Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
United Nations Investigation
United Nations Special Rapporteur Grover Anand, an independent expert who conducted an 11-day survey in Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures in an effort to study possible human rights violations, said this week that Japan has not done enough to protect people from the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, both before it occurred and in its aftermath. Specifically, Anand criticized the government’s handling of medical examinations, which are limited only to children in Fukushima prefecture and ignore others of all ages who may have been exposed to radiation. “The scope of the survey is unfortunately narrow as they draw on the limited lessons from the Chernobyl accident and ignore epidemiological resources that point to cancer as well as other diseases in low-dosage radiation. Chernobyl is not a good example, whose study in the first three years was a blackout. So we don’t have data…I would urge the government to expand health surveys to all radiation-affected zones.” Moreover, he criticized the government’s implication that exposure to radiation of 20 millisieverts per year (the level at which no-entry zones were established), saying that it misleads people into thinking that levels below 20 millisieverts per year are safe. “The government has to err on the side of caution and be inclusive,” he said.
Anand also criticized TEPCO and the government’s failure to inform residents of disaster management plans before the accident, in an effort to make them believe that nuclear power was safe and foolproof, as well as a failure to distribute iodine tablets and information about the spread of radiation once the disaster had occurred. Evacuation plans were badly handled, he added, based on geographical distance from the meltdowns, rather than radiation dosage in affected areas.
In addition, Anand said that nuclear workers have not been adequately protected. “I was distressed to learn that there is a practice of employing a large number of contract workers through a layer of subcontractors. A significant number of them are employed for short periods of time, with no effective long-term monitoring of their health after their employment contracts are terminated. I call upon the government to look into this and ensure that no workers who have been exposed to radiation are left without monitoring and/or treatment.”
His report will be published in June.
Upcoming National Elections
The political scene in Japan is heating up as campaigning begins for the nation’s general elections, which will be held December 16. This week, Saga Governor Yukiko Kada announced that she would form a new political party, Nippon Mirai no To (Japan Future Party), with the aim of eradicating nuclear power within the next decade. Kada is a long-time environmental expert and has campaigned against nuclear power out of concern that it would endanger nearby Lake Biwa, which provides water to 14.5 million people. “We must show the path toward graduating from nuclear power generation. We’d like to send a message of hope to the world, to the Earth, and to future generations.” The party’s official platform states, “Promoting a nuclear power policy solely for the sake of economic efficiency undermines Japan’s dignity as a state.” On Wednesday, Kada outlined the party’s goals, saying that it would phase out all nuclear power by 2022, prevent the restart of the nation’s 48 idled reactors, and promote renewable energy.
Tatsunari Iida, an anti-nuclear campaigner and promoter of renewable energy, will act as Nippon Mirai no To’s leader. Kada invited other minority parties to join the crusade, and within just hours, the People’s Life First Party, led by Ichiro Ozawa, said that they it merge with the new group. Ozawa’s party was an offshoot of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), formed when 49 disgruntled DPJ members abandoned Noda over a proposed consumption tax increase. The total number of current Diet members joining Kada’s party could exceed 60 members. In addition, Masahiko Yamada, who recently formed a new party in conjunction with the Tax-Cuts Japan Party, said they would also ally with Kada. “We would also like to raise our hands in joining Nippon Mirai no To, because our ways of thinking are the same.”
Kada’s party will fight for primary third-party status with the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), which was formed when powerful Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto merged with former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Although Hashimoto was originally staunchly anti-nuclear and opposed restarting Kansai Electric’s Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, he agreed to abandon those goals because Ishihara is pro-nuclear. “It is meaningless to merely hold fast to principles,” Hashimoto said. A document released separately from their official party platform this week said that the group aims to “fade out [nuclear power] by the 2030s.” Hashimoto clarified yesterday that it was not a promise to abolish nuclear power, noting that it was simply a concept that some party members support, but more discussion was needed.
Meanwhile, the ruling DPJ’s platform says that it will eradicate all nuclear power by 2039. However, Noda’s approval ratings, as well as those of his Cabinet, have continued to fall in the polls, and analysts are predicting large losses for the party.
The largest opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is decidedly pro-nuclear. Abe has said his party will hold discussions for 10 more years before deciding on the role of nuclear power within the nation’s energy portfolio, and has pledged to decide whether or not to restart idled reactors across the country within three years.
Public interest in nuclear power remains strong, and promises to be a significant factor in the election. Hefty reports produced by the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission and the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident have jointly sold approximately 135,000 copies. “I think it reflects people’s anxiety and dissatisfaction with official announcements by the government,” noted Koichi Kitazawa, who chaired the independent investigation. Makoto Saito, an economics professor at Hitotsubashi University, added, “I think it shows that people want to know what really happened with the accident by reading the details. I see hope in this, in the fact that people are still reviewing the accident calmly.”
