(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.
Greenpeace has released a new report, “Lessons from Fukushima,” detailing the myth of nuclear safety and the failure of institutions designed to regulate the nuclear industry. Read it here.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Noshihiko Noda has admitted that the Japanese government shares blame with TEPCO for the Fukushima nuclear disaster that occurred last March, after the nation’s regulatory system failed. Last week, an independent panel said that the disaster was man-made. However, in spite of that admission, Noda is continuing to push for the restart of some of the nation’s reactors, and tacitly acknowledged that the decision will not be based solely on science or technology; rather, “in the end, restarting the reactors will come down to a political decision.”
Newly discovered internal documents from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) reveal that then-Minister Yoshiaki Takaki and other high-ranking officials were responsible for the decision to withhold information from the public about the spread of radiation, in the days immediately following the hydrogen explosions and nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The memo, which was discussing the nation’s System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), said that the data “could by no means be released to the public,” in spite of the fact that officials believed that all radioactive material could possibly be discharged from the crippled reactors.
Haruki Madarame, Chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) announced this week that he will resign from his post when the country’s new regulatory entity, the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA) is established in April. An independent investigative report, released last week, roundly criticized Madarame for his actions during the days following the nuclear meltdowns.
A subcommittee of the NSC has drafted new guidelines for nuclear power plants with regard to tsunamis caused by earthquakes, volcanoes, and massive mudslides. The safety guidelines, which previously contained only two sentences about tsunamis, have not been revised since 2006. The NSC is recommending that plant operators protect plants from flooding and ensure that cooling equipment will remain operational even if external power is lost.
Reporters toured a failed offsite emergency response center near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster this week. The center, located 5 km from the Daiichi plant, was designed to serve as a hub for TEPCO officials to monitor a disaster, and for central and local government officials to monitor radiation levels and oversee evacuation efforts. However, radiation levels inside the center, which had never been fitted with radiation filters, measured 200 microsieverts per hour, making it impossible for humans to enter the building. Because of power loss, monitoring and communication equipment was rendered useless. In addition, the earthquake and tsunami prevented officials from being able to access the building. Four days after the meltdowns occurred, TEPCO and government officials finally opened a second center, 60 km away.
TEPCO, which is finalizing a business plan that it will present to Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) later this month, will reportedly impose a 17% increase in power rates for businesses and other large-scale users beginning in April, and will ask Edano to approve a 10% increase in rates for homeowners, expected to take effect in July. In the past, TEPCO overcharged its customers by a whopping 618.6 billion yen over the course of a decade. Many companies are expressing concern about the large increase and are questioning how the utility reached those numbers. In responding to a survey of business owners, Japan Tobacco Inc. said, “There is no standard by which to judge whether the rate hike ranges are appropriate.” TEPCO said that it is working to reduce expenses and will attempt to reduce personnel costs, although last summer, a government panel pointed out that that its expenses in that area far exceeded those of other companies in the same field.
Three major Japanese banks are reportedly preparing to finalize loan offers to TEPCO, after receiving requests from the state-sponsored Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund to do so. However, sources say that the banks will only guarantee the loans if TECO increases its rates and restarts at least some of its nuclear reactors. Many municipal officials are hesitant to grant permission for the restarts—and some are refusing to do so outright—because of ongoing concerns about the safety of nuclear power.
TEPCO may stop purchasing carbon dioxide emissions credits over the course of the next decade, in spite of the fact that it is the Japan’s largest emitter, as a result of financial difficulties stemming from the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Analysts say that the move could have significant effects on Japan’s efforts to cope with global warming.
TEPCO said it plans to insert a new temperature gauge into reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after one of the thermometers there failed. The utility plans to send the thermometer through a pipe, so that temperatures at the bottom of the reactor can be measured. However, because the pipe is angled and has several bends, officials say they may encounter some difficulties. TEPCO said that 12 of 59 temperature gauges in reactor #2 are out of order. Although the utility routinely examined equipment every 13 months before the nuclear disaster, high radiation levels mean that workers may not be able to access the inside of reactors for up to a decade, raising questions about the long-term effectiveness of monitoring fuel conditions.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
Japan’s Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry is revising guidelines for workers tasked with rebuilding roads and other infrastructure in areas near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, where radiation levels remain very high. The regulations will establish radiation limits, rules for using dosimeters, and ban eating and drinking by laborers while they are working, in order to reduce internal radiation exposure.
Decontamination and Radioactive Waste Disposal
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced this week that the central government will provide financial incentives to cities and towns that agree to accept debris from the earthquake and tsunami. A year after the disasters occurred, only 5% of the debris has been disposed of, because residents in many areas fear that the waste is radioactive. Noda said that if needed, government representatives will travel to the disposal sites in order to talk with residents. However, most municipalities have so far been very reluctant to accept shipments of the debris.
Other Nuclear News
Experts are expressing concern about plans to increase the number of nuclear reactors in Vietnam, where corruption is widespread and the nation has a poor safety record overall. Hien Pham Duy, former director of the country’s Dalat Nuclear Research Institute, has raised concerns about the country’s ability to adequately regulate a rapidly burgeoning nuclear industry. He said that Viet Nam’s nuclear plans are predicated on a “lack of vigorous assessment of the inherent problems of nuclear power, especially those arising in less developed countries.” Much of the technology required to increase nuclear power there will come from Japan, a decision that many Japanese people have criticized in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hien mused, “I don’t understand why Japan is striving to export to less developed countries something it’s rejected at home.”
French nuclear reactor maker Areva reported that it will post a $3.2 billion loss for 2011, and expects to lay off 1,500 workers in Germany. Company officials blame the loss on a depressed nuclear market in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, as well as problems with a uranium mine in Africa.
Two members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), including Chairman Gregory Jaczko, have voted to approve an NRC staff plan to upgrade nuclear safety efforts at US plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Proposed requirements include ensuring adequate power supplies in case of blackouts, preparing for floods, and making sure that spent fuel pools have appropriate equipment to measure temperature and determine the status of fuel in an emergency. The proposed timeline for the plan allows nuclear operators to prepare technical proposals by 2013, and put the upgrades into place by the end of 2016. Jaczko said, “The rapidly approaching one-year anniversary of the tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident in Japan is a poignant reminder of the importance of our work for nuclear safety in the United States.” Critics contend that the five-year timeframe is far too long, and puts residents who live near the reactors at risk.