(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.
This Sunday marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan, as well as when the ongoing nuclear disaster began. Greenpeace offers condolences and support to the victims, along with hopes for a successful reconstruction creating a nuclear-free future.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), reiterated this week that the government will be responsible for deciding whether nuclear reactors should be restarted at Kansai Electric’s Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) must first approve stress test results, but that could happen as early as Tuesday of next week—just two days after the one-year since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster began. Local officials have complained that stress tests are not an effective means of determining plant safety because the causes of the Fukushima disaster have yet to be determined.
Members of Japan’s parliament are expressing concerns about whether or not Japan’s proposed regulatory entity, the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA), can maintain independence from the nuclear industry. A bill to establish the new agency has become stalled, raising questions about whether or not the NSSA will be established in April, as originally scheduled.
A new survey conducted by Asahi and the Fukushima Broadcasting Company shows that 92% of Fukushima residents do not believe that the government has developed adequate plans to rebuild the prefecture, and distrust of the government is widespread. Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that the Fukushima plant was “under control” and in cold shut down status, 94% of residents do not believe him.
A different survey, conducted by NHK of 122 municipalities in 20 prefectures, reveals that 80% of towns that host or are near nuclear plants are reluctant to allow offline reactors to restart. Only 2% said they would approve resuming operations. Officials blamed distrust in the government and nuclear operators to ensure safety at the plants. The Mayor of Ohi, Shinobu Tokioka, noted, “After seeing what happened in Okuma, Futaba, and Iitate, we cannot just turn these things back on.”
Human Rights Watch is criticizing the Japanese government for failure to provide timely health checks and accurate information to residents of Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the nuclear disaster. Currently, 380,000 pregnant women and children are eligible for examinations to determine radiation exposure from last year’s nuclear meltdowns, when huge amounts of radioactive materials spewed into the air. But as of January, only 15,400 had been checked. Jane Cohen, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said, “A year on, we are really not seeing basic health services being offered in an accessible way, and we are not seeing accurate, consistent, non-contradictory information being disclosed to people on a regular basis.” Cohen added, “There should be a clear plan and place for testing for everyone in Fukushima for radiation.”
Researchers from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) Earthquake Research Committee have discovered that the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture is sitting on a 35 km active fault, and is at risk of a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, much higher than previously estimated. The fault is near several other smaller faults, and scientists believe that they could move in conjunction with one another in the event of a large quake. In addition, the epicenter is 10 km shallower than earlier thought. The shallower the epicenter, the more severe the earthquake. NISA officials said that if the data is confirmed, the Tsuruga plant could be shut down.
Nuclear experts from the US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have published a new report charging that the Japanese government and TEPCO could have prevented the Fukushima disaster if they had followed international safety measures for nuclear power plants.
Shareholders of TEPCO stock have filed a $67.4 billion (5.5 trillion yen) lawsuit against 27 current and former TEPCO executives, charging that they wilfully ignored data predicting a tsunami and failed to prepare the Fukushima Daiichi plant for disasters. The shareholders say that damages should be paid to TEPCO and subsequently used to compensate victims of the disaster. In the past, Japanese courts have ruled that executives can be held liable for damages, and the group hopes their action will give pause to directors at other nuclear power companies who could be held similarly responsible. Hiroyuki Kawai, an attorney for the complainants, said, “This could be very effective in halting reactor restarts. Directors of other utilities may have a sense of crisis that they could lose their own homes if they carelessly restart reactors and see another accident.”
The Mayor of Futaba submitted a bill to TEPCO this week for $211 million dollars to cover costs of damaged buildings and property. He said that the town will invoice the utility for evacuation costs later. Futaba is the first town to demand payment from TEPCO.
METI Minister Yukio Edano has ordered TEPCO to stop lobbying politicians and government bureaucrats in an effort to influence how the utility will be restructured.
Catastrophic meltdown at the spent fuel pool at reactor #4 was avoided last year only by chance and a botched job by TEPCO workers. When power was lost at the plant, water in the pool began to evaporate from the fuel’s extreme heat. By chance, a reactor well located above the spent fuel pool was filled with water as part of maintenance work that was scheduled to be completed by March 7, but was delayed because of workers had brought the wrong size tool. In addition, a separator gate between the reactor well and spent fuel pool was left open by chance. When the earthquake and tsunami struck, approximately 1,000 tons of water flowed from the reactor well into the spent fuel pool, preventing meltdown.
Scientists at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency plan to study melted fuel samples from the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster to determine the best way to remove melted fuel from the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Experts caution that the situation at the Fukushima reactors is far more dire. The Idaho National Laboratory, part of the United States Department of Energy, donated the samples to Japan in 1991 as part of an international study project.
TEPCO will begin using a new robot, called Survey Runner, to determine conditions at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Survey Runner’s creator, Topy Industries, said that the robot is equipped with cameras and radiation monitors; is smaller and more agile than Quince II, the robot currently being used to explore the reactor buildings; and has the ability to navigate narrow, wet stairways.
TEPCO reported this week that it will construct a cover for reactor #4, as part of efforts to remove 1,535 fuel rods from the spent fuel pool there. In addition, the utility will install a crane to assist with removal efforts.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
A group of Japanese researchers say that radiation is continuing to leak into the sea from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. The scientists have been studying oceanic cesium levels near the plant, and say that radiation levels in the water are declining slower than they should be.
Decontamination and Radioactive Waste Disposal
A year after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan’s central government has begun decontamination of roads inside the evacuation zone. The government is expected to announce new zoning guidelines, based on radiation levels, later this month.
Other Nuclear News
A federal administrative court in Switzerland has ruled that the Muehleberg nuclear power plant must close by 2013 as a result of security and safety concerns. The move is a victory for local residents, who had protested a previous government decision to keep the plant open. The aging power plant uses the same Mark-I containment as was in Fukushima Daiichi.The ruling read, in part, “The state of the nuclear shell, the assessment of the plant’s resistance to withstand earthquakes which is not complete, and lacking cooling possibilities independent of the Aare River allow operations of Muehleberg only up to mid-2013 at the most.” The operator, however, can still appeal.
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is moving too slowly to enact safety regulations for nuclear plants in the US, which are “vulnerable to…severe natural disasters. Similarly serious conditions could be created by a terrorist attack.” Twenty-three reactors in the US share the same design as the reactors at the Fukushima plant, which experienced total meltdowns. The group said that monitoring equipment at American plants cannot withstand disasters, and operators have no contingency plans for dealing with more than one reactor melting down simultaneously. Meanwhile, Gregory Jaczko, Chair of the NRC, has admitted that a plan to upgrade safety at the 104 nuclear reactors in the US is already behind schedule, and the Commission may not meet its five-year deadline. Jaczko said, “There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.”
A new poll conducted by the non-profit, non-partisan Civil Society Institute shows that Americans are 57% less supportive of nuclear power than they were a year ago, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Seventy-seven percent support “using clean renewable energy resources—such as wind and solar—and increased energy efficiency as an alternative to more nuclear power in the United States.”