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
This week, the Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a parliamentary panel assigned with determining the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, met with numerous government and TEPCO officials. Those interviewed included TEPCO Chairman Tsuneshisa Katsumata and former METI Minister Banri Kaieda. Katsumata freely distributed blame for the crisis to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), and then-TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, but stopped short of accepting blame himself, even as he admitted that he ranked higher than Shimizu at TEPCO.
Regarding Kan’s involvement in the crisis, Tsunehisa said the Prime Minister’s micro-management distracted from the unfolding disaster: “The highest commander [at the plant (Masao Yoshida)] had to take command of the power station at the height of confusion, but he had his time taken away with interrogatory conversations [with Kan and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono].” When pressed about his own involvement, Tsunehisa insisted that TEPCO’s President and Vice-Presidents, not he, were responsible for making decisions. During a news conference following the testimony, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the Commission Chairman, said, “I believe [today’s session] shed light on TEPCO’s lack of a sense of crisis as an organization handling nuclear power…Katsumata kept avoiding giving clear remarks on specific matters.”
The panel is continuing to explore whether or not TEPCO tried to evacuate its entire staff during the worst hours of the Fukushima crisis, a move that would have exponentially worsened conditions and led to an even greater nuclear catastrophe. TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata insists that the utility never had plans to abandon the Daiichi plant. But reports from other government officials, including then-head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Banri Kaieda, and Yukio Edano, former Chief Cabinet Secretary who is currently head of METI, conflict with Katsumata’s testimony. The government failed to keep minutes of the meetings that transpired as the disaster unfolded, making it difficult to determine the real story.
In his own testimony, former METI Minister Banri Kaieda said that information sharing between TEPCO and various ministries was extremely difficult during the crisis. He felt that TEPCO tried to downplay the events as they were unfolding, and was reluctant to use seawater to cool the reactors, knowing it would destroy them for further use, even as the threat of nuclear meltdown increased.
The Japan Atomic Power Co (JAPC), operator of the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture, has finally agreed to conduct studies on fault lines that lay directly below the plant’s reactors, placing it at risk of a nuclear catastrophe if a major earthquake were to occur. The move comes more than four years after experts first pointed out in 2008 that the faults might move in unison, resulting in a devastating earthquake. Both JAPC and NISA ignored those warnings, even though they were issued repeatedly by Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a seismic specialist at Tokyo University. Watanabe asks, “Why did they fail to conduct the survey for such a long time on something that can so easily be understood by visiting the spot? It’s not academic research, but an argument for safety. The plant should be decommissioned right away,” he warned. The Director of Safety at NISA’s Seismic Safety Office, Masaru Kobayashi, has now admitted, “I should’ve ordered a survey much earlier.”
NISA has admitted that in 2006, when the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) revised its earthquake guidelines for nuclear plants, the agency insisted that the NSC guarantee that the new recommendations would have no effect on nuclear plants. Officials say they were concerned that public opposition to nuclear plants would increase, possibly resulting in lawsuits.
A commission working within the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) that has been studying the nation’s growing supply of spent nuclear fuel has presented three options for its disposal. The group said that the most cost-effective means of disposal is to bury the fuel; in addition, that option reduces the chance that terrorists could steal plutonium and construct a nuclear bomb from it. However, some proponents of the Japanese nuclear fuel cycle want to reprocess plutonium from the spent fuel, in order to produce so-called mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, which combines plutonium and uranium. Members also said that postponing the decision—while simultaneously stopping fuel reprocessing at the Rokkasho plant in Aomori Prefecture—is also a possibility.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has requested that China and South Korea relax restrictions on food imports from Japan, which were imposed after last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. However, neither Chinese President Hu Jintao nor South Korean President Lee Myung Bak would commit to a change in their policies.
Meanwhile, Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato met with South Korean First Vice Foreign Affairs and Trace Minister Ahn Ho Young, where he requested that South Korea lift travel restrictions to Fukushima.
Japanese supermarket Aeon announced that it will open 90% of its 14,000 stores at 7 am during the summer months, two hours earlier than usual, in an effort to save power as the entire country tries to conserve energy. Officials at Aeon said that air conditioning usage peaks in the afternoon, when stores are most crowded, and hopes this initiative will reduce cooling needs.
New data released by Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute shows that aftershocks from last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake may go on for decades near the borders of Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefectures. In 2011, Japan experienced 9,723 earthquakes measuring magnitude 1.0 or larger, up to eight times more than in the previous decade. More than 600 of those measured magnitude 5.0 or greater.
NISA officials and TEPCO are now admitting that they knew that power loss leading to a total blackout as a result of flooding from a tsunami was possible at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as early as 2006, but did nothing to prevent the flood of water which eventually damaged the equipment there. Loss of power led to three nuclear meltdowns in reactors at the Daiichi plant after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The information was revealed at a government meeting following the 2004 tsunami in Sumatra, Indonesia, which was attended by officials from NISA and power companies. In August 2006, a study paper on the issue stated, “There is a possibility that power equipment could lose functions if a 14-meter high tsunami hits the Fukushima plant, with seawater flowing inside the reactors’ turbine buildings.” Two years later, additional research showed that a 10-meter high tsunami could strike the plant, but TEPCO ignored that as well.
