrogen explosions, and their aftermath. Previous investigations, while laying blame on the government, TEPCO, and the nuclear industry for poor crisis management, lax attention to safety, and collusion, have been unable to determine whether the nuclear crisis was caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake or a subsequent tsunami, as TEPCO has long insisted. “Nobody has inspected the site very closely and we still have to sort out a lot of technical questions that remain unresolved. We have conflicting views, particularly about how the earthquake impacted key safeguard equipment, a key question that needs to be addressed,” said Tetsuo Omura, an NRA regulator. If, in fact, the reactors suffered damage from the earthquake, the discovery will have significant and long-ranging ramifications for reactors nationwide, in a country riddled with seismic faults. The investigation, which is the first effort that the NRA made to determine the role the earthquake played in the disaster, will begin in April, although the agency cautions that high radiation levels at the plant mean that it could drag on for decades. In the meantime, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing hard to restart reactors in Japan, despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
For the first time, Google Street View has enabled online virtual touring of the town of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture, where 21,000 former residents were forced to evacuate their homes and their lives in the wake of the nuclear disaster. This is the first mapping project that Google has conducted in the no-entry zone, off limits because of exceedingly high radiation levels. Two years after the crisis first began to unfold, Namie is essentially a nuclear ghost town, marked by debris from the tsunami, empty homes and shops, abandoned schools, and a ship dragged in from the coast which now sits by a road. Many residents who fear that they will never be able to return to their homes have welcomed the opportunity to see the town they were unexpectedly forced to flee. Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba noted, “Those of us in the older generation feel that we received this town from our forebears, and we feel great pain that we cannot pass it down to our children. We want this Street View imagery to become a permanent record of what happened to Namie in the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.” The virtual tour can be accessed at Google Street View: Namie
Bowing to public anti-nuclear pressure, Tohoku Electric Power Company, which has had plans in place to build a new nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture since 1968, announced this week that it is abandoning its plans to construct the so-called Namie-Odaka plant. Tohoku President Makoto Kaiwa admitted that building new reactors just 10 km from the site of the Fukushima disaster would be inappropriate; many evacuees from the area have still not been given permission to return to their homes.
The Federation of Electric Power Companies reports that Japanese nuclear power providers are storing a combined 26.5 tons of fissile plutonium both domestically and abroad, but because all but two of the nation’s nuclear reactors are currently offline, they have no current plans to use it. The announcement is sure to garner negative responses from the international community, which has pointed out that if terrorists obtain plutonium, they can use it to make nuclear weapons. The group was delivering a report to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC).
Meanwhile, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Vice Chair of the JAEC, said that the nation needs to rethink spent fuel reprocessing, and not do so unless it knows how it will use the extracted plutonium. During that process, plutonium is removed from spent fuel and can then theoretically used to make mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). However, the process is both expensive and has been fraught with technical difficulties, and has never been successful in Japan. “Under the current sequence, first a reprocessing plan is submitted and then where to use the plutonium is considered…and that leads to an increase in [plutonium] stocks,” Suzuki said.
A group of 40 nuclear scientists and specialists appointed by The Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ) to study the causes of the Fukushima disaster has published an interim report, but it reached no new conclusions about the disaster. However, an AESJ survey of current executives and former members shows that many now believe that they had too much faith in the nuclear industry—some using the word arrogant—and admit that they were hesitant to question large power suppliers.
Contamination and Other Long Term Effects of the Nuclear Disaster
A new study conducted by the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) and presented to a meeting of the Japanese Society of Fisheries Science reveals that rock shells, a univalve mollusk common along the coast of Japan, have virtually disappeared from a 30 km stretch along the Fukushima coast, including the area that is home to the doomed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Scientists say that the March 2011 tsunami was probably not enough to decimate the rock shell population there and suspect that radiation may have contributed to destroying their habitat, but have not yet been able to confirm that hypothesis. Toshiro Horiguchi, head researcher at NIES, noted, “It will be necessary to conduct culture experiments to study how radioactive materials affect the habitat of rock shells.”
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Tokyo shows that elderly residents at nursing care facilities in Minamisoma who were forced to evacuate after the Fukushima nuclear disaster were 2.7 times more likely to die if their evacuation center lacked heat and did not provide lunch over the course of a week. In many evacuation sites, people were unable to use heaters because they drew radioactive air inside. Shuhei Nomura, who led the study, said, “It’s Tohoku, so it must have been really freezing. I believe that they lost their physical strength at that time.”
And, in another example of the far-reaching effects of the nuclear disaster, officials from the Torikawa Nursery School in Fukushima City said that 43% of children aged 3 to 5 at the school are showing signs of flat footedness, a three-fold increase from before the nuclear crisis began. School officials attribute the rise to less outdoor exercise, including walking, because areas near the school remain radioactive, although the schoolyard has finally been decontaminated. Flat footedness can lead to fatigue and impedes the body’s ability to absorb impact.
Scandals and Collusion Within the Nuclear Power Industry
In a long-standing, ongoing scandal, Kyushu Electric Power Company has admitted to ordering 150 employees to attend a public townhall-style meeting on nuclear power in Saga in 2005, in order to sway the results. Records show that the Kyushu employees comprised 83% of the meeting’s audience and contributed more than 50% of the public comments, including “Nuclear power is needed to maintain standards of living” and “There is no solution to the energy problem other than nuclear power.” This newest scandal follows revelations last year that in 2011, employees were ordered to submit emails expressing support for nuclear power to a television show designed to measure public opinion on the issue. Former Kyushu President Toshio Manabe was forced to resign in the wake of that scandal; the company’s Chairman was also forced to step down.
The Mainichi Daily News has uncovered new information showing that Kansai Electric Power Company (known as KEPCO) paid more than 20 million yen per year to fund a pro-nuclear non-profit organization, Josei Shokuno Shudan WARP-LEENET, whose mission is ostensibly to provide educational lectures to housewives, but whose actions clearly promote nuclear power. For instance, women who signed up for cooking classes were invited to lectures on nuclear power. Those on a bus tour were taken to nuclear plants in Fukui Prefecture. KEPCO covers nearly half of the group’s annual operating budget. Chiiko Inouye, the organization’s spokesman, said, “The funding might be cut [as a result of these revelations] and if that happens, we won’t be able to hold the lectures.”
A non-profit organization, ASCA Energy Forum, which was founded by JAEC Commissioner Etsuko Akiba, has been awarded a no-competition, sole-source contract for a large waste disposal project worth 140 million yen over six years. The project was awarded by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO); when the project was first introduced, Akiba sat on a subcommittee of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy’s Advisory Committee, and supported the introduction of the waste disposal project. Last week, nuclear power companies (including TEPCO) and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan admitted that they paid a collective 18 million yen after the Fukushima disaster, including approximately 10 million yen from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) to promote public acceptance of nuclear waste disposal. Akiba has refused to comment.