Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) admitted this week that four of its six safety experts responsible for drafting new nuclear legislation received between 3 million and 27 million yen each in payments from the nuclear power industry within the last three or four years, raising questions about their ability to remain impartial. Payments came from Nuclear Engineering Ltd. (an affiliate of Kansai Electric Power Company, known as KEPCO); Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which manufactures nuclear reactors; Japan Atomic Power Company; a research lab affiliated with TEPCO; and Nuclear Fuel Industries, Ltd. When asked to comment on the issue, the Secretariat of the NRA bushed off concerns, insisting that the four experts “were selected in line with regulations, and there should be thus no problem.”
Meanwhile, the Noda administration said that it would once again refrain from seeking Parliamentary approval for newly-appointed Commissioners to the NRA, including its Chairman. The NRA picks were controversial; four of the five members have received funding within the last two years, and Chair Shunichi Tanaka was previously Vice Chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), which promotes nuclear power. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura freely admitted that the government fears that the Diet will fail to approve the controversial appointments, and said that the Commissioners are legally free to continue at their posts because the country remains in “a state of nuclear emergency” following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Meanwhile, the government insists that the situation at the Daiichi plant has stabilized, and has approved the restart of two reactors at the Oi power plant, despite public protest and outcry.
Safety Conditions at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant
The NRA announced this week that it will postpone a decision on whether key safety components at KEPCO’s Oi nuclear power plant, including an emergency water intake channel required to cool backup diesel generators in case of power loss, are sitting atop an active fault line. Reactors there were restarted this summer at the behest of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in spite of widespread public opposition and concerns about safety.
A team of five experts appointed by the NRA, including Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, who is also a seismologist, traveled to the plant in Fukui Prefecture on Friday to evaluate the seams. Scientists and other researchers have recently expressed significant concern that the so-called “F-6 fracture zone” located underneath the plant may be active, placing the country at risk for another catastrophic nuclear disaster. KEPCO, however, conducted its own survey earlier last week and continues to insist that the area is safe; it will deliver a final report on the issue in December. Japanese law prohibits operation of nuclear reactors over active fault lines. If the NRA rules that the seam is indeed active, the Oi plant could be shut down. Current government guidelines define an active fault as one that has moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years. However, there is reportedly talk among NRA commissioners about changing that standard to 400,000 years.
Tokyo University Professor Mitsuhisa Watanabe believes that the fault is active and has moved within the last 120,000-130,000 years. Other experts on the teams admitted that they could not rule out the possibility that the fault line is active; all agree that movement has occurred. However, Atsumasa Okada, from Ritsumeikan University, suggested that the movement was caused by a landslide rather than an active fault line. The group plans to meet again on Wednesday, but warned that more studies may be needed to determine whether or not the fault line is indeed active. That may be difficult, because KEPCO destroyed evidential geological formations when it built the plant. Watanabe expressed frustration with the delay, saying, “An active fault runs directly beneath important equipment. It is not necessary to argue that a conclusion is premature.”
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
This week, Katsunobu Sakurai, Mayor of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture, criticized the Japanese government for delays in reconstruction and decontamination after the Fukushima nuclear disaster nearly 20 months ago. Sakurai, who was speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ), was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2011. “I seriously question whether politicians on the national level really understand the reality we are facing,” he said, adding, “We need to change the system that we have here in Japan in which Japanese politicians and Japanese mass media basically work together. But the reality, I feel, is that we are moving in the complete opposite direction. We are not changing the system for the better. We are going backward. We are moving things toward the way things were…I feel very strongly that politicians must reflect in their policies the feelings of the Japanese people. The revival of Japan depends on the revival of Fukushima.”
Officials from Niigata announced this week that every municipality in the prefecture will be required to submit extensive emergency response and evacuation plans in preparation for a nuclear disaster at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant—even those that fall outside of the 30 km so-called Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ). Last week, the NRA expanded evacuation zones from an 8-10 km radius around nuclear reactors to a 30 km radius. However, it also released new projections showing that in some areas, radiation plumes could travel up to 40 km from the site of a nuclear disaster, endangering those even outside of the UPZ. Prefectural and municipal officials agreed that all cities and towns within 50 km should be prepared for mass evacuations. Municipal emergency plans must be completed and submitted by March. (Source: NHK)
A survey conducted by Kyodo News shows that 35% of municipalities affected by the NRA’s newly-expanded evacuation zones have not identified evacuation sites in case a nuclear disaster occurs. In some areas, the entire municipality, as well as those nearby, falls within the evacuation zone; officials admit that they will need to develop reciprocal plans with other municipalities, sometimes crossing prefectural lines. In addition, 90% of those polled have yet to create iodine distribution plans, in part out of concern about side effects and storage issues.
Over ten thousand people have joined a new criminal lawsuit against TEPCO, its top managers, and government officials, charging death and injury through professional negligence in the wake of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011. Prosecutors expect to file the complaint on November 15. The group hopes to highlight widespread public anger and desire for accountability from officials following last year’s nuclear disaster. The case follows another filed this summer, in which 1,324 residents of Fukushima Prefecture filed suit against 33 TEPCO and government officials for similar charges.
More than a year and a half after the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, TEPCO is now admitting that four workers, not three, were exposed to exceedingly high levels of radiation after being ordered to lay cables in a water-filled basement in reactor #3 on March 24, 2011. Although TEPCO sent its own workers away from the plant, warning them about dangerous conditions, contractors and subcontractors were ordered to stay and perform dangerous work in order to prevent the meltdowns from becoming even more catastrophic.
New documents uncovered by the Asahi Shimbun reveal that special taxpayer funds designated for workers assigned to dangerous decontamination work is not being received by those doing the work, especially those who are subcontracted, and is instead reportedly being held by contracting companies who oversee the subcontract. The Environment Ministry, which oversees the special allowance fund, has promised to look into the matter. Masaaki Kobayashi, Director General of the Environmental Management Bureau, noted, “The allowance is paid for the risk of exposure to radiation and mental anguish. It will be a serious problem if it is not being paid to workers.”
In the wake of widespread criticism for dragging its feet on compensation, decontamination, and prompt decision-making, TEPCO has decided to expand the power and responsibilities of its satellite office in Fukushima Prefecture. Previously, compensation, decontamination, and other disaster-related decisions were split between the Fukushima office and TEPCO’s main headquarters in Tokyo, a system that reportedly caused confusion and numerous delays. The utility said it will add 500 new employees to the compensation division, bringing the total to 4,000, and will increase staff managing decontamination issues from 100 to 300. Moreover, all 38,000 TEPCO employees will be expected to work in Fukushima Prefecture for “extended periods” two to three times a year. The new prefectural headquarters are expected to open early next year.
Contamination (Including Human Exposure)
Officials in Fukushima Prefecture held a briefing session this week for parents concerned about the thyroid screening process for children age 18 and younger who were exposed to radiation after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Almost 20 months after the crisis first began to unfold, only approximately one-third of the 115,000 children affected have been screened. In addition to the slow testing process, parents have complained that they only receive copies of their children’s thyroid images if they specifically request them, and that the second round of testing for the group of children who developed cysts 20 mm or smaller would not occur for two more years. Additional briefing sessions will be held in Fukushima City on November 10 and in Minamisoma on November 18.