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

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Politics are heating up in anticipation of national elections for Japan’s House of Representatives, scheduled for Sunday, December 16. Campaigning is slated to begin December 4, with 1,121 candidates running for 480 seats. A party must win 241 seats to secure the majority. Analysts say that nuclear power could play a large role in this election in light of that fact that public opposition has been steadily growing since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, anti-nuclear choices may be limited. Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) declared earlier this year that they would abolish nuclear power by 2039, more than 50 members of the DPJ have defected, and the party is expected to experience significant losses in the upcoming election as a result of other political hot-button issues.

In the meantime, Shinzo Abe, head of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), promised last week that if his party wins, he will restart the nation’s idled nuclear reactors, which were shut down after the Fukushima disaster and have yet to be restarted because of widespread safety concerns, including questions about whether or not a number of reactors sit atop active fault lines. Abe went so far as to call Noda’s plan to abolish nuclear power “irresponsible.” The LDP platform does include a promise to develop renewable energy in coming years.  

It remains to be seen how much power will be delegated to third party candidates or whether they can win a majority of seats to become the ruling party, but in a move that has surprised many analysts, the Japan Restoration Party, or Nippon Ishin no Kai (headed by powerful Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto) and The Sunshine Party (led by Shintaro Ishihara) said that they will merge, jointly increasing chances of winning seats. The new party will retain the name Nippon Ishin no Kai. Although Hashimoto has long been staunchly anti-nuclear and promised to abolish nuclear power, Ishihara is pro-nuclear. The new party platform has abandoned the nuclear-free goal, but it will push for energy deregulation, which could decrease the power of the nuclear sector. Nevertheless, the two parties have long been at odds, and some critics doubt whether they will be able to maintain the relationship for an extended period of time. Yuji Yoshitomi, a political journalist from Osaka, mused, “I have doubts about whether things will go well. Their policies are different, and factionalism between the two parties’ supporters will likely prevail.”

Whether or not the election results will even count is an issue up for debate in the courts. Lawyers have already filed suit with the Tokyo District Court, charging that the current voting system, which allocates one Lower House seat per prefecture no matter what its size or population, is unconstitutional. They hope that the court will suspend the upcoming election. Other attorneys are reportedly planning to file 60 separate suits on the day after all ballots are counted, in an effort to have election results ruled invalid.

TEPCO

As expected, a group of more than 13,000 people has filed criminal charges against executives from TEPCO and Japan’s central government for the role they played in the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The plaintiffs are charging officials with failure to prepare for natural disasters that were foreseeable, as well as professional negligence in deaths, injuries, and damage to the environment. This case is unusual in that “deaths and injuries” are being defined as those that occurred while residents were in evacuation status, rather than just during the actual meltdowns, and identify all Japanese citizens as victims exposed to radiation. This is the largest mass complaint filed so far in connection with the Fukushima disaster.

Officials from Fukushima Prefecture announced this week that they will not renew a nuclear fuel tax, set to expire December 30, which has been levied on TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi and Daini power plants since 1977. The utility is preparing to decommission reactors at the plants, and the prefecture wants to abolish all nuclear power. Although all but two of Japan’s nuclear reactors are currently offline, some other local governments are levying new taxes on idle reactors.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Fukushima Prefectural officials are reporting that a resident who lived in the northern part of the prefecture, far from the evacuation zone, was exposed to 11 millisieverts of radiation in the first four months following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Other residents who lived far away absorbed at most seven millisieverts during that same period of time. Experts are confused about why his exposure levels were so high. The officials also reported that a young woman in the Prefecture has developed thyroid problems, but said that they have been unable to determine whether or not the issue was directly related to last year’s nuclear meltdowns.

New tests conducted by the Environment Ministry have revealed excessive levels of radioactivity in trout caught in the Niida River in Fukushima Prefecture. The fish contained 11, 400 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, more than 110 times the legal limit, which is 100 Bq/kg. In addition, the survey found a smallmouth bass containing 4,400 Bq/kg of cesium and a catfish measuring 3,000 Bq/kg in the Mano River, also in Fukushima Prefecture. A Ministry official noted, “Like the previous survey, concentrations of cesium tended to be higher in rivers and lakes than in the sea. We want to grasp the extent of pollution by continuously conducting the survey.”

Meanwhile, tests conducted by the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center in Japan found tea leaves in Kagoshima Prefecture containing 80 Bq/kg of cesium, far exceeding the government limit of 10 Bq/kg. The discovery is notable in that Kagoshima Prefecture is far from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and is in the westernmost part of Japan, with the exception of Okinawa.
 
The chairman of a panel in Fukushima Prefecture tasked with conducting a prefectural health study to determine the effects of radiation on prefecture’s residents, especially children, Shunichi Yamashida, is apologizing for conducting secret, closed-door “preparation” meetings where important decisions were made. Last week, a Freedom of Information Request by the Mainichi Daily News 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. “I have caused a great deal of trouble to committee members,” Yamashida said, “and I sincerely apologize. I hope to make all meetings properly public from now on.” In addition, prefectural officials said that they will amend guidelines to ensure that all of the committee’s meetings are conducted in public and that members compile minutes of the proceedings.

Nuclear Waste Disposal and Cleanup

Japan’s central government continues to struggle with finding a permanent disposal site for nearly 88,000 tons of highly radioactive ash and sludge leftover from last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. The majority of the sludge—70,000 tons—is in Fukushima Prefecture, with the remaining sitting in Shizuoka and Yamagata Prefectures. The government has agreed to dispose of any nuclear waste containing more than 8,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, but cannot find a permanent disposal site because local residents have voiced loud opposition to housing such a facility near their homes. Officials originally estimated that they would need to find space for only 50,000 tons of waste; more is expected to build up as decontamination efforts continue.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Inc. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have joined forces to create a new camera that can record gamma rays emitted by radioactive materials. The creators hope that the new technology will assist in decontamination efforts in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which occurred more than 20 months ago. The cameras, which weigh approximately 8 kg and have a 180º range, are expensive, costing tens of millions of yen. However, Mitsubishi is considering leasing the equipment to some local governments.

Safety Conditions at Other Nuclear Plants in Japan

Officials from Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), operator of the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, said this week that they will delay a report on crush zones there until the end of January. The study was conducted at the request of the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) in an effort to determine whether the plant is sitting on active fault lines. The testing process involves drilling deep vertical shafts in the ground; JAPC said it has not completed drilling and isn’t yet ready to file a report. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which took over many of NISA’s responsibilities, has said that it will shut down any nuclear reactors that sit atop active fault lines.