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

Japan’s last remaining nuclear reactor, #3 at the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, will go offline on Saturday, marking the first time since 1970 that all nuclear reactors in the country are idle, and only the second time that has happened since the nation first began using nuclear power in 1966.  “Despite the closure of all reactors, security of electricity supply is not threatened in Japan. The 2012 summer peak in electricity demand can be managed with energy efficiency, proper load balancing, and energy conservation,” said Hisayo Takada, Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner. “The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has shown us that Japan’s nuclear plants and surrounding institutions are in no shape to deal with another major earthquake—which experts warn is almost certain to happen in the next few years,” said Takada. “Should another meltdown occur, it is likely that it will break the back of Japan’s economy, and many more people will suffer. It is simply not worth the risk when the clean and safe alternative of renewable energy is at our fingertips.”

A new study by Kyodo News shows that electric power companies made 28.7 billion yen ($360 million) in contributions to at least 60 local governments over the past five years through March 31, 2012—and then passed those costs onto consumers, calling them “necessary costs for power generation.” In essence, consumers footed the bill for monies paid to coax cities into hosting power plants. The investigation revealed 650 payments, although many of the donations were made anonymously, and because the government does not require utilities to publicly declare the donations, that number may actually be far higher.

Japan’s “Cool Biz” campaign began this week, a month early, in an effort to conserve power. The initiative encourages workers to dress more casually in cooler clothing, drink water, and use fans rather than air conditioning. Normally, Cool Biz run from June through September, but this year, it began in May and will continue through October.

State of the Reactors

A new examination of the operation manual for the chief worker on duty at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reveals that TEPCO changed the manual to advise against immediately using isolation condensers to cool reactors in the case of a nuclear disaster, and instead, advised opening the main steam safety relief valve. Experts say that move may have exacerbated the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “Opening the safety relief valves abruptly could cause a sharp reduction in pressure and boil the water in the reactor. That could create a situation akin to heating an empty kettle on the stove. If the isolation condensers had been fully functional they could have obstructed the development of the crisis,” said Toyoshi Fuketa, who is deputy director of the Nuclear Safety Research Center at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). Isolation condensers are also located at the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, but that manual contradicts TEPCO’s, and advises workers to use the condensers immediately.

TEPCO

Only 45% of TEPCO’s business customers have agreed to pay a recent 17% rate hike, revealing widespread frustration with the utility and raising questions about whether or not the government will approve a 10% rate increase for residential customers this summer. In the meantime, the Kawaguchi Chamber of Commerce in Saitama Prefecture has filed a request with Japan’s Fair Trade Commission in an effort to protest the rate increase, claiming an abuse of TEPCO’s monopoly on power sales in the region.

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

After meeting with Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) officials, Kyoshi Yamada, a Kyoto official who leads the municipal crisis team, said that the government has failed to convince his team that restarting reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture is safe. He criticized the new standards, saying it was unclear how much the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) had participated in crafting them, and implied that Kansai Electric, which operates the plant, had too much input. Yamada noted that the revised standards do not reflect concerns of local residents, who remain unconvinced that the reactors are not at risk for a nuclear accident.

Meanwhile, officials from both METI and NISA encountered strong resistance when they met with representatives from the town of Obama in Fukui Prefecture. Regular citizens were barred from attending the meeting due to space constraints at the venue. The meeting was attended by 122 representatives from the city assembly, parent-teacher organizations, and the farming, forestry, and fisheries industries. Attendees criticized the fact that the government has no adequate evacuation plans in spite of the fact that the area around the plant has few roads and is serviced by only one train line. Twenty thousand people live within 10 km of the Oi power plant; of these, 70% live in Obama. The vast majority of these were not admitted to the meeting. One resident said, “I have tons of questions to ask the government. But we do not even have an opportunity to ask them. My fears are turning to distrust.”

Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun and novelist, is participating in an ongoing hunger strike by anti-nuclear activists who have been protesting the restart of the Oi reactors in front the of the Industry Ministry since last Fall. Setouchi, who is 89 years old, said, “I can’t hand over the current Japan to the younger generation,” noting that the country has never been in worse shape during her lifetime.

Contamination

Testing by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare revealed excessive levels of radioactive cesium in 337 samples of 51 different foods over the course of the last month. On April 1, the Ministry lowered the legal cesium limit for general foods to 100 Bq/kg. Contaminated foods included shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, wild fern plant, wild butterbur buds, sea bass, and flatfish. Fifty-five of these samples exceeded 500 Bq/kg. No drinking water or baby food samples exceeded government limits. 

Decontamination

Yukio Edano, the head of METI, has signed an agreement with Aset Isekeshev, head of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Industry and New Technologies, to allow Toshiba Corporation to research decontamination methods at Kazakhstan’s atomic energy institute, Semipalatinsk. The Soviet Union conducted over 400 nuclear tests there beginning in 1949. Toshiba is hoping to use the information to assist with decontamination at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as to prevent further nuclear disasters.

Other Nuclear News

An activist from Greenpeace, using a paraglider, circled the Bugey nuclear plant and dropped a smoke bomb onto the roof of a reactor, in an effort to highlight the vulnerability of France’s nuclear plants to airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. The plant is operated by EDF. Nuclear power is playing a major role in the country’s upcoming presidential elections; the action occurred just hours before a televised debate between President Nicolas Sarkozy and candidate Francois Hollande. Sophia Majnoni d’Intignano, Nuclear Campaigner at Greenpeace France, said, “This over flight shows the vulnerability of the French nuclear site to an air attack. While Germany took account of a plane crash in it’s [reactor] safety tests, France still refuses to analyze this risk for our reactors.”