Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Satoshi Arai, Japan’s former National Policy Minister, said this week that the use of nuclear power will play center stage in the nation’s upcoming Lower House elections. Arai, who was speaking to Jiji Press, noted that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) “is starting to say that zero dependence on nuclear power is unrealistic,” in spite of widespread public opposition, marked by months of weekly demonstrations in front of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s official residence. Noda, who is a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), bowed to public pressure and recently approved a policy promising to abolish nuclear power by 2039.
Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) unveiled a new offshore wind-turbine this week, which has the capacity to generate up to 2,400 kilowatts of electricity. The turbine, whose base was built 12 meters below the seabed, is located 3 km off the coast of Choshi in Chiba Prefecture. Government officials say that the offshore location provides high winds and low risk of noise. The price tag for the project was 3.5 billion yen, of which the Japanese government will pay two-thirds, and TEPCO will pay one-third. Electricity generated by the giant turbine will begin feeding into the power grid in January.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) will present a joint interim report on the future of the Monju fast breeder reactor, located in Fukui Prefecture, as well as plans for disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear waste. The Ministries will present the report by the end of December.
For the first time, this week the Japan Coast Guard will join with the nation’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) in conducting joint drills, in an effort to prepare for possible terrorist attacks on the country’s coastal nuclear power plants. The drill will be held in Wakasa Bay and the Sea of Japan. The Coast Guard and MSDF have conducted 10 previous joint exercises, but none that were designed to protect nuclear power plants from terrorism.
New documents obtained by the Asahi Shimbun show that TEPCO continued to make large donations totaling millions of yen to small villages hosting nuclear power plants, even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, when the utility was claiming it did not have enough money to compensate victims of the crisis and was applying for a one trillion yen ($12.6 billion) government bailout, effectively nationalizing the company. In addition, the utility raised its rates this year, citing increased costs. TEPCO reportedly paid 76 million yen ($960,000) to Higashidori, and 270 million yen to Rokkasho. Both towns are located in Aomori Prefecture. The utility insisted that the payment were not donations, but instead covered construction costs, despite a METI assessment this summer that declared the payments “were of a nature close to donations or expenses to improve relations with local communities, that were not necessary for the supply of electricity.” The payments to Higashidori subsidized the fishing industry there. TEPCO has recently promised more transparency in its business dealings; however, a TEPCO official said, “While there have been some partial payments of subsidies to support the fishing industry, based on promises made before the nuclear accident, we would like to refrain from stating the date and amount of the payment.” Higashidori officials initially denied receiving payment, but later rescinded that statement after an article about the payments was printed in Asahi in August.
TEPCO officials have finally agreed to compensate companies located in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, and Yamagata Prefectures for loss of tourism business in the wake of last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Applications will be mailed out starting today, and payments will be processed in approximately one month. The utility said it will pay 50% of lost profits to innkeepers, restaurateurs, taxicab drivers, and souvenir shop owners. TEPCO already agreed to pay tourism losses to those in Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma Prefectures, Yonezawa City, and the town of Marumori, as well as 27 municipalities in Chiba Prefecture.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
New radiation monitoring conducted by Greenpeace in Fukushima City and Iitate reveals that more than 75% of 40 government monitoring posts showed lower radiation levels than those of their immediate surroundings, with contamination levels within 25 meters of the posts measuring up to six times higher than the posts themselves. The discovery raises concerns about the government’s ability to accurately assess public radiation risks. Dr. Rianne Teule, Radiation Expert at Greenpeace International, pointed out, “Official monitoring stations are placed in areas the authorities have decontaminated. However, our monitoring shows that just a few steps away, the radiation levels rise significantly. We fear that these stations give the public a false sense of security.” In addition, Greenpeace criticized the government’s decision to frequently decontaminate less populated areas, like forests, rather than highly populated ones, including children’s playgrounds. “People cannot return to their lives in Iitate if their homes, businesses, or farms are contaminated,” said Kazue Sazuki, Nuclear Campaigner with Greenpeace Japan. “The government continues to downplay radiation risks and gives false hope to victims of this nuclear disaster, when it should be making the sad but necessary hard decisions that affected communities need to move on with their lives, and compensating them fairly,” he added.
Engineers from Cyberdyne, Inc. have developed a new robotic protective suit for workers trying to decontaminate and decommission the crippled Fukushima reactors. The so-called HAL suit contains metallic materials to protect workers from radiation exposure—something that previous suits made out of polyethylene did not do—but is quite heavy (approximately 70 kg). In order to assist movement, servomotors have been added to the suit’s joints. In addition, the suit is equipped with a thermometer, a heartbeat monitor, and a fan to assist with temperature regulation. Conditions at the plant are challenging, and several workers have died of heart attacks or heat stroke since the nuclear crisis began. Cyberdyne says that the suit will reduce workers’ radiation exposure by as much as 50%.
Evacuation and Repopulation
The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare is developing new plans to assist evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in finding jobs when they are finally able to return to their hometowns. Residents of eight towns near the plant, including Minamisoma, Tamura, Naraha, Hirono, Kawamata, Namie, Kawauchi, and Katsurao, will be eligible for the subsidies starting in October 2013, which will underwrite costs of job seminars, training, and classes for those considering a change in career sectors—for instance, for farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed. The Ministry will also assign five officials to Fukushima Prefecture’s Regional Labor Bureau, where they will be responsible for providing technical assistance to local officials who need to craft job creation and marketing plans. In addition, the Ministry plans to support evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture who are now living in Tokyo, Yamagata, Niigata, Saitama, and Osaka Prefectures. The program is expected to cost the government 550 million yen.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
Japan and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will conduct multi-year, long-term field research on the best ways to decontaminate areas affected by last year’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, and study how to dispose of the vast amounts of radioactive waste. The goal of the project is to allow more than 110,000 people who remain displaced by the disaster to eventually return to their homes—although in some places, radiation levels are so high that it may be decades or even hundreds of years before humans can safely live there again. The IAEA will bring in researchers from Belarus, the Ukraine, and Russia who worked on decontaminating the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano are expected to sign an agreement at the government’s nuclear safety conference in Fukushima Prefecture in December; the research facility will be ready by January. The Japanese government will reportedly contribute 930 million yen to the project. The IAEA originally planned to open an office in Fukushima, but funding was not available.