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

TEPCO

Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, has approved TEPCO’s proposed restructuring plan, which it developed in conjunction with the government’s Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund. The new plan, which extends through 2021, effectively places the utility under state control. The government has agreed to inject $12.5 billion to keep the company from going bankrupt; this amount is in addition to $10.7 billion the government will pay to help cover compensation due to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In exchange, the government will receive over 50% in voting shares. Analysts estimate that the overall cost of the Fukushima crisis will eventually top $100 billion. TEPCO’s nationalization is the second largest ever outside of the banking industry; the largest was that of General Motors, which cost the US taxpayers $14.7 billion.

As part of that plan, TEPCO has appointed a new president, Naomi Hirose. Hirose is currently a Managing Director at the company in charge of compensating victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis and previously worked in sales. He said his goals are to compensate disaster victims, decommission the crippled reactors at the Daiichi plant, and stabilizing power supply in the region. Yukio Edano, the head of METI, had pushed for an outsider to be appointed president, but the utility resisted. Hirose is said to be close to Tsunehisa Katsumata, the outgoing but powerful TEPCO Chairman. He replaces outgoing Toshio Nishizawa, who was sharply criticized after saying, “Rate increases are a power company’s right.”

A major component of TEPCO’s revised business plan involves the controversial decision to restart all seven reactors at the utility’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture starting in April 2013, in spite of the fact that many local residents are fiercely opposed to the idea. TEPCO’s incoming Chairman, Kazuhiko Shimokobe, said, “While the resumption of operations is not a predetermined fact, any plan that does not include nuclear energy would be nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky blueprint.”

The utility plans to raise residential electricity rates for the first time in 32 years, by as much as 10.28%. In addition, TEPCO will charge higher rates during the day when the power grid load is greater, as opposed to the evening. The plan also calls for 3.36 trillion yen in cost cutting measures over the next 10 years.

TEPCO has admitted that a 17-year old boy worked at the Fukushima Daiichi plant under highly radioactive conditions last year in the month following the meltdown, in violation of Japan’s Labor Standards Law. The utility said he received 1.92 millisieverts of radiation during that period. The boy falsified his birth certificate, saying he was 18 years old.

The family of a woman who committed suicide as a result of stress and emotional suffering in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has filed suit against TEPCO, blaming the utility for her death. The woman set herself on fire after briefly visiting her home, which the family had been forced to evacuate. The case could have far-reaching implications for others who have experienced mental distress in the aftermath of the nuclear crisis. 

A group of 25 victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster who were forced to evacuate from their homes are suing TEPCO for 254 million yen in damages.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

New figures released by METI estimate that nine major power utilities in Japan will post a loss of 2.7 trillion yen ($33.8 billion) by the end of fiscal 2012, as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That number assumes that all nuclear reactors in Japan, which are currently idle, remain offline the rest of the year. Most utilities are depending on thermal power plants to make up for the expected shortfall, and have announced they will delay inspecting 13 of 28 plants in order to keep them online. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has approved of that decision.

Yukio Edano, the head of METI, said that the government may impose curbs on power use in the Kansai region this summer, but will wait until the last minute to make that decision.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission has recommended that the government delay a decision on its nuclear fuel cycle policy, saying that more discussion is needed. At issue is how to handle spent nuclear fuel. The proposal could result in the temporary shutdown of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture.

Koichiro Genba, former Minister of State for National Policy, admitted in an interview this week that he proposed evacuating half a million people from a 50 km radius around the Fukushima Daiichi plant immediately following the nuclear disaster last spring. Instead, the government decided to evacuate 78,000 people from within a 20 km radius.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) is criticizing NISA for granting approval to the Shika Nuclear Power Station in Ishikawa Prefecture to use MOX fuel. MOX is a mix of plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel and uranium. The NSC said that NISA has failed to take lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster into account when making its decision.

A citizens’ group called Let’s Decide Together has now collected 323,000 signatures in support of a referendum on whether or not to restart nuclear reactors in the TEPCO service area. The Tokyo metropolitan assembly is expected to vote on the issue in June. The Governor has opposed the referendum, saying it will cost too much.

Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors

In continuing efforts to convince skeptical municipal officials that restarting the Oi reactors is safe, a third METI official will travel to Fukui Prefecture as early as the end of this week. The move follows an unsuccessful meeting between METI Minister Yukio Edano on April 14 and Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, as well as a town hall meeting between METI Senior Vice Minister Mitsuyoshi Yanagisawa and concerned Oi residents on April 26. Now, Senior Vice Minister Seishu Makino will meet with officials from Shiga and Kyoto Prefectures.

Local officials in Kyoto, Osaka, and Shiga Prefectures continue to criticize efforts to restart the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, calling the government’s emergency disaster plans “inadequate.” In addition, they are questioning Kansai Electric’s assertion that the region will suffer power shortages this summer if the reactors remain idle. Tetsunari Iida, who heads the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo, noted, “Projected demand and supply were originally calculated at 2010 levels, during an extremely hot summer and at a time when no special conservation efforts were in place. KEPCO is just presenting numbers without proof or explanation, in the hope that they can get back to business as usual.”

The Gifu Prefectural Assembly has unanimously adopted a statement demanding that the central government obtain consent of local residents, including those in Gifu, before restarting the Oi nuclear reactors in nearby Fukui Prefecture. In addition, the statement criticizes the central government for basing its decision on political considerations, rather than depending on experts to determine whether or not the reactors are safe to operate. The Assembly asserts that no decision should be made until the investigation into the causes of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been completed.

Contamination

Residents of the West Coast of the United States and Canada are expressing concern about radioactive waste, as ocean currents carrying debris from last year’s massive tsunami in Japan begin to reach their shores. So far, building materials, Styrofoam, soccer balls, and a motorcycle have washed ashore, with much more debris expected to arrive in the coming year. Some towns are exploring radiation monitoring stations to determine whether contamination levels are below legal limits.Others have raised concerns that disposing of the waste could exceed municipal budgets.

Other Nuclear News

Staff from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have submitted a letter to Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, charging an NRC manager with “diminish[ing] the significance of valid inspection results” at Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear station. In addition, the manager allegedly “openly berated and intimidated inspectors for raising safety issues.” Fort Calhoun was shut down for flooding last year and a fire that caused significant threats to the plant’s safety. Markey, who has long expressed concern about nuclear safety in the United States, said the revelations are “appalling” and has called for an independent investigation.

Four US scientists have published a new report in the British journal Nature, recommending that plutonium from spent nuclear fuel be buried rather than recycled. The researchers say that burying the fuel is more cost-effective and will reduce the chance that plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear bombs, will fall into the hands of terrorists. Over 250 tons of plutonium has accumulated around the world; it has a half-life of 28,000 years.