A special government committee, under the auspices of METI, has convened to review TEPCO’s recent request for an average 10.28% rate hike. The utility is trying to raise money to absorb massive costs associated with compensating victims of the Fukushima disaster, decommissioning reactors there, and covering increased costs of thermal fuel. However, the move has been met with staunch opposition from consumers, who believe the rate increases have been poorly explained, and that TEPCO can still trim personnel and operating costs.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Seishu Makino, a Senior Vice-Minister at METI, met with Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa this week in continued efforts to gain local consent to restart nuclear reactors at the Oi Power Plant there. However, Nishikawa urged him to clarify Japan’s nuclear policy. “We want the government to clearly show its stance and [nuclear policy] system to citizens,” he said. In addition, he said that the government needs to establish new safety mechanisms, particularly since proposed legislation to establish a new nuclear regulatory agency is stalled in the Diet and has yet to be enacted.
Meanwhile, the governors of Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, as well as the powerful mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, are continuing to protest the possibility of restarting the reactors, citing safety concerns. Hashimoto noted, “While we respect the wishes of Oi, [whose local assembly recently approved the restarts, based on concerns about local economy] given what happened at Fukushima, you can't just decide to restart the reactors based on the decision of the local community.”
In addition, the municipal leaders have criticized the government’s recent announcement that rolling blackouts might occur, a decision that was made without consulting outside experts. Many have questioned KEPCO’s assertion that the area will experience a significant power crunch. Hashimoto’s popularity continues to grow in recent polls, raising the possibility that he may pose problems for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in upcoming elections this Fall.
In spite of that widespread opposition by municipal leaders and residents of nearby towns and prefectures, Prime Minister Noda will reportedly make a decision soon on whether to restart the reactors. “I think the timing of the decision is near,” he said this week.
Although METI Minister Yukio Edano’s warning that there might be blackouts, residents of Fukui Prefecture received the news calmly; a recent poll shows that up to two-thirds of the population continues to express concerns about restarting the Oi reactors and opposes their restart.
The government is urging both residents and large-lot users to conserve energy in the Kansai region this summer, but will reportedly not issue mandatory curbs on electricity usage.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) quietly stopped gathering hourly radiation measurements at nine different sites beyond a 20 km radius from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, but almost immediately retracted that decision after MEXT Minister Hirofuni Hirano said he had not been informed of the plan to end the monitoring.
New samples of sludge collected from the mouths of the Arakawa and Edogawa Rivers, which empty into Tokyo Bay, show large increases of radioactive cesium. In some areas, silt samples measured in April were 13 times higher than they had been last August. Hideo Yamazaki, a professor at Kinki University who is conducting the research, said that although there is not an immediate risk to humans, small fish could be contaminated and be eaten by large fish, ultimately threatening the food chain. Researchers believe that the contamination enters the rivers upstream and becomes more concentrated as it flows downstream, eventually accumulating and depositing itself in mud and sludge in the Bay. Yamazaki encouraged further long-term studies.
Local officials in Fukushima Prefecture and other areas are struggling to deal with over 32,000 tons of radioactive sludge from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which is sitting in storage sites but has not yet been processed. Some facilities may run out of storage space within the next month. Although the sludge is legally supposed to be processed by municipal waste treatment centers, local residents are opposed because of concerns about radiation.
The city of Date has awarded decontamination contracts to four companies, for work slated to begin in June and conclude in March 2013. Workers will reduce high levels of radiation in an effort to make the city more habitable. The total price tag of the project is almost 15 billion yen.
Other Nuclear News
Local emergency officials in the United States are expressing concern after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) considerably reduced safety planning and exercises to prepare for potential nuclear accidents. Under the new plan, responders no longer always practice how to handle radiation leaks, will evacuate fewer people, and conduct fewer drills overall. For instance, instead of practicing for a nuclear crisis every six years, the new recommendations suggest every eight years. Many emergency officials say that’s simply not enough.
The new guidelines were drawn up after soliciting heavy input from the nuclear industry and its powerful lobbying association, the Nuclear Energy Institute. Industry officials are praising the new changes, but Cheryl L. Chubb, an emergency planner at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said, “If it were me, I would evacuate” even without official go-ahead or if she fell within the new, reduced evacuation zone. Those who live further than two miles from a plant will be urged to “shelter in place” and not flee the area—even if there are large radiation releases. Jim Riccio, nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace US, sharply criticized the revisions. “You need to be practicing for a worst-case, rather than a non-event,” pointing out that in the case of a nuclear disaster, radiation will most likely leak into the atmosphere and place residents at risk. Approximately 40% of all Americans, or 120 million people, live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.
Residents, environmentalists, and now members of Congress continue to express concerns about safety conditions at Southern California Edison’s (SCE) San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), where excessive wear of steam generator tubes has stopped the operation of two reactors. Senator Barbara Boxer sent a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, noting, “Concerns have been raised that design changes in the steam generators contributed to accelerated wear in tubes containing radioactive water. Many have charged that SCE’s modifications to original plans caused the problems, which resulted in radioactivity being released into the environment.