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 has reluctantly agreed to install a system that will freeze soil near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors, after Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) ordered it to do so. Recently, a government-appointed panel suggested the plan in order to prevent approximately 400 tons of groundwater from seeping into the basements of the reactor buildings each day, and subsequently becoming contaminated. Initial plans to build the new system, which will involve installing 30-meter deep ducts into the soil at one-meter intervals around the plant, will start this month, but the system is not expected to be operational until fiscal year 2015. Once the ducts have been installed, freezing water measuring -50ºC will be pumped through the system. Experts hope that the surrounding soil will freeze, effectively creating an ice barrier that will prevent up to 75% of nearby groundwater from entering the buildings. TEPCO officials are reportedly balking at the astronomical cost of the plan, which could reach tens of billions of dollars. That figure does not include ongoing maintenance costs, which are also expected to be high. “From a technical viewpoint, it will be difficult to do so,” a company spokesman noted. “But, we will implement the proposal, along with other measures.”
TEPCO was already trying to reduce groundwater inflow there by drilling a series of 12 wells, which would allow it to pump out groundwater and release it to the ocean. Local fishermen had thus far protested that decision because of radiation concerns, but utility officials insisted that radiation levels of the groundwater were no higher than those found in nearby rivers and streams. However, new evidence shows that in fact, some of the samples were in fact contaminated with up to .39 Bq/liter of radioactive cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. TEPCO’s fight to release the groundwater into the ocean is now bound to be far more difficult.
Japan’s Nuclear Damage Claim Dispute Resolution Center, which was established in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in order to help victims negotiate with TEPCO, made two major judgments this week that could have significant impact on TEPCO’s compensatory obligations to other victims. In the first case, the Center ruled for the first time that TEPCO must pay a group of 180 residents from the Nagadoro District of Iitate 500,000 yen (nearly $5,000) for emotional distress from high levels of radiation exposure. Pregnant women and children under 18 at the time of the accident were awarded 1 million yen each. People from that area were not told to evacuate until a month after the nuclear crisis first began to unfold, increasing their radiation exposure. Experts say that the case is sure to encourage other municipalities in similar circumstances to follow suit. Lawyer Katsunobu Kobayashi said, “Despite a limited amount of money, the center recognized the state’s and TEPCO’s responsibilities for radiation exposure, despite their attempts to ignore them. It is socially important.”
In the second case, TEPCO agreed to pay compensation to the family of a farmer from Sukagawa, who committed suicide after learning that he would be forced to stop selling cabbage from his organic farm. He had inherited the farm and worked on it for 30 years. Initially, the utility refused to acknowledge a causal relationship between the two events, but eventually agreed to pay over 10 million yen after the Center intervened. Nevertheless, company officials continue to refuse to apologize to the man’s family, as they had requested. Several other suicides have occurred in the country as a result of the Fukushima disaster, so this case is likely to set precedent.
The cases come on the heels of an announcement last week by the Namie municipal government that it will sue TEPCO on behalf of over 11,000 residents for psychological suffering. Although TEPCO is already paying victims 1,000 yen per month, Namie officials want to increase that amount to 3,500 yen.
And, in yet another blow to the floundering utility, the Japanese government is now considering suing TEPCO via the Environment Ministry. So far, the government has paid 16.5 billion yen in decontamination costs. Japanese law requires that the government pay those costs initially, and then be reimbursed by the utility. More than two and half years after the nuclear disaster first began, however, TEPCO has not paid any of those costs, which continue to be covered by taxpayer money.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
This past weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tokyo to demonstrate against nuclear power in Japan, highlighting ongoing and widespread public opposition to the issue. The rally, which was sponsored by the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes and included Nobel-laureate and anti-nuclear activist Kenzaburo Oe, was designed to protest the restart of nuclear reactors. Kyodo News reported that Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department estimated crowds at between 20,000 and 30,000 attendees.
Despite the ongoing public opposition to nuclear power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving ahead with plans to restart reactors, although analysts believe that he is treading lightly until elections for the Upper House of Parliament take place in July. A newly obtained draft of the country’s economic-growth strategy, obtained by the Asahi Shimbun, shows that Abe plans to push hard for nuclear power, and says that the government will restart reactors as soon as the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) declares them safe. Although Japan has a long-standing tradition whereby utilities obtain permission from local government authorities before restarting reactors, that requirement has never been codified into law. Now, the language in the new draft is far more vague, saying only that the government “will make utmost efforts” to gain local understanding—but does not say what will happen if those approvals are not obtained.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of earthquakes in Japan since 2011 have led researchers from Tohoku University to state that a major earthquake is two-and-a-half times more likely to strike Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Chiba Prefectures within the next five years than it was before the Great East earthquake of March 2011. They believe that the increased seismic activity they have been recording is more than just aftershocks from the 2011 event. If such a quake were to occur, the nation’s nuclear plants could be at risk. Although TEPCO insists that all damage at the Fukushima plant was caused by a tsunami and not the earthquake, many experts doubt that claim. Exceedingly high radiation levels at the plant have thus far prevented further study, although an NRA team planned to take a ten-minute tour of the fourth floor of reactor #1 this week in order to inspect for damage.
The government has appointed Shojiro Matsuura as new president of the beleaguered Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), after its former president, Atsuyuki Suzuki, was forced to resign in the wake of major scandals at the Monju fast-breeder reactor. Earlier this year, the agency disclosed that it had neglected to perform safety checks on nearly 10,000 pieces of equipment. Last week, the NRA declared that the Monju reactor would be suspended indefinitely as a result of the incident.
In other news, JAEA officials admitted that the Monju facility had experienced yet another glitch. A power issue at the plant, which workers are still investigating, led to failed data transmissions (including temperature and pressure levels) to a government safety network for more than four hours. JAEA insists that no abnormalities occurred at that time.