(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 past Sunday, March 11, marked one year since the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster occurred in Japan. Greenpeace offers condolences and support to the victims, along with hopes for a nuclear-free future.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
This week marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan last March. In addition to a national moment of silence and ceremonies commemorating the victims, anti-nuclear demonstrations were held across Japan and around the world. In Koriyama, 16,000 people joined Nobel Prize Laureate and anti-nuclear crusader Kenzaburo Oe to protest the restart of nuclear reactors in Japan. In Tokyo, 14,000 people formed a human chain around the Japanese Parliament, demanding an end to nuclear power. And in Osaka, 15,000 anti-nuclear protesters gathered. More protests were held in Aichi, Aomori, Fukui, and Hokkaido Prefectures. Previously, demonstrations were uncommon in Japan. People protested in Europe, Canada, Asia, and the United States, as well. In France, where 80% of electricity comes from nuclear power, protesters formed a human chain along the River Rhone. Social media played a large part in organizing many of the demonstrations.
A year after the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan’s government has done little to improve safety at nuclear plants around the country, and no reforms have been made to curb cronyism between the power industry and government regulators. Efforts to separate the regulatory entity from that which promotes nuclear energy have stalled in Parliament, and a long-standing practice of allowing government officials to take high-level jobs with utilities after retirement continues. Although new regulations have been proposed to protect reactors from earthquakes and tsunami, including building seawalls and installing vents to prevent hydrogen explosions, plant operators have put few into place. Stress tests designed to establish plants safety have been criticized for being too lax.
The Japanese government has finally released a 76-page account of events that took place during 23 sometimes chaotic taskforce meetings in the days after the meltdowns occurred, through December 2011. The account was cobbled together from notes taken by meeting attendees, because no officials minutes were kept, in spite of a mandate to do so at all government meetings. Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) admitted, “We should have been prepared for an emergency by [providing a system] to tape-record meetings that take place in confusing situations, so the recordings could be used to create ex post facto minutes.” The notes show that officials were aware on the first day that a meltdown was likely, when at least one unidentified participant pointed out that possibility, but failed to alert the public of the danger. Government officials did not publicly admit that a meltdown occurred until June. In addition, the notes reveal that officials engaged in contentious debate about how far evacuation zones should extend and whether reactors should be vented to release accumulating radioactive steam. Unfortunately, the account, which was compiled after the fact, offers no insight into how decisions were made.
Greenpeace is criticizing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukio Amano’s pronouncement that “nuclear safety is stronger than it was a year ago. We know what went wrong and we have a clear course of action to tackle those causes—not only in Japan, but anywhere in the world.” Amano made the statement in spite of the fact that no conclusive reports on the causes of the Fukushima disaster have been released, including any fully studying the effects of the massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Jan Beránek, leader of Greenpeace International’s Energy Campaign, warned, “Industry and politicians around the world quickly conducted so-called stress tests, only to conclude that not a single reactor in the world is unsafe and needs to close. No doubt, even Fukushima Daiichi would have passed those tests.” Beránek added, the IAEA “even said that the main problem was how to restore public confidence [in nuclear power]—instead of looking into how to better protect people. This must change, or the next nuclear disaster is inevitable.”
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced on Sunday that he will personally take the lead in working to gain public approval for restarting idled nuclear reactors around the nation. Noda was speaking at a press conference on the anniversary of the disasters that took place last year, including the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Nuclear power production in Japan fell to a record low of 6.1% in the month of February, the lowest level since such record keeping began in 1977. In spite of the reduced production, Japan has not experienced blackouts or power loss, contrary to doomsday predictions by some nuclear industry insiders.
The head of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), Haruki Madarame, said that he will resign at the end of this month, even if the proposed Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA) is not yet established. The NSSA was originally supposed to begin operations in April, but the bill to create it has stalled in the Diet, where some members are questioning whether the agency will be independent enough to withstand influence from the nuclear industry.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Ukrainian Parliament Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn met this week to finalize a nuclear safety agreement, which will allow the two countries to share information in the case of a nuclear crisis. The Ukraine was the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
TEPCO will announce in March whether or not it will shut down all of its reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. That number includes reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where reactors #1 through #4 were damaged by the earthquake, tsunami, and hydrogen explosions last March, as well as all four reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant.
Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)
A study of residents living close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant shows that 80% showed evidence of exposure to radioactive iodine, and 8% were exposed to more than the international limit of 50 millisieverts per year. The highest exposure rate in adults was 87 millisieverts per year; the highest in children was 47 millisieverts. Exposure to radioactive iodine can cause thyroid cancer, and children are more susceptible to its effects. Fukushima Prefecture plans to conduct thyroid screenings on residents, but because of equipment shortages, that process may take decades to complete.
Officials in Fukushima Prefecture have banned rice growing on one-eighth of prefectural farms, affecting 10,500 hectares of land. Rice grown on an additional 4,000 hectares will be subject to conditional approval, pending submission of management plans and inspections of all bags of rice. The new regulations will become effective in April.
Officials from South Korea say that increasing numbers of seafood shipments from Japan are contaminated with radioactive cesium, although the levels are still below the international standard for radiation and no products have yet been banned. An official from South Korea’s Animal, Plant, Fisheries Quarantine and Inspection Agency noted, “The frequency of radiation detection appears to be rising as two reactors at the Fukushima plant are currently leaking radiation.”
A survey of kindergartens and pre-schools in Fukushima Prefecture reveals that 80% continue to restrict children’s time outdoors, in response to concerns about radiation exposure. Educators have raised concerns about children’s lack of physical activity, and consequently, increased stress levels.
Decontamination and Radioactive Waste Disposal
New estimates of debris from the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, much of it radioactive as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, place total amounts at 1,113,000 tons. The government continues to struggle with how and where to dispose of it.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono announced this week that nuclear waste will be stored in three towns in Fukushima Prefecture, probably for the next 30 years: Futaba, Okuma, and Naraha. Although the mayor of Naraha agreed to the plan, the move was met with vehement opposition from the mayors of Okuma and Futaba.
A survey of victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, conducted by the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, shows that 57% have not applied for compensation because they found the process too confusing, or think that the amount that TEPCO has agreed to pay for expenses and mental suffering—100,000 yen ($1,200)—is too low.
Other Nuclear News
In a draft of a yet-to-be-released report, officials from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have declared that a fire that broke out at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant near Omaha, Nebraska last June posed a serious safety threat. Although the plant is currently in shutdown status, the report points out that the fire could have easily occurred when it was active. The blaze occurred after workers incorrectly fitted an electrical breaker; grease built up around the breaker and then caught fire. Workers also ignored an odd odor, which could have led to discovery of the problem before the flames erupted. Smoke knocked out the plant’s backup generator, endangering cooling systems. Fort Calhoun, which is operated by Omaha Public Power District, has been cited with numerous safety issues, including failure of electrical equipment and inadequate protection against flooding.