Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
TEPCO, the operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has announced its first half-year profits since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed reactors at the site. The company made a before-tax profit of 141.7 billion yen ($1.44 billion) in the six months between April and September this year. This follows the 166.27 billion yen loss the company posted in the same period last year. The company has made the profit through increased sales, reducing labour costs and delaying repair work at power stations. The company has also received three trillion yen from the government in financial assistance, a figure that may go as high as five trillion.
However, the news comes along with further uncertainty for the company after a committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposed that TEPCO be broken up. According to the committee's draft proposal, the company should be stripped of its responsibility for decommissioning the damaged reactors at Fukushima. The job could be given to a separate entity within TEPCO, a separate company altogether, or an independent agency affiliated to the government. The proposal, which will be presented to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next week, calls for "creating a clear and realistic organisation".
Despite the news that TEPCO is in profit for the first time since the March 2011 disaster, Japan's government is giving consideration to using government money to pay for decontaminating areas surround the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant. "I wonder if we can put all the blame on TEPCO, given that (nuclear policy) has been framed by the state government," said Finance Minister Taro Aso this week. He also said that final cost of decontamination work in Fukushima Prefecture is as yet unknown. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology estimates it could be five trillion yen. This comes with the news that TEPCO is refusing to repay the Environment Ministry the more than 30 billion yen the Ministry has so far spent on decontamination efforts. So far it has repaid just 6.7 billion yen.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) gave formal approval this week for work to commence to remove nuclear fuel rods from a storage pool at Fukushima's reactor #4 building. The pool stores approximately 1,300 spent fuel assemblies and 200 unused ones. TEPCO hopes to start work in mid-November and finish transferring the fuel to a storage facility by the end of 2014. “It’s a major step toward decommissioning. Moving the fuel rods out of Unit 4 can significantly reduce the risk at the plant,” said NRA commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa. The job involves the use of a remote controlled crane and will be difficult, however. "It's a totally different operation than removing normal fuel rods from a spent fuel pool. They need to be handled extremely carefully and closely monitored. You should never rush or force them out, or they may break. I'm much more worried about this than I am about contaminated water," said NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka. Reactor #4 was offline during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and so was not damaged in the same way as reactors #1, #2 and #3. Its building was subsequently damaged however by hydrogen explosions and fires.
Meanwhile, the contaminated water crisis continues as the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA called the situation “extremely alarming” in a meeting with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose this week. In addition, the ruling LDP this week published a draft bill calling for as much public money to be used as necessary to tackle the ongoing problem and putting the task of dealing with it under direct government control. There are currently 1,000 storage tanks at the site and the levels of contaminated water continue to rise by around 400 tons every day. Most of the water is groundwater that runs into the destroyed reactor buildings where it becomes contaminated. A solution TEPCO is now examining is using the basements in the undamaged buildings of reactors #5 and 6# to store contaminated water.
Also this week, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz offered his country's assistance in the Fukushima cleanup operation. "Our decommissioning and decontamination industries stand ready to aid should Japan need their help. The U.S. is ready to assist our partners with this daunting task," said Mr Moniz during a lecture in Tokyo. He is also expected to visit the Fukushima site this week.
Video clips have been released this week that simplify and explain the long and complex report released in July 2012 from the independent Diet panel that investigated the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The six videos aim to be “[t]he Simplest Explanation of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report” and attempt to answer questions such as "was the nuclear accident preventable?", "what happened inside the nuclear plant?" and "what should have been done after the accident?"
Other Nuclear News in Japan
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Turkey this week where he and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with a consortium involving Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and France’s Areva, signed an accord to build four new nuclear reactors in Turkey. The reactors will be built in Sinop on the Black Sea coast and the project is expected to cost more that $22 billion. “Japan is responsible for helping improve the safety of atomic power in the world by sharing its experience and lessons from the [Fukushima] accident,” said Mr Abe at a news conference. The two leaders also agreed to create a science and technology university in order to train new nuclear experts. Mr Abe's “top salesmanship” has met with criticism at home, however. Some victims of the Fukushima disaster are unhappy about his sales trips abroad while the crisis continues to unfold. “How dare he sell nuclear power plants abroad when he has not been able to bring an accident under control? “What does he think of victims of the nuclear disaster?” said Soichi Saito, chief of an association for temporary housing residents in Fukushima Prefecture.
Meanwhile, remarks made by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Japan should go nuclear free continue to make headlines. His intervention is seen as significant as he has largely been out of the public eye since stepping down in 2006. "I wonder if nuclear waste can be disposed of permanently in Japan, a major earthquake-prone country. It's impossible to continue with nuclear power generation any longer," said Mr Koizumi at a meeting with the leadership of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) this week. Although both agree on the need to phase-out Japan's nuclear power, Mr Koizumi has so far refused to ally himself with the SDP. Some observers have suggested that Mr Koizumi's speaking out may indicate plans to make a political comeback. He remains a popular political figure in Japan.
In other political news, Taro Yamamoto, Japanese law-maker and anti-nuclear activist, this week broke what is a regarded as a taboo in Japanese society when he handed a letter to Emperor Akihito at a garden party that expressed concerns about the Fukushima disaster. The emperor traditionally does not involve himself in political matters. "I wanted to directly tell the emperor of the current situation. I wanted him to know about the children who have been contaminated by radiation. If this goes on, there will be serious health impacts," said Yamamoto. His action drew criticism from some quarters.
Local municipal governments in Aomori Prefecture face losing the donations they receive from the Japan's nuclear industry for hosting nuclear facilities next spring. With those facilities idle the industry faces a "deteriorating business environment" and so is discontinuing the payments. The donations have totaled 13 billion yen over the last 20 years and the municipalities are now looking to the prefectural government to make up the shortfall. However, one of the prefecture's officials said: "We've been financially-strapped. I wonder if we can obtain understanding among prefectural residents."
Elsewhere, public protests continue in Japan against the use of nuclear power in the country. Protesters, including many office workers in business suits, marched through Tokyo's business district this week, shouting slogans “No to restarts,” “Stop contaminated water” and “Stop export”. “Having seen the devastation in FukushimaPrefecture a year ago, I no longer feel that nuclear power is necessary. I hope more people feel inclined to join demonstrations after seeing that many company employees attended this one,” said one protester.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
The Japanese government looks set to abandon its plan to see all evacuated residents from Fukushima Prefecture returned to their homes. It is now planning to provide financial assistance to allow people from areas contaminated by more than 50 millisieverts of radiation to settle elsewhere. The zone where radiation exceeds that limit affects 25,000 people. This will allow the government to divert resources away from these areas and into parts of FukushimaPrefecture with lower contamination levels, in the hope of speeding up decontamination efforts. Consideration is also being given to increasing the level of compensation TEPCO gives to evacuated citizens. Sometimes it is not enough to allow evacuees to buy new homes.