Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO is reportedly suffering significant staff shortages at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, raising concerns that the utility will not be able to handle decommissioning of the plant—which has not even officially begun—in the coming decades. However, TEPCO officials are vehemently denying that claim. Workers and municipal leaders report that the company is struggling to fill the 3,000 positions required to maintain cooling functions at the damaged reactors, manage repeated equipment breakdowns, and begin the long and complicated process of removing spent fuel rods. The shortage has occurred in part because pay for nuclear plant workers is relatively low, averaging just 10,000 yen per day ($100).
By contrast, decontamination workers, who are exposed to less radiation and fewer dangerous conditions, can make 16,000 yen daily ($156); construction workers, who are in high demand in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, make even more. In addition, many workers—although TEPCO has refused to release an exact number—have been exposed to so much radiation that they are no longer allowed to work within the industry as a result of government-defined limits. And, in many cases, nuclear workers and often, their families, are now stigmatized in Japan. In order to deal with the shortages, TEPCO employs numerous layers of contractors and subcontractors, a system that has led to repeated carelessness about keeping track of which companies the workers report to, a potential violation of Japanese labor laws. Equally concerning, some companies are low-balling the bidding process by underpaying workers, raising concerns that important skills and experience may be compromised.
TEPCO spokesman Ryo Shimizu flatly denied the worker shortage allegations, saying, “We have been able to acquire workers and there is no shortage. We plan to add workers as needed.” However, Hiroyuki Watanabe, an Iwate Assemblyman, said that the shortage exists and moreover, is likely to worsen: “[TEPCO officials] are scrounging around, barely able to clear the numbers. Why would anyone want to work at a nuclear plant, of all places, when other work is available?” One plant worker, who posts anonymously on Twitter about conditions at the Fukushima plant, agreed. “If things continue the way they are, I fear decommissioning in 40 years is impossible. If nuclear plants are built abroad, then Japanese engineers and workers will go abroad. If plants in Japan are restarted, engineers and workers will go to those plants.”
Nuclear Politics in Japan
A new report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster by United Nations Special Rapporteur Anand Grover was presented to the UN Human Rights Council this week. The report is highly critical of both TEPCO and the Japanese government, and says that by nationalizing the bankrupt utility, Japan “arguably helped TEPCO to effectively avoid accountability and liability for damages” from the nuclear crisis. In addition, it lambasts TEPCO for its “attempts to reduce compensation levels and delay settlement” through a complicated and difficult compensation process, as well as failure to protect workers from radiation exposure. It criticizes the government for failing to protect children, the elderly, and those with disabilities from the disaster, as well as inadequate use of the country’s System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), which led to some residents being evacuated to areas directly in the path of the radiation plume in the days following the meltdowns. Significantly, the report urges Japan to avoid repopulating contaminated areas until radiation levels reach 1 millisievert per year. It stresses that epidemiological experts “conclude that there is no low-threshold limit for excess radiation risk to non-solid cancers, such as leukemia.” Currently, Japan allows residents to return to their homes when radiation levels reach 20 millisieverts per year.
Japanese government officials were more concerned about the economic implications of a massive evacuation and the costs of compensating victims after the Fukushima nuclear disaster than they were about residents’ safety, according to a new exposé by the Asahi Shimbun. Records from government meetings conducted in December 2011, during which attendees were trying to decide the radiation level at which residents could safely return to their homes, show that then-Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono fought to establish the annual radiation level at which residents could safely return at 5 millisieverts. However, other attendees, including Yukio Edano, former head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and Tatsuo Hirano, Minister of Reconstruction, as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura and Internal Affairs Minister Tatsuo Kawabata, insisted on a 20 millisievert per year metric. Attendees were reportedly concerned about a mass exodus of residents, which they felt would prevent cities and towns from ever recovering. One attendee noted, “The [Fukushima] Prefectural government could not function with population drain under the 5-millisievert scenario. In addition, there were concerns that more compensation money would be needed with an increase in the number of evacuees.” The government has said that its goal is to reduce radiation levels in areas surrounding the melted-down reactors to 1 millisievert per year—and have “zero evacuees” by 2020—but Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato has slammed this goal as unreasonable.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will reportedly not reveal his plans to restart nuclear reactors across the country until June, just before elections for the Upper House of Parliament. In the meantime, four nuclear power operators (Kansai Electric Power Company, Kyushu Electric Power Company, Shikoku Electric, and Hokkaido Electric Power Company) all say that they will apply to restart a collective eight nuclear reactors as soon as the NRA unveils new safety regulations on July 18 and begins accepting applications for restarts the day after. All eight reactors are pressurized-water reactors (PWRs).
Protesters who have been camping in front of the METI building for more than a year and a half in order to protest nuclear power in Japan were called into court last week, as the government attempts to evict them. The case, which pits freedom of democratic political expression vs. “squatting on government land”, is eventually expected to reach the Supreme Court. Taro Fuchigami, a protester who is 70 years of age, explained, “Our tents express nationwide anger.” Despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power, including demonstrations that have been attended by more than 100,000 people, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to restart nuclear reactors in Japan once the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) unveils new safety regulations in July.
Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Officials from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) have admitted that they neglected to report an accident at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC). On May 23, 33 scientists were exposed to internal inhaled radiation contamination, but local and government officials were not informed of the event until May 25, more than a day after the incident occurred. Initially, JAEA said that only four people had been exposed to radiation. The NRA has labeled the accident a Level 1 incident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). Officials say that an equipment malfunction, which may have occurred because of a problem with the system’s power, allowed radiation to escape into the atmosphere. Because filters had not been installed on ventilators, radiation was allowed to leak into the air. Although the radiation dosage levels were low—1.7 millisieverts per year—analysts say that the accident highlights vast problems with the organization’s safety culture.
JAEA, which operates J-PARC in conjunction with the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, is already under fire for major safety lapses at the Monju fast-breeder reactor facility in Fukui Prefecture, where the agency neglected to perform safety checks on almost 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of it critical to safe operation of the reactor. Hakubun Shimomura, head of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), announced that he plans to appoint a taskforce to investigate JAEA’s lax safety practices.
The no-entry zone that encompassed all of Futaba, which is one of the towns that hosts the now-defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has been reclassified. The majority of the town remains off limits because of excessively high radiation levels. But, residents can now enter one area near the coast, although it is still considered too dangerous for them to remain there overnight. Futaba was the last area to have evacuation zones revised.
Nuclear Waste Disposal and Storage
For the first time in three years, the Science Council of Japan has resumed efforts to find a place to store highly radioactive vitrified nuclear waste. The waste will need to be stored for tens of thousands of years, but residents have protested hosting such a storage facility because of health and safety concerns. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda, who is chairing the study panel, admitted, “Things have not gone as planned. We should review the matter by returning to basics.” Some members are reportedly questioning whether or not Japan should continue trying to reprocess nuclear fuel, or dispose of it directly.