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 shut down on Saturday, leaving the country entirely nuclear-free for the first time in 42 years. All 50 of the nation’s operable reactors (not counting the four crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant) are now offline. Before last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the country obtained 30% of its energy from nuclear power sources, and had planned to produce up to 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2030.
Over 5,000 protesters took to the streets of Tokyo on Saturday to demonstrate against nuclear power; many encouraged the use of renewable forms of energy. Traditionally, such public protests have been highly uncommon in Japanese culture. Junichi Sato, Executive Director of Greenpeace Japan, said, “I think it is not easy, but this challenge is worth fighting for. There is an increased chance of earthquakes in Japan, so that has a significant risk to the Japanese people and the Japanese economy. The only way forward is to rapidly shift the energy source from nuclear to other sources of energy.”
The Noda administration and nuclear power industry officials had worked hard to win public approval to restart reactors at the Oi Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture and prevent the country from being free of nuclear power, but strong public anti-nuclear sentiment, including bitter opposition from Shiga, Osaka, and Kyoto Prefectures, foiled those efforts. Experts say that if Japan makes it through the summer without restarting any reactors, it will be far more difficult for the government to convince people why nuclear power is safe and even necessary—particularly in the shadow of the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. A recent nationwide poll conducted by Kyodo News revealed that 70% of Japanese people oppose the restart of the Oi reactors.
Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) admitted this week that it’s possible that no reactors will be restarted before the end of the summer, although he said that the government will continue its ongoing efforts to restart the Oi reactors. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made a similar admission last week.
The government said it would release figures estimating the country’s power supply and demand for the summer by the end of this week.
But in the meantime, the nation still has no cohesive nuclear energy policy. Members of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, a METI panel tasked with determining how much nuclear power the country should generate, are bitterly divided. Some members say that Japan should use no nuclear power by 2030, and others say it should use as much as 35%.
In addition, plans to replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) with an independent regulatory agency under the umbrella of the Environment Ministry have gone awry. NISA, as part of METI—the official promoter of nuclear power--has come under fire for failure to adequately regulate the nuclear industry. Efforts to establish the new agency have stalled in the Diet, with deliberations on the bill not even started. Some members complain that it lacks adequate independence from the nuclear industry.
Scientists from Tokyo and Nagoya Universities have released new data showing that a fault near the Shiga nuclear power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture may be active, placing the reactors there at risk of a much greater earthquake than previously anticipated. The researchers, Mitsuhisa Watanabe and Yasuhiro Suzuki, are warning the plant’s operator, Hokuriku Power, to take additional measures to protect against seismic damage.
Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono met with Chinese Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian last week, where they agreed to cooperate on issues of nuclear safety. In addition, Japan agreed to share information about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Officials in Fukushima Prefecture conducted an unannounced tsunami preparedness drill this week for municipal workers. However, the drill neglected to address a scenario in which the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was incapacitated.
TEPCO has named Naomi Hirose, who previously oversaw compensation issues at the utility, as new company president. He will work in conjunction with Kazuhiko Shimokobe, recently appointed TEPCO Chairman.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Officials from Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture met with executives from Kansai Electric last week and urged them to ensure that the region will have access to stable power supplies and will not experience blackouts this summer even if the Oi reactors are not restarted. Kansai continues to insist that it will experience power shortages—a claim that has not been confirmed by any third party panel—but said it will encourage residents to conserve electricity by offering gift certificates and other incentives to those who use less power. In addition, the utility will increase electricity rates during the day and lower them at night for residential consumers, while offering discounts to corporate consumers that conduct business on the weekend, rather than during the week.
Takashi Kawamura, the Mayor of Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, has joined numerous other mayors in Japan in condemning the government’s decision to restart reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. Kawamura said that if a nuclear accident were to occur, it would irreversibly contaminate the Kiso River, which provides drinking water for people in the region. He submitted a formal petition to NISA, requesting a nuclear hazard map of the area in case of an accident at the Oi plant.
High levels of cesium in wild herbs and plants, considered springtime delicacies in Japan, have prompted the central government to ban their shipment. Some of the plants affected include royal fern (zenmai), ostrich fern (kusasotetsu), Angelica tree sprouts (taranome), butterbur sprouts (fukunoto), koshiabura (which is from the ginseng family), and bracken (warabi). Sales of wild plants in local stores have dropped between 75 and 80% since before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has come under fire for a recent announcement admonishing retailers to stop posting radiation levels for foods that are lower than those that are government mandated. Beginning April 1, the Ministry lowered the legal limits of cesium contamination to 100 Bq/kg for general foods, 50 Bq/kg for milk and baby food, and 10 Bq/kg for water. Recently, the Ministry asked retailers to stop measuring radiation on their own and advertising lower contamination levels, claiming it would confuse consumers. However, retailers say they are simply responding to customers’ requests for safe food in the midst of widespread distrust in the government. “We had to draw up our own standards because consumers do not trust the national standards,” noted Hiroshi Tsuchida, head of quality control at Seikatsu Club.
Newly uncovered documents from Fukushima Prefecture’s education department show high levels of radiation at 20 schools. Heightened contamination levels were discovered in ditches, hedges, and drains. The documents were released to a civic group as part of a freedom of information request.