Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

The Noda Administration and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will reportedly change their stance and compromise with opposition groups New Komeito and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in order to speed approval for legislation to create a new nuclear regulatory agency. The DPJ hopes that Diet discussions on the issue can begin as early as May 18. Government legislation proposed placing the new agency under the auspices of the Environment Ministry, including control of its budget and personnel, but opposition parties are pushing for an entity with far more independence. Under their proposal, the safety agency would be an independent regulatory commission guaranteed autonomy under Article 3 of Japan’s National Government Organization Act.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced this week that he may ultimately order the restart of the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, even if no regulatory agency has been established to monitor safety there. Currently, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) oversees nuclear power regulation, a decision widely criticized both domestically and internationally since NISA is under the purview of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which promotes nuclear power. Experts consider that arrangement to have directly contributed to numerous problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Noda was cavalier and seemingly dismissive of the safety concerns of local residents, saying, “I could make the decision without waiting for the agency,” whose legislation is stalled in the Diet.

A group of 66 municipal leaders in Japan has formally petitioned METI to permanently abandon nuclear energy and decommission all of the nation’s reactors. The leaders say that ongoing concerns about the dangers of nuclear power motivated their request.

In yet another reminder of the hidden costs of nuclear power, Tokyo’s efforts to secure the 2020 Olympic Games have been seriously hindered by ongoing European concerns about radiation levels within and outside of Japan’s capital. In addition, many are criticizing the Japanese government’s slogan of “national rebuilding” as an effort to capitalize on tragedy, saying that the 7.5 billion yen price tag would be better spent on reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. A decision will be made in 2013 at a gathering of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Argentina.

The vast majority of governors overseeing prefectures near the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, which is operated by Chubu Electric, oppose its restart, according to a survey conducted by the Mainichi Daily News. Seven of eight governors queried, who govern areas within 150 km of the plant, expressed concerns about the plant’s safety. The Hamaoka plant lies on a major fault zone and is at high risk for a catastrophic earthquake, as well as a potentially large tsunami. Kanagawa Governor Yuji Kurosawa said, “Unless there is a guarantee of sufficient safety, consent [for restarting the plant] will not be given.” In addition to Kanagawa, the survey included Tokyo, Yamanashi, Shizuoka, Nagano, Aichi, Gifu, and Mie Prefectures.

In the meantime, a group in Shizuoka Prefecture is gathering signatures to force a public referendum on whether the Hamaoka plant should be allowed to operate again in light of ongoing safety concerns. The group needs to gather at least 62,000 valid signatures by July 11 to push the referendum forward.

Numerous publishers have submitted requests for updates to high school textbooks to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), in order to add information about last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and the “myth of safety” pertaining to nuclear power. Previously in Japan, the government legally required that textbooks paint positive views of nuclear power.

A citizens’ group attempting to force a referendum on the use of nuclear power in TEPCO’s service area, including Tokyo, has submitted 323,076 signatures to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, reflecting widespread concern about the safety of nuclear power and its long-term future. The Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, is expected to oppose the referendum when the metropolitan assembly convenes in June, citing the expense of a vote and concerns about lack of alternatives to nuclear power. The issue is expected to play a large role in 2013 assembly elections.

Similarly, another organization plans to organize a call for a referendum against restarting TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture this summer.

TEPCO

TEPCO is reporting an almost $10 billion net loss (781.1 billion yen) for fiscal year 2011, which ended in March.

President of TEPCO, Toshio Nishizawa, submitted a formal request to the government last week for an average 10.28% rate increase for residential users. The proposal included a so-called “peak shift plan.” Depending on how much each household uses, power rates would go up by 4%, 10%, and 20%, with those using the least electricity paying the lowest rates. However, basic rates and other fees would also increase for all users, and peak afternoon rates could increase by as much as 30%.The utility is struggling to pay astronomical costs associated with compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and decommissioning four crippled reactors there, as well as increased expenses for thermal fuel generation, and is attempting to pass those costs on to its customers. The government will reportedly review the request while assessing TEPCO’s fuel and personnel costs. News of the potential rate hike has been met with bitter opposition from consumers.

Tsunehisa Katsumata, the current TEPCO Chairman who is being pushed out and will soon be replaced by Kazuhiku Shimokobe, complained this week that former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s interference the day after the nuclear crisis began last March, including insistence that he deal directly with Plant Chief Masao Yoshida, adversely affected the utility’s ability to deal with the growing disaster. Katsumata was being questioned by a Diet panel investigating the nuclear crisis.

TEPCO announced that it will not grant its employees summer bonuses this year, for the first time in the company’s history. However, officials still have not made a decision on whether or not they will receive winter bonuses, in spite of the fact that the company posted a $9.8 billion loss this week and just accepted $12 billion more in government bailout funds as well as $13 billion in loans. Those figures bring the total amount to $45 billion in aid so far. Experts at the Japan Center for Economic Research currently estimate that decommissioning and compensation costs of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster could ultimately top $250 billion. Analysts predict that investors may begin to pull out if the company’s outlook does not improve significantly.

