Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Embarrassment continues to grow for officials at the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), who released radiation dispersal prediction maps for all 16 nuclear power plants in Japan on October 24, but were forced to immediately apologize after errors were discovered. Officials admitted additional errors on October 29, November 6, and November 8. The mistakes concern estimated distance and direction of radiation plumes. Although many of the mistakes were attributed to data entry errors involving annual meteorological predictions (including wind speed, wind direction, and rainfall estimates), input by staff at the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), the NRA admitted it should have checked all data before releasing the maps.
The NRA had promised to release newly-corrected maps last Thursday, but officials now say that all maps need to be rechecked, and it could be a week or more before that work will be completed. “We would like to be sure that there will be no more errors, so the simulations are being thoroughly checked again,” noted NRA spokesman Hideka Morimoto. Municipal officials, who are depending on the maps to create complex emergency response and evacuation plans, due to the government by March, have expressed anger and frustration.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in nine locations across Tokyo on Sunday, including in front of the Diet Building, in order to demonstrate against nuclear power. The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes organized the protests. The group also planned a march around the Diet Building for approximately 10,000 people, but it was cancelled after the Tokyo government said that protestors could not gather at Hibiya Park, as they have done in the past.
Since March, people have been gathering in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence to express their opposition to nuclear power, but as the cold weather approaches, attendance numbers have been declining. One participant at Sunday’s event noted, “I was worried people were starting to care less about the issue, but I’m relieved to see so many people here today.”
A new poll conducted by Japanese public television station NHK shows that approval ratings for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet have dropped to 23%, the lowest ever. In addition, the disapproval rate for the Cabinet is at an all-time high of 59%. When respondents were asked whom they preferred to be the next Prime Minister, just 16% said they would choose Noda, and only 28% named opposition leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe. Fifty-one percent of respondents said neither. Nuclear power politics will play a significant role in the next general election, expected to happen within the next year.
TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said this week that if the utility is not allowed to restart some of its nuclear reactors by April 2013, including all seven at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, it will not post a profit in fiscal year 2013. The company, which recently announced that decommissioning and compensation costs from the Fukushima nuclear disaster may reach 10 trillion yen ($126 billion), said in May it expected to turn a profit in 2013, a necessity if it is to repay public funds borrowed to cover burgeoning costs. However, the NRA will reportedly not even release new safety standards until July 2013, and any restarts would most likely occur long after that, making TEPCO’s plan unrealistic. Company officials indicated last week that they will need additional government funding to stay afloat, a request reportedly poorly received by Yukio Edano, head of METI. “First of all, it is important that the company steadily caries out reforms under the framework based on existing law, and firmly fulfills its responsibilities,” he said.
Safety Conditions at Other Nuclear Power Plants in Japan
Officials from Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) said this week that in spite of the government’s recent announcement that it will abolish nuclear power by 2039, it plans to survey fault lines and begin boring tests beneath the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, in preparation for restarting the reactor. Nine fault fracture zones surround the plant, one an active fault line just 500 meters from the reactor. The tests were originally ordered by the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which has been replaced by the NRA. The announcement was made during a presentation to a Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) working group. Performance tests on the reactor will reportedly continue for two to three years before it begins operating at full capacity.
Nuclear Waste Disposal and Cleanup
The Japanese government continues to struggle with the question of where to put vast amounts of radioactive waste left in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The government has agreed to dispose of any waste, ash, and sludge containing more than 8,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, which by law, must be buried. However, local municipalities are responsible for disposing of any ash and sludge below that level, along with other types of waste. In five prefectures, including Fukushima, more than 130,000 tons of waste remains unprocessed because of residents’ concerns about radiation. Fukushima Prefecture alone is storing 70,000 tons of waste; officials in Koriyama City have piled up 8,000 one-ton bags, and have run out of storage space. The issue is expected to snowball, as decontamination efforts across the country ramp up in coming years, producing more and more radioactive waste and soil. (Source: NHK)