Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
This week, a chagrined Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the recently created Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), was forced to apologize after nuclear utility operators uncovered errors in radiation forecast maps. The maps were distributed on October 24, in an effort to predict the direction in which radiation would dissipate and how far it would travel from 16 of the nation’s nuclear power plants if an accident occurred. Hokuriku Electric Power Company pointed out the mistakes, which affect potential dissemination data for six plants: the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture; Tokai Daini in Ibaraki Prefecture; Shika in Ishikawa