TEPCO has named Fumio Sudo, the Chairman of the Board of Governors at Japan’s public television corporation, NHK, as a new outside director of the Board of the ailing utility. Under normal circumstances, Japanese Broadcast Law prevents NHK governors from accepting other posts, which might present a conflict of interest. However, a loophole provides an exception for Sudo, because he is only a part-time governor. Although the NHK Board of Governors does not directly oversee news coverage, its members do the station’s Managing Director, who manages news and editorial content. Many are concerned that NHK will lose its objectivity in reporting about TEPCO and its ongoing problems, including safety concerns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

TEPCO has also named Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, Presidents of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation, to the Board of Directors. Both appointments are expected to be confirmed at TEPCO’s general shareholders’ meeting in June.

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

The Oi Municipal Assembly in Fukui Prefecture has voted to restart reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi Power Plant, in spite of widespread local opposition to the plan and significant concerns about reactor safety. Some members cited worries about the local economy. In March 2010 alone, the town received over $31 million (2.5 billion yen) in subsidies in connection to its agreement to host reactors at the Kansai plant. The decision now moves to Oi Mayor Shinobu Tokioka, who is expected to grant approval this week. A final decision will be made by Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa. Nishikawa has urged the government to gain the consent of the governors of nearby Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, although those leaders have expressed grave concerns about granting their approval before a final report has been issued on the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and a new, more independent nuclear regulatory agency has been established in Japan.

In the meantime, eight of 11 nearby municipalities within 30 km of the Oi reactors say they oppose restarting the idled reactors, out of concerns for residents’ safety and worries about contamination of nearby land and drinking water, according to a survey conducted last week by Asahi. Many of those cities and towns receive no funding or other financial benefits from the nuclear industry for hosting the plants, but would be in significant danger in case of a nuclear accident.Distrust of the central government’s safety assurances continues to grow. Toyoji Terao, the Mayor of Kyotamba, noted, “It cannot be said that the government has conducted sufficient verification of the supply and demand situation for electricity, which will serve as the basis for the people to judge. The [government’s] supply of information is also insufficient.”

Japan’s government plans to institute a voluntary 15% power saving measures this summer, which it says will avoid blackouts in the Kansai region. The plan assumes that the Oi reactors remain idle, and four nearby power operators provide Kansai with surplus electricity. Discussions are still taking place regarding whether or not to make those cuts mandatory for large-lot users.

Contamination

Researchers from Fukushima University plan to attach special collars containing dosimeters and GPS devices to monkeys in the forests of Fukushima Prefecture, in order to determine radiation levels there. Scientists will issue a signal designed to release the collars approximately two weeks later, and then collect them. They hope to map radiation levels in the area, as well as determine the effects of contamination on wildlife.

Scientists from the Forestry and Forest Products Institute (FFPRI) have discovered high levels of radioactive cesium in rats in Fukushima Prefecture, and say that those levels reflect the atmospheric radiation levels of the areas where they were captured. Because rats and humans react to radiation in similar ways, researchers say that the research is significant and should be studied further.

A group of 26 farmers in Kawauchi, located just 20 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, have begun to plant rice as part of a study to determine whether or not radioactive cesium will continue to contaminate crops there. The local government voluntarily asked most farmers not to plant rice this year, but they hope to do so again at some point in the future. Rice gathered in the study will be tested and then discarded.

For the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster last March, schools in Fukushima Prefecture held seasonal sporting festivals outdoors. Previous festivals were cancelled or held inside because high radiation levels prevented children from being allowed to play outdoors. However, many school officials made adjustments to schedules in order to prevent the children from engaging in activities where they would touch the ground, for example, during tug-of-war. More than a year later, some areas are still radioactive and considered unsafe.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

A new survey conducted by The Daily Yomiuri shows that the population of former evacuation zones within 20 km of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has been reduced by almost half, leaving many concerned about whether those municipalities will ever recover. Although the zone was reopened to residents seven months ago, only 2,200 residents have returned; approximately 30,000 evacuated last Spring. Former residents blame concerns about high radiation levels, fear of unemployment, and lack of desire to once again uproot their children as reasons for their failure to return. 

In another example of far-reaching effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has released new employment figures for Fukushima Prefecture, revealing that 20% of victims of the nuclear crisis and earthquake are either not employed or are no longer looking for work, even though their unemployment benefits have expired. Many say they are uncertain if or when they will return to their homes, and are hesitant to take jobs in areas if they will not remain there permanently. One ministry official conceded, “In Fukushima Prefecture, it still remains unclear how areas designated for evacuation orders will be reorganized and how quickly decontamination work will proceed. This has apparently made it difficult for many disaster victims to plan their futures.”

Other Nuclear News

The US Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) will subject Dominion Power’s North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia to additional oversight, after a gasket failure was discovered following last August’s magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Although the gasket, whose failure was unrelated to the earthquake, was replaced, the NRC determined that the utility had failed to institute sufficient procedures. Dominion Power officials said that they will not protest the ruling.

Southern Company, operator of two reactors scheduled to be built at the Vogtle power station near Augusta, GA, has announced that construction plans are already $900 million over budget, just three months after its contract was approved by the NRC. The overall cost of the reactors, which are being heavily subsidized by taxpayer money and government-guaranteed loans, is estimated at $14 billion.