Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
Experts from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) plan to visit Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture on December 1, in order to determine whether two reactors there sit on or are adjacent to active fault lines. The team, which includes five seismic experts headed by Kunihiko Shimazaki, an NRA Commissioner, is particularly concerned about a fissure below reactor #2. The utility was supposed to release its own seismic surveys this month, but now say that they will be delayed. NRA officials are in the process of conducting tests at six nuclear power plants across the country. Japanese law forbids operating nuclear reactors if they sit atop active faults, so if any are discovered, the plants would be forced to immediately shut down.
Meanwhile, Mitsuhisa Watanabe, who also sits on the NRA expert panel, is pushing for two reactors at the Oi power plant, to be halted while the panel determines whether the F-6 fault, which runs beneath safety equipment at the plant, is active. All members of the team have agreed that there is a possibility that F-6 is active, although one pointed to the possibility that shifts there were caused by a landslide, not seismic activity. But, Watanabe does not support that theory. The Oi reactors are the only two that have been restarted in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold. Watanabe said, “Active faults run parallel in many cases. If you determine one fault is active, the possibility becomes higher that nearby parallel faults may be active. You need to stop the reactor to conduct thorough surveys to check all of them first. If you can’t deny the possibility that it may be an active fault, we should not ignore the risk. The plant should first be suspended. We should not make the same mistake that was made in Fukushima.” He added, “The nuclear regulator and power companies have long tried to underestimate the danger of active faults, worrying it would affect power supply capacity.” If the fault is found to be active, Shunichi Tanaka, head of the NRA, has promised that the plant will be shut down.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced this week that he will dissolve the Lower House of the Diet as early as today, and call for a general election on December 16. The move was the result of a promise made to members of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), after they agreed to support Noda’s electoral reform bill. Members of his own party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are reportedly concerned that they will suffer large losses in the election, but some analysts contend that Noda’s and the party’s popularity would only continue to drop further if he waited any longer. The election outcome could have a significant impact on the future of nuclear power in Japan, especially if the LDP wins the majority of votes. LDP Party Chief Shinzo Abe has said that he supports nuclear power—but he may need to appease a skeptical and concerned public. Opposition to nuclear power has been widespread and ongoing since the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.
A Freedom of Information Request by the Mainichi Daily News has revealed that earlier assertions by Fukushima prefectural officials that secret meetings to discuss health effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster were simply “preparatory meetings” held in advance of public exploratory forums and without any minutes, and were not used to make any significant decisions, were, in fact, blatantly false. Although the officials insisted that no minutes were taken at the closed-door meetings, supposedly convened before the public meeting for the sole purpose of distributing briefing materials, they later released actual minutes. A Prefectural Official defended the initial denials, calling the minutes “memos.” Significantly, the secret panel meetings were used to decide the scope and what could and couldn’t be said during the public forums, and one of the secret gatherings was 3.5 hours long—far longer than the 1.5-hour public exploratory meeting. The minutes note that when discussing the age cut-off for thyroid examinations (18 years of age), Shunichi Yamashita, Chair of the panel, specifically noted, “We will make a decision at this [secret] meeting.”
Residents from Shizuoka Prefecture who have filed suit against Chubu Electric, operator of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant there, plan to also sue the central government in an effort to force the plant’s closure. It’s the first time the government has been named in this sort of case. The 181 plaintiffs charge that reactors there present an ongoing danger and risk that is significant enough to impinge on their right to pursue happiness. “The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster has highlighted the risk of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, whose operation has been substantially supported by the national government,” noted one of the defense attorneys, Tadakazu Shiozawa.
Conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors
TEPCO is planning to build an arched cover over reactor #3 at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which will allow cranes and other equipment to remove 566 nuclear fuel assemblies there while containing at least some of the radiation currently escaping. The roof of the reactor building was blown off after a hydrogen explosion following the nuclear meltdown last year. The cover will weigh 1,500 tons and will include filtered ventilators to control radiation levels within the covered area.
A group of 41 residents from Fukushima Prefecture plan to sue TEPCO for 20 million yen each—a total of 1.08 billion yen—as restitution for TEPCO’s being the cause of their “homeland stolen and integrity as a human being destroyed.” They will ask for additional compensation for loss of profits, and living expenses incurred during the course of their evacuation. None of the plaintiffs believe they will ever be able to return to their homes.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
New data shows that radiation levels off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have remained stable, rather than dropping as expected. The findings raise new questions about the cause of the ongoing contamination. Jota Kanda, a researcher at The Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, said that there are most likely three separate sources: radiation that has washed from the land into rivers and then flowed into the sea; ongoing leaks from the Fukushima plant itself; and a highly contaminated seabed, which is in turn continuing to contaminate the food chain, as fish consume marine organisms that live there. The Fukushima disaster was responsible for the largest ever release of radioactivity into the ocean: 16.2 petabecquerels. Kanda estimates that the plant continues to leak .3 terabecquerels (1012 becquerels) each month. Woods Hole expert Kenneth Buessler noted that there is no way to predict when fishing might return to the area.
Japan’s Council for Science and Technology Policy announced this week that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries will conduct studies on why fish caught near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continue to be found highly radioactive. In March of this year, salmon caught in a river near Iitate measured 18,700 Bq/kg, and in August, two greenlings caught off the Fukushima coast measured 25,800 Bq/kg—the highest level of contamination since the nuclear disaster began in March 2011. The government’s safety limit for contamination in seafood is 100 Bq/kg. Scientists plan to measure cesium levels in the inner ears of the fish, because contamination tends to accumulate there over a lifetime, allowing researchers to determine when they were contaminated. They will also test cesium levels in the seabed off the coast, which is highly radioactive. The study is expected to cost 190 million yen ($2.4 million). The Fukushima nuclear disaster has had a profound economic effect on fishermen in the prefecture, many of whom have lost their livelihoods. In 2011 alone, the industry lost between 100 billion and 200 billion yen ($1.3 billion to $2.6 billion).
Officials from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) said that five radiation-monitoring posts in Fukushima Prefecture have been vandalized within the last six months. The Ministry installed 3,245 monitors around the prefecture in order to monitor contamination levels. Local police have called the damage “malicious mischief,” but are not sure how to prevent further occurrences. One MEXT official said, “The monitoring posts have been set up at parks and other locations frequented by many people. And some local residents don’t want security cameras installed for the facilities. We can’t find any countermeasures.”
Nuclear Waste Disposal and Cleanup
The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), a subsidiary of TEPCO, said this week that it is developing a system to simultaneously incinerate and decontaminate nuclear waste at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. The new process involves burning the waste and then mixing the resultant ash with water and acid. Cesium that is released in the process is mixed with Prussian blue dye, which binds to the contaminants. AIST said that testing of the process will take place through fiscal year 2013, and will cost approximately 150 million yen.