Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Upcoming National Elections
Official campaigning for Japan’s general election begins today, but candidates from the major parties began to debate this weekend at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo. The election is scheduled for December 16. Currently, 1,470 candidates are expected to run for 480 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, although that number could change if others decide to run at the last minute.
Nuclear power is playing a major role in this election, the first since the disaster initially began to unfold at the Fukushima Daiichi plant more than a year and a half ago. At the debate, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) would continue its efforts to eradicate nuclear power across the country by 2040. Opposition leader Shinzo Abe held firm in his previous stance supporting nuclear power. Abe heads the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was instrumental in crafting the nation’s nuclear power policy over past decades. Meanwhile, Yukiko Kada, head of the newly-formed Tomorrow Party, which emerged just last week, promised to end nuclear reliance within the next decade, by 2022. (Source: NHK)
But perhaps the most newsworthy comments came from former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who earlier this year joined forces with popular Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto to form the Japan Restoration Party. Hashimoto had been staunchly anti-nuclear, but abandoned those goals to appease Ishihara, who is closely allied with the nuclear industry and a vocal proponent of nuclear power. However, earlier this week, documents attached to the official party platform promised to “phase out nuclear power generation from existing nuclear reactors by the 2030s.” During the debate, Ishihara backtracked, saying that politicians should not set a target year for moving away from nuclear power, and promising to change the wording in the document. “I’ll have that policy pledge reviewed,” Ishihara said. The statement has raised questions about how solid the relationship between Hashimoto and Ishihara is, and whether party members’ views are too disparate.
The next day, Hashimoto further backpedaled, saying that phasing out nuclear power was a goal for discussion, rather than an action plan. He added that if Japan improved safety standards and checks, reactors across the country could be restarted, although he acknowledged that the government needs to create a plan for disposing of spent fuel. Japan has been operating nuclear reactors for 50 years, and is legally required to bury spent fuel, but it has yet to create a plan to do so that is acceptable to local communities.
Current polling of 4,042 people conducted by public news network NHK this week, with a 66% return rate, shows that approval ratings for Noda’s cabinet have dropped again, to 21%. When asked which candidate they would support for Prime Minister, 20% said Noda, and 25% said Abe. Forty-nine percent said they supported neither candidate, which could open the door for a third-party option if enough Diet seats were secured. A government survey conducted in July revealed that 47% of those surveyed favored eradication of nuclear power by 2030.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has released a new radiation simulation, after discovering that data released last month was riddled with errors. The prediction, which was compiled by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), assumes release from a single 1.1 million kilowatt reactor that begins to spew radiation 27 hours after a disaster begins, and continues for seven hours. Based on its predictions, the NRA is advising those residents who live within 5 km of a reactor to evacuate immediately, before any radiation has been released. Those who live between 5 and 10 km away from a reactor are advised to take shelter in a cement structure for two days, and then to evacuate. However, officials caution that children living between 5 and 30 km away will likely be exposed to radiation levels that exceed international standards even if they shelter in place. They should be given iodine tablets before radiation releases begin, in order to reduce their risk of thyroid cancer. Analysts have pointed out that the simulation only assumes radiation release from one reactor. During the Fukushima crisis, three meltdowns occurred. In addition, it does not use data from specific reactors in Japan, which will make creating evacuation and emergency preparedness plans difficult for local municipal officials. They are required to submit those plans to the government by March.
NRA investigators studying fault lines below Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture have yet to determine whether one of the fissures is active, although another is definitely active. After studying the D-1 fissure, which runs directly beneath reactor #2, researchers said that although ground near the fissure has changed shape, they have not yet determined whether or not it could move in conjunction with the other active fault line nearby. The team will meet on December 10, but say that more studies are needed. If both fault lines are determined capable of moving simultaneously, the plant could be shut down.
State of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors
TEPCO has announced that it will remove used and unused fuel rods from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #4 by December 2014, a year earlier than expected. In other news, utility officials said that there will be a three-month delay in installing new equipment to remove radioactivity from cooling water.
TEPCO released more videos this week from internal teleconferences conducted between the Daiichi plant and utility headquarters officials in the days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. The tapes cover the weeks of March 16 through 23 and March 30 through April 6, totaling approximately 336 hours, although the first three hours have no audio. Members of the media are only allowed to view the videotapes at TEPCO’s facilities, and are not allowed to make any copies or publish names of TEPCO employees who were not named in the company’s own investigation report. Additional footage will reportedly be released some time in late January.
A large portion of the video covers discussion about rising water levels in the basements of reactors #5 and #6, as well as other places in the plant. By that time, more than 100,000 tons of contaminated water had accumulated and was threatening to overflow. Then-plant chief Masao Yoshida expressed dire concern about the highly radioactive water and insisted to company officials that there was no time to build additional tanks, but the officials were reportedly lackadaisical in their response. Yoshida expressed concern that the leaks meant that not enough water was reaching the nuclear fuel, and they would melt down further, with catastrophic results. “I can’t help but feel that we are idly waiting for death,” he said. But, Ichiro Takekuro, a senior official, dismissed the urgency, saying, “I think we will probably be able to discuss things tomorrow, including setting really concrete goals.” By April 2, a plant official noted, “We have confirmed a worst-case situation: Water with very high radiation levels, exceeding 1,000 millisieverts per hour, is flowing into the sea.”
In another part of the video, Yoshida is seen refusing to send his workers back into the crippled plant, where radiation levels were astronomically high. “My people have been working day and night for eight straight days. And they’ve been going to the site a number of times. They pour water, make checks, and add oil periodically. I cannot make them be exposed to even more radiation.” He added, “All workers are approaching 200 millisieverts in exposure or have even topped 200. If we do the work under a plan with no feasibility, it will end in failure. We cannot do it unless we have thorough help.”
TEPCO revealed this week that a new internal survey shows that almost half of its contracted workers may be employed illegally, after 47.9% admitted that they report to a different company than that which pays them. That practice is illegal. The survey polled 4,000 workers who are employed by 27 different contractors; 80% responded.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
NRA officials said that they will create uniform guidelines for conducting health examinations in municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture by the end of the year. Currently, there is no standardized way for local officials to conduct tests or convey results, and no set schedule for how often they conduct them. NRA Commissioner Kayoko Nakamura said, “While all residents are taken care of with regard to radiation exposure control in some towns, that is not the case in other towns. Such disparities shouldn’t exist.”