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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

A panel of seismic experts from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has determined that a fault running directly beneath Japan Atomic Power Company’s (JAPC) Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture is active, which means that the reactor will almost certainly never go online again. It is the first time since the March 2011 nuclear disaster that a reactor has been declared unsafe to operate (not counting the Fukushima reactors, which were damaged in triple nuclear meltdowns as well as hydrogen explosions in March 2011). The NRA will make a formal decision on the reactor’s future next week, on May 22. A second reactor at the plant, also currently offline, is 43 years old and will probably be decommissioned because of its age and pending NRA rules that will declare nuclear reactors older than 40 years inoperable except under special circumstances. JAPC also owns two reactors at the Tokai nuclear power plant, but one was decommissioned in 1998, and local opposition to restarting the second one remains strong. Ultimately, the company could be forced to declare bankruptcy. JAPC is claiming that the decision is premature and inaccurate. They claim that the fault, which sits near two other fault lines, is not active, nor are those that are located nearby.

The financial implications of the Tsuruga closure are immense and could cast ripples across the entire nuclear power industry. JAPC is owned by several regional utilities, including TEPCO (the largest shareholder, with 28.23% stock), Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), Chubu Electric, Hokuriku Electric, Tohoku Electric, Electric Power Development Company (widely known as J-Power in Japan), and Chugoku Electric Power Company. The utilities have jointly pledged to support JAPC financially through next April. However, KEPCO, Chubu Electric, Hokuriku, and Tohoku are responsible for guaranteeing JAPC’s debts, which currently total approximately 100 billion yen. Moreover, analysts say that if the company folds, decommissioning and costs of storing or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel could grow significantly, placing the financial health of the shareholding utilities in jeopardy, during a time when they are already struggling themselves. “There is a possibility that the power companies will have to shoulder a total of 500 to 700 billion yen,” admitted one government official. Utilities are reportedly imploring the government to provide assistance, but have not been successful so far. In the meantime, the public is growing angry at having such costs past along to them in the form of electricity rate increases.

In other news, the NRA said this week that the Monju fast-breeder reactor, which is located in Fukui Prefecture and is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), is being shut down for the time being, as a result of egregious safety violations. Last summer, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA, which has since been disbanded and replaced by the NRA) discovered that JAEA had failed to conduct safety checks on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some considered critical to nuclear safety. The shutdown will probably extend into the new year.

The incident prompted NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka to deride JAEA and its president, Atsuyuki Suzuki, for a lax safety culture. An NRA statement said, “The Japan Atomic Energy Agency cannot sufficiently secure the safety of Monju. We see deterioration in its safety culture.” Tanaka added that Suzuki has provided poor leadership and did not prioritize safety. Suzuki has been cavalier about the charges, saying that some of the errors were unavoidable. The NRA’s strong response is considered rare in a culture where collusion between government monitors and the nuclear industry has been the norm.

The shutdown means that the Monju reactor, which has a flawed history, will not be able to conduct operational testing, as JAEA had hoped, by the end of this fiscal year, and will once again cast doubt on the success of the Japanese nuclear fuel cycle, which depends on recycling used fuel but which has never been realized. The reactor was first brought online in 1994, but a serious sodium coolant leak and subsequent cover-up by JAEA led to a fifteen-year shutdown. In 2010, the reactor was restarted for testing, but an equipment accident ceased operations before the reactor could reach full capacity. So far, the failed project has cost the Japanese taxpayers approximately one trillion yen.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO officials announced yesterday that a leak of highly radioactive water from a belowground storage pit which occurred in April, originally estimated at 120 tons, was actually much smaller: approximately 20 liters. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose nevertheless acknowledged that it is “a fact” that contaminated water leaks are occurring. Officials are blaming a faulty water gauge for the discrepancy. Equipment at the beleaguered plant continues to malfunction and fail, and experts have questioned how workers will effectively decommission the reactors there—a process expected to take more than 40 years—if safety equipment keeps breaking down.

TEPCO

Toshimitsu Motegi, head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said that the government will encourage Japanese fishermen to allow TEPCO to release groundwater gathered near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean, after the utility’s attempts to do so failed. Earlier this week, TEPCO officials met with leaders and representatives from the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations (FPFFCA) in Iwaki, to explain that groundwater is seeping into the Fukushima reactors, becoming contaminated and further exacerbating TEPCO’s ongoing war with vast amounts of highly radioactive water that needs to be stored at the Fukushima compound. Each day, approximately 400 tons of groundwater seep into the plant’s crippled reactors and become radioactive. Officials plan to dig 12 wells to pump out groundwater and release it to the sea before it can seep into the reactor buildings. They estimate that doing so will reduce the inflow by 100 tons per day, or 25%. Tests conducted on 200 tons of that pumped groundwater show lower radiation levels than those of nearby rivers and streams (which have also been contaminated), and officials insist that the water is safe.

Leaders of the FPFFCA had initially indicated that they would authorize the plan, and when TEPCO met with the group, it assumed that their approval would be pro-forma. However, a high percentage of FPFFCA members expressed concern about whether the action would further damage the reputation of Fukushima Prefecture’s seafood, an industry that has been decimated by the nuclear disaster over the past two years. Distrust in the company remains widespread and deeply rooted, and many fear that the utility will be unable to prevent more leaks of radioactive water like the ones that happened last month. One member noted, “An explanation from TEPCO alone will not be enough to win the confidence of union members.” Another noted, “If something happens at the plant, it will directly hit the image of local products.” Some fishermen expressed confusion about the difference between contaminated water and the groundwater, but one union leader said that this illustrated the problem: “Many of our members got a wrong idea that contaminated water would be dumped into the sea after being treated, but if that is the case, then it will be impossible for consumers to understand [the difference between groundwater and treated water].” Others said that they did understand the difference, but did not trust TEPCO to refrain from also releasing the ever-growing supply of radioactive water that is currently being stored in hundreds of tanks onsite. One representative said, “Even if it is groundwater, damage to the public perception of fishing will be unavoidable and could hurt our trial operations” as fishermen try to regain their place in the marketplace.

“We should start all over,” a TEPCO official admitted. The government will now conduct information sessions with small groups of the FPFFCA’s 1,499 members, a process expected to take at least a month, in an effort to sway their decisions. The move is a blow to TEPCO, which had hoped to begin releasing water into the sea this week. (Source: NHK)

Nuclear Politics in Japan

A new survey conducted by Japan’s Mainichi Daily News shows that mayors of eight out of 11 municipalities located within 30 km of Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Shizuoka Prefecture oppose restarting the reactor there. Some insist that the utility needs to guarantee how it will dispose of spent nuclear fuel before they will grant their approval, and four of the mayors said that they will never give their permission for restarting the reactor, even if the NRA declares it safe to restart. The mayor of Makinohara, Shigeki Nishihara, explained, “The power station is situated in an area where the epicenter of the Tokai quake is expected to be located. [Based on historical and seismic data, experts widely predict that a massive earthquake will hit the Tokai region within the next few decades.] There is a large population, and industrial facilities are concentrated around the plant.” Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu is up for reelection in June, and has promised to put the restart issue up for public referendum if re-elected.

A group of lawmakers from the ruling pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are joining forces to promote the restart of nuclear reactors across Japan, despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power. A group of Diet members met this week to strategize; they plan to submit a proposal pushing their agenda by the end of this session of Parliament, which concludes in June.

Japan’s Council on Natural Energy, which includes representatives from a majority of the country’s prefectures as well as from major corporations, has compiled a proposal urging the government to develop renewable energy targets as part of the national basic energy plan. In addition, the group said that renewable energy rates need to be determined as soon as possible.