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) plans to submit a report to the central government by year’s end, advising it to reconsider the country’s nuclear policy, and more specifically, how the nation should dispose of nuclear waste. The document will reportedly suggest that the public needs to be involved in decision-making, and fuel recycling should be planned in conjunction with waste disposal. (Source: NHK)
A group of 1,100 plaintiffs from 18 prefectures, including Fukui, have filed suit against Kansai Electric Power Company, demanding that the utility immediately halt operations at the Oi plant, home of Japan’s only two operating nuclear reactors, citing the threat they pose if an earthquake occurs there. Fault lines, which scientists believe are active, run directly below the plant’s safety equipment. In addition, the plaintiffs are seeking 10,000 yen per person per month to compensate for threats to safe living conditions.
The Mainichi Daily News is reporting that the government’s Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) spent 23 million yen on outsourcing summaries of accident reports on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster—in spite of the fact that those reports had already been compiled and released by the government, Diet, and independent sources. Moreover, two of the companies that received the government-funded contracts were Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which produces nuclear equipment, and one of its subsidiaries. One member of the Diet investigative committee called it a waste of [more than] 20 million yen.
State of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors
TEPCO reported this week that radiation levels on the first floor of reactor #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are significantly higher than they were a year ago, increasing from 1,300 millisieverts per hour last year to 4,780 millisieverts per hour this week. Utility officials say that slight changes in monitoring points or highly-radioactive particles of nuclear fuel that have moved could be responsible for the disparate readings.
Commissioners of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) met with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose this week in a 30-minute, closed-door meeting, and are scheduled to question additional executives from the utility about safety conditions at all of TEPCO’s plants, including Fukushima Daiichi, where a massive nuclear disaster took place last year, and the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, where the company hopes to restart reactors as soon as April. TEPCO has reported warping of water-carrying tubes in fuel assemblies at reactor #5 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, and admitted that the damage could have been caused by improper handling when workers moved the assemblies. Earlier this week, the utility reported radioactive water leaks at Fukushima Daiichi, in the latest example of safety and legal violations. In a shocking and apparently straight-faced example of understatement, Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the NRA, said, “To tell the truth, I think there may be something wrong with this utility.” (Source: NHK)
Akira Kawano, TEPCO’s General Manager who met with American experts from the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Research Council, which has been tasked with “improving the safety and security of nuclear plants in the United States,” has admitted that lack of humility, failure to fully acknowledge the risk of natural disasters, and fear of loss of public support for nuclear power were root causes in the Fukushima nuclear disaster. “TEPCO did not have sufficient humility to consider the full impact of natural disasters…[and] did not face the regulatory body and the public squarely,” Kawano said. He added that the utility should have consulted external experts regarding disaster planning.
Waste Disposal and Decontamination Efforts
A new survey conducted by public news network NHK of all 47 Japanese prefectures reveals that none wants to host proposed disposal facilities for spent nuclear waste generated by the nation’s nuclear reactors, and almost half say that safety measures to prevent radiation leaks are inadequate. Although Japanese law requires that spent nuclear fuel be buried at least 300 meters underground, the government has never been able to find a municipality that would agree to host such a facility, in spite of the fact that reactors have been operating in Japan for almost 50 years. The nation’s nuclear power plan originally said that spent fuel would be reprocessed at the troubled Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, but that facility has been riddled with technical problems and has never operated at full capacity. Meanwhile, spent fuel is being stored at plants across the country, which are currently at 70% of their storage capacity.
In the meantime, Fukushima Governor Yukei Sato has agreed to an Environment Ministry request to conduct surveys around the prefecture in an effort to find space to “temporarily” store between 15 million and 28 million cubic meters of radioactive soil resulting from decontamination efforts in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Municipal leaders, who fear radiation leaks and resident safety, particularly in the case of an earthquake, criticized the decision, although some said they think hosting the facilities is inevitable. Sato called the decision “agonizing,” but said that allowing the studies to be conducted did not mean that he was granting consent for their construction. Although Ministry officials promise that the soil will be stored at eight proposed facilities for only 30 years, and then moved to a permanent location, local governments and residents alike fear that the storage locations will become permanent. Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa fumed about Sato’s decision to grant approval without obtaining local consent. “We are still at a stage where the town assembly and citizens have not received a detailed explanation. If issues are decided in this manner, Japan cannot be considered a democratic nation. Does the governor not consider Futaba town to be among Fukushima residents? To make the decision after today’s discussions is rash.”