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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced this week that it will accept findings from a panel of experts, which determined that fault lines running beneath reactor #2 at Japan Atomic Power Company’s (JAPC) Tsuruga nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture are active. Japanese law prohibits operation of nuclear reactors over active faults, because of the risk they could incur if a major earthquake strikes. In addition, the agency ordered JAPC to study the effects of seismic activity on the spent fuel pool located within reactor #2. It is the first time that the NRA has said a plant is unsafe to operate because of fault lines, and the decision could have major ramifications for both JAPC and the entire nuclear power industry. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka said, “We have accepted the report from the panel of experts, and that means that we’ve acknowledged that an active fault requiring consideration lies beneath the nuclear reactor.”

Although the NRA does not have legal authority to order the permanent shutdown of the plant, the decision means that the reactor will probably never operate again. A second reactor at the plant is more than 40 years old, and most experts believe that the NRA will not allow it to restart, although a decision has not yet been made. The utility also operates one reactor at the Tokai #2 plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, but local opposition to restarting that reactor has been significant, and gaining local approval to bring it online again is unlikely. (Source: Nuclear Intelligence Weekly)

JAPC has lambasted the announcement. The company insists that the fault lines are not active and plans to continue its own studies of the area. It will release a report in June. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka noted, “We do not deny that the conclusion may change if new data show up. So I think that I should not say anything decisive at this stage.” But most analysts do not believe that the NRA will change its decision. Because the reactor was built in 1987, JAPC believed that it would operate for at least an additional 14 years before being decommissioned. The company currently does not have enough reserve funds to cover costs, but maintaining an inoperable plant indefinitely would also be expensive. Credit rating firms in Japan have already lowered their ratings of JAPC.

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.

TEPCO

TEPCO’s legal woes continue to worsen. A group of 700 residents from the Hippo District in Miyagi Prefecture have filed suit against the utility, charging that they should receive the same amount of compensation as victims from Fukushima Prefecture. Parts of Miyagi, which is located just 50 km from the site of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, register higher radiation levels than those in Fukushima Prefecture. Plaintiffs are demanding 70 million yen ($690,000) in damages. Currently, government compensation guidelines only guarantee compensation, radiation testing, and health checks for those living in Fukushima Prefecture. After considerable negotiation by Miyagi residents, the utility agreed to compensate those in some of the highly radioactive areas of Miyagi, as well, but they only receive about half of what Fukushima residents do, despite the fact that some of them are living in more radioactive areas. One resident, Takeo Hikichi, noted, “We in Marumori Town have been exposed to as much radiation as our peers in Fukushima, or even more, depending on the area. We cannot accept the kind of compensation scheme that discriminates against us just because of the prefectural border.”  Koji Otani, one of the attorneys who filed the complaint, added, “Damages from the nuclear accident do not stop at the border. We hope that the compensation program is carried out in a way that reflects the reality of people’s lives.”

In other legal news, Japan’s Lower House of Parliament has approved a new bill that will extend the statute of limitations beyond the current three years, for those filing compensation claims against TEPCO. Many victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster have complained that TEPCO has dragged its feet in processing claims and has underestimated appropriate recompense. Some of those cases are still in mediation, which could extend beyond the current March 2014 deadline. The bill is expected to pass in the Upper House and be enacted during the current Diet session.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Kyodo News is reporting that the United Nations may omit nuclear crises from its upcoming disaster prevention plan, even those for which earthquakes and tsunami are contributing factors, according to insiders familiar with the topic. The UN will meet to discuss the prevention issues at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in March 2015, but preparatory talks are being conducted this week at a three-day meeting in Geneva. The new outline (a change from the previous action plan, called the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015) was suggested by an official from the Japanese government, which is taking a central role in drafting the new plan. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and anti-nuclear activists have pointed out avoiding discussion of nuclear disasters in this forum may mean that they are not addressed at all. Previously, Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative to the UN Secretary General for Risk Reduction, highlighted the urgency of dealing with nuclear crises, and the Chair’s Statement issued following the 2011 UN Global Platform Meeting focused on international cooperation where nuclear safety is concerned.

In a new blow for nuclear power companies, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said that it will not complete a study of rate increases requested by Tohoku Electric and Shikoku Electric Power Company in time for the utilities to impose higher rates by July 1, as they had hoped. Both companies filed the requests in February, with Tohoku requesting an 11.41% hike and Shikoku asking for a 10.94% rise in consumer rates. However, so many utilities have requested rate increases this year approvals are backed up. Analysts say that the rate increases may not take effect until September, in order to accommodate the delayed METI schedule and to avoid raising rates for consumers in August, often the hottest month of the year.

As part of a three-year agreement signed at the end of last year, experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plan to visit Fukushima for five days in July, in order to provide technical assistance with radiation and waste disposal issues. Municipal officials are still struggling with how to decontaminate forested areas that cover 70% of the prefecture. The IAEA team plans to upload radiation data to a public website for residents’ use.  In addition, officials will open an emergency-response training center.

Radiation Contamination

Scientists from the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology are reporting that tests conducted on plankton samples gathered at 10 sites in the Pacific Ocean, between Hokkaido Prefecture and Guam, showed evidence of radioactive cesium-134. The samples were collected in January and February 2012. The discovery is significant because plankton is a primary food source for larger fish, and the research confirms that radioactivity is affecting the food chain. All samples contained cesium-134, but the most radioactive samples, measuring 10.5 Bq/kg, were collected at approximately 25 degrees north latitude and 150 degrees west longitude. The group’s findings were reported at a meeting of the Japan Geoscience Union.

Decontamination and Nuclear Waste Disposal

Officials from the Environment Ministry have announced that they plan to build permanent nuclear waste storage facilities on government-owned land in Miyagi, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba Prefectures, but will avoid areas that may be ravaged by earthquakes, tsunamis, or landslides. Waste storage has been a thorny issue for residents, who are concerned about the health effects of living near nuclear waste.