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
Banri Kaieda, former head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), testified before the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission last week. In addition to criticizing former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s micromanagement of the situation, Kaieda testified that the government did not declare a full nuclear emergency for over three hours because “it took time to gain the understanding of he Prime Minister.” He also said that Masataka Shimizu, who was at that time President of TEPCO, informed him via telephone that TEPCO workers would evacuate the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata denied that charge last week when he testified before the same commission. Kaieda admitted that he was not fully aware of the dangers the plant posed, and questions his own involvement, saying, “The words hydrogen explosion were not in my ears. I wonder if the safety myth of nuclear power plants and the cozy relationship of the nuclear power village influenced me.” Kan is expected to testify on May 28.
The Japanese government is calling for a 15% reduction in power usage this summer. Officials are concerned about power shortages while all reactors in Japan, including the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, remain offline out of safety concerns. Many critics have questioned estimates released by Kansai Electric, which operates the Oi plant, accusing them of overestimating shortages in order to keep their reactors online.
In response, many businesses are working to reduce their power usage and find more efficient ways of conducting business. For instance, Daikin Industries, which manufactures air conditioners, will change its work schedule to include weekends and holidays, in order to avoid times when usage is at its highest. Sumitomo Electric is using a cogeneration system that harnesses heat from its thermal plant. And the East Japan Railway Company plans to capture regenerative energy produced when trains are braking and store it in batteries to power other trains, a decision that will reduce energy consumption by up to 8% a year. Tokyo Metro Company has installed LED lights in its trains, a move that has reduced lighting power by between 40 and 80%.
A nationwide survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun between May 19 – 20 shows that a majority of Japanese people—54%--disapprove of restarting the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, compared to 29% who are in favor. In addition, 78% of respondents said that they “do not trust” the government’s steps to ensure that the nation’s nuclear reactors are safe. And only 26% expressed support for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration.
Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences has designed new vehicles that simultaneously serve as ambulances, mobile support centers, and radiological testing devices. The vehicles, which sport satellite telephones, beds, and showers, will be used in the case of another nuclear disaster.
State of the Reactors
International concern about the precarious safety of the damaged spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #4 is growing, including in the United States and Switzerland. The spent fuel pool there was heavily damaged when a hydrogen explosion destroyed the walls and roof of the building, leaving 1,331 spent fuel rods exposed. Experts are increasingly concerned that another large earthquake, tsunami, or terrorist attack could cause the structure to collapse, releasing immense amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. An explosion or fire at the pool could also affect the nearby common spent fuel pool, which is only 50 meters away, and contains 6,375 fuel rods. The results would be catastrophic. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) will not admit the magnitude earthquake at which the structure would be at risk. Senior Vice-Minister for Reconstruction Ikko Nakatsuka conceded that there is no real definition of safety when talking about nuclear power: “When we say ‘safe,’ we have to say at what [risk] level.”
TEPCO announced that it will not discontinue power to those customers who have refused to pay a 17% rate increase recently instituted by the utility after their contracts expired, at least for the time being. TEPCO raised prices April 1 in order to cover astronomical costs associated with the Fukushima nuclear crisis, including compensation to victims of the disaster and decommissioning the crippled reactors. Company officials are now visiting large-lot consumers to try to gain their consent for the increased rates.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Nuclear Minister Goshi Hosono met with seven leaders from the Kansai region, including powerful Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Kyoto Governor Keiji Yamada, this weekend in an ongoing effort to convince them that restarting the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture is safe. However, he met with little success. Hashimoto criticized the government’s insistence on pushing forward without having established true safety standards: “There are no safety standards in Japan right now so [resumption of the reactors] cannot be allowed…I expect the new nuclear regulatory agency will put together comprehensive safety standards. Until then the reactors should not be allowed to resume full operations.”
Mayor Hashimoto suggested that if a power crunch were to occur, the government could order the Oi reactors online for just three months, and then take them offline until safety standards were established, as well as a regulatory agency to oversee those standards. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said that the government had no intention of only restarting the reactors for the short term.
An official in Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s office said that he may order the restarts even if people in the surrounding areas do not grant consent—in spite of the fact that those residents would be endangered in case of a nuclear accident.
A group of scientists from Kinki University has created a new building material, using zeolite powder mixed with traditional Japanese plaster, which could absorb 99% of radioactive cesium. They hope to use the new material to store debris that was contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Other Nuclear News
The embattled Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory B. Jaczko, resigned this week. Jaczko was under fire for his abrasive personality, which many analysts noted took the spotlight off of his staunch efforts to promote nuclear safety, often in the face of opposition from his fellow commissioners. His was the only dissenting vote when licenses were recently granted to build new reactors in the US for the first time in 30 years, in spite of questions about safety. Similarly, he pushed for new safety regulations at US nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but his efforts were met with resistance. A former colleague from Capital Hill commented on the difficult environment of the NRC, one that some have cited as an example of so-called regulatory capture: “For me, it all comes back to money and an industry that wants to hand-pick their regulators, put them in place, and then employ them when they’re done.” Jaczko said his resignation would be “effective upon the confirmation of my successor.”
Leaders from Group of Eight (G-8) countries are urging worldwide safety efforts around nuclear energy, and are encouraging participation in an extraordinary meeting of the Convention of Nuclear Safety this August, as well as a Ministerial Meeting on nuclear safety that will be hosted by Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Fukushima Prefecture this December. The leaders, who were meeting at Camp David this week outside of Washington, plan to issue a document called “G-8 Action on Energy and Climate Change.”