Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Last week, a third-party panel of external experts appointed by TEPCO and led by former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Dale Klein, released a report accepting responsibility for the Fukushima nuclear disaster as well as approving a TEPCO-created plan for reforms at the utility. Reversing the company’s earlier claims that the disaster was entirely caused by the March 2011 tsunami, the panel said that emphasis on the economic bottom line, rather than safety, led to failures at the plant. “Our safety culture, skills, and ability were all insufficient. We must humbly accept our failure to prevent the accident, which we should have avoided by using our wisdom and human resources to be better prepared,” admitted TEPCO President Naomi Hirose.
The report said that TEPCO will establish an internal supervising unit to monitor safety compliance, pay more attention to risk management, and communicate more effectively with the public. Some analysts have criticized the company, saying that the reversal is simply an effort to gain local approval for restarting its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors in Niigata Prefecture, on which the utility is depending to return to financial solvency. Hirose has denied those assertions, and said that TEPCO is trying to prevent another disaster. But last month’s equipment failure at the plant, in which cooling functions at spent fuel pools housing 8,800 nuclear fuel assemblies were lost for more than 29 hours after a rodent chewed through wires, has many experts questioning whether the utility can truly manage functions at the crippled reactors. “We learned that it only takes one rat, not even an earthquake or tsunami, to paralyze the plant,” said Yukihiro Higashi, a professor at Iwaki Meisei University who sits on a Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) panel responsible for overseeing safety at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Higashi added, “People in Fukushima are under constant fear of another serious accident that requires evacuation.”
More than two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, TEPCO just this week began to distribute claims forms to victims who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses in the no-entry zone, and are now eligible to claim the value of those properties. Approximately 50,000 households located in 11 municipalities are affected, and damages may reach as high as $7.6 billion. TEPCO apologized for taking so long to begin the compensation process. (Source: NHK)
In a speech to a Diet budget committee, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted this week that restarting reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as four reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daiini plant, located approximately 10 km from the site of the nuclear disaster, is unlikely as a result of strong local opposition to the plan. Fukushima officials have declared that the prefecture will become completely nuclear free, but TEPCO has so far refused to officially announce plans for decommissioning the six reactors.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO has resumed testing of its advanced liquid processing system (ALPS), which the utility says will filter the majority of radioactive substances from water used to cool crippled reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, unlike earlier purification systems, which were riddled with technical difficulties and failures. However, the new system does not remove radioactive tritium. Experts estimate that 230,000 tons of water being stored in tanks at the Fukushima compound are contaminated with hundred of trillions of becquerels of tritium. If tests are successful, officials said that the new system will begin operating in approximately four months. Last month, TEPCO said it wants to dump massive amounts of cooling water into the ocean, but local fisheries cooperatives have raised strong opposition to the plan. The utility previously released low-level radioactive water into the ocean in 2011, a move that prompted significant international criticism.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
A recent report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) reveals that Japanese utilities are spending 1.2 trillion yen per year in personnel, depreciation, and maintenance costs for 48 idled reactors around the country, despite the fact that no electricity is being produced while they are offline—and those costs are being passed along to consumers via their electricity bills. Ministry officials did not break down how much each of the nation’s nine utilities is spending in upkeep costs to maintain the offline reactors.
Anti-nuclear activists are celebrating a decision by Tohoku Electric Power Company to scrap plans for building a nuclear power plant in Namie and Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture. Namie town officials originally signed an agreement with Tohoku Power to build the reactor just 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1967. Nuclear opponents protested the decision, but many residents were swayed by money being funneled into nearby towns by the nuclear power industry, including TEPCO. “Initially, most of the residents who owned land on the planned site opposed the project. [But] opponents almost disappeared because we saw, under our nose, how those towns prospered,” said Sakae Ishida, a Namie resident who protested the plant’s construction but eventually agreed to sell his farm to Tohoku. Since the Fukushima disaster, public opposition to nuclear power has grown significantly, and in 2011, both Namie and Minamisoma passed resolutions formally opposing the plant. Last week, Tohoku finally relented and reversed its plans for construction, admitting that local anti-nuclear opposition led to its decision. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is continuing to push for construction of new reactors in Japan, as well as restarting reactors idled since the Fukushima disaster. Power companies have submitted plans for 11 new reactors, with construction already begun on three.
Last Friday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in order to peacefully protest nuclear power and commemorate the one-year anniversary of the first weekly gathering. Since March 29, 2011, the group has gathered every Friday, for a total of 48 times. The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (MCAN) organized the protests.
Contamination and Other Long Term Effects of the Nuclear Disaster
In yet another example of the long-ranging effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, economists report that more than two years after the crisis first began to unfold, the market for vegetables harvested from Fukushima Prefecture has virtually collapsed, as a result of fear of high radiation levels in food and lack of public confidence in government regulations and monitoring. One Tokyo vegetable dealer noted, “There are no takers even now. Some supermarkets in Western Japan don’t accept them at all, and there are no deals.”
Evacuation and Repopulation
This week, the government reclassified the town of Namie into three zones and allowed evacuees whose homes are in zone one (“areas being prepared for lifting of evacuation orders”) and zone two (residency restriction areas) to return for day trips to collect possessions and clean. Residents are still forbidden from staying overnight because of high annual radiation levels, which in some areas are as high as 50 millisieverts. Those who lived in the third zone, comprising approximately 17% of the population, are still forbidden from returning home; experts estimate that those areas will be off-limits until at least 2017, and possibly longer. Municipal officials said that they hope to decontaminate zones one and two and reestablish infrastructure within the next four years, at which point residents could potentially return for good. However, analysts point out that delays in decontamination and lack of storage sites for radioactive waste mean that it may take far longer. Namie was home to 21,000 residents before the nuclear disaster; all were forced to evacuate and have been living away from their homes for over two years. Earlier this month, cooling functions in spent fuel pools were halted at the Fukushima Daiichi plant for more than 29 hours, after a rat chewed through wires and caused a blackout. Despite re-zoning and government promises to decontaminate and rebuild, many say that they are afraid to return.