Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
United Nations Special Rapporteur Anand Grover, representing the UN Human Rights Council, is criticizing Japan’s government for failing to protect the human rights of those affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including those who were exposed to radiation. Grover cited the government’s failure to disperse radiation contamination data from the System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), as well as the fact that it hasn’t conducted widespread medical follow-up checks among nuclear workers who are decontaminating and decommissioning the crippled reactors. He also pointed out problems with decontamination efforts as they apply to children, the elderly, and pregnant women. A report on the failures will be submitted to the Council next June.
A Fukushima prefectural panel assigned to examine the effects of radiation on local residents has finally released full minutes from secret, closed door meetings conducted last year, after admitting that an earlier set of minutes, released via a freedom of information act request, omitted significant sections regarding officials’ efforts to discourage urine testing in spite of Cabinet officials’ recommendation that the testing be adopted. Although urine testing can detect even minute radiation exposure, Fukushima officials refused to use it then, and continue to do so even today. Katsuma Yakagaski, from the University of Ryukyus, said, “They apparently didn’t want to reveal that they wanted to avoid conducting urine tests, in an effort to underestimate the damage to residents’ health.”
The meetings themselves were conducted secretly, and originally, no minutes were produced in spite of a legal obligation to do so. After residents requested information about the meetings under the freedom of information act in October, minutes were compiled after the fact, using attendees’ notes. However, the portions concerning the urine testing debate were intentionally omitted.
Yukiko Kada, Governor of Shiga Prefecture, will reportedly form a new political party comprised of various minority parties, with a goal of focusing on anti-nuclear issues before next month’s Lower House election.
Meanwhile, disapproval numbers for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are rising again, up 3% in the last week to 64%, a new record high, according to a recent poll by NHK. The approval rate for Noda’s Cabinet remains unchanged at a record low of 22%. When asked for whom they would vote, 21% said Noda; 26% said opposition leader Shinzo Abe, who is pro-nuclear; and 49% said neither.
A new survey by the Asahi Shimbun reveals that 99 people who serve on municipal assemblies are also employed by nuclear power companies—and in many cases, have actively advocated for nuclear interests, including voting against anti-nuclear motions. Some receive regular salaries from both the municipalities they serve and the utilities for which they work.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has admitted that for the fifth time, errors have been found in radiation dispersal data it first distributed in October. The latest errors affect the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture and the Higashidori plant in Aomori Prefecture. The radiation maps were designed to help local officials create evacuation and emergency preparedness plans, and municipal leaders have complained that they need accurate information in order to effectively evacuation residents. However, the NRA insists that evacuation routes will not be affected by the most recent errors, which were a result of errors in data entry by an affiliate of Tohoku Electric.
State of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors
A new report from TEPCO to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) admits that if the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #3 were to experience water loss, a nuclear meltdown could begin to occur in just over 24 hours. However, the utility insists that it would be able to inject additional cooling water from a concrete pump truck within six hours.
TEPCO has finally released radiation data gathered from monitors at the Fukushima Daini plant, located 12 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where three nuclear reactors melted down more than a year and a half ago. The readings were taken between March 15 and April 3, 2011, and show a massive release of radiation on March 16, presumably from a large leak at Daiichi’s reactor #3. Up until now, TEPCO has refused to release the data.
A new study by Asahi shows that only 904 of 24,118 workers—a mere 3.7%—who are decontaminating and decommissioning TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are eligible for free cancer screenings, but many more may be at risk. TEPCO and the Japanese government said that only those exposed to more than 50 millisieverts of radiation between March 11, when the disaster first began to unfold, and December 2011, when the government declared the meltdowns under control, are eligible for the tests. However, workers continue to be exposed to radiation every day, and radiation levels remain astronomically high. In some areas of the plant, radiation is so toxic that a worker would die in just minutes if he were exposed. The number of workers who have been exposed to contamination at the plant may be far higher than anyone knows; this year, several contractors admitted to shielding dosimeters to hide the amount of radiation to which workers were actually exposed—or preventing them from wearing dosimeters altogether. One employee who worked without a dosimeter lamented, “I’m anxious I’m not allowed to receive free checks, even though I have no idea about my exposure levels.” Many workers are now lobbying for removal of the time limits.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Japan’s Environment Ministry is conducting thyroid examinations on children from Nagasaki Prefecture in an effort to create control groups, which will be compared with test results of 360,000 children from Fukushima Prefecture. The Japan Association of Breast and Thyroid Sonology will conduct similar tests in Yamanashi and Aomori Prefectures. The alternate test sites were chosen because they are far from the site of the March 2011 nuclear disaster. Results are expected to be available by the end of fiscal 2012. Children who have been exposed to radiation are highly susceptible to thyroid cancer. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 40% of 96,000 children who were tested showed thyroid abnormalities, including lumps, cysts, and one case of cancer.
Radiation levels in wild mushrooms harvested from areas hundreds of kilometers from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are raising alarms among farmers and restaurateurs who depend on the delicacies for their livelihoods. Contaminated mushrooms, some measuring as much as 3,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, have been found in Aomori, Nagano, and Shizuoka Prefectures, more than 200 km and up to 350 km from the Fukushima plant. In many cases, readings are higher than they were last year. The government’s legal limit for cesium is 100 Bq/kg. Yasuyuki Muramatsu, a professor at Gakushuin University, speculated, “There is the possibility that radioactive materials that were attached to the trunks and leaves of trees last year were washed away by the rain and entered the soil into which mushrooms extend their fungal filament.”
Officials from the towns of Hirono and Kawauchi, both located in Fukushima Prefecture, announced this week that they will resume rice planting next year, for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold more than a year and a half ago—and the first time that rice planting has resumed in emergency evacuation preparation areas near the plant. However, many farmers are expressing concern about harvesting crops there, in light of ongoing worries about radiation contamination among the public.
Safety Conditions at Other Nuclear Plants in Japan
New tests on reactor #5 at Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, which was heavily damaged after seawater flooded the central pressure vessel last year, show that the reactor may never be restarted unless massive repairs are made. On May 14, 2011, an equipment malfunction caused 400 tons of seawater to flood the reactor’s condenser; 5 tons leaked into the pressure vessel itself. Chubu reported that the salt in the water corroded pumps and condenser tubes, as well as creating 40 holes in the condensate storage tank. However, government officials are concerned that the utility is only testing certain equipment, rather than that of the entire reactor. One member of an expert panel noted, “Exhaustive checks and replacement of key components should be considered.” But that task may be next to impossible; another expert said, “How to verify conditions in some enclosed sections, where inspection is impossible, remains a challenge.” The Nuclear Regulation Authority has yet to announce if or when it will examine the equipment in order to potentially approve the reactor’s restart, but did note the high risk at stake. Toyoshi Fuketa, an NRA Commissioner, said, “Reuse and restarts cannot be contemplated without confirming the potential consequences of major disasters involving coolant loss, on a case-by-case basis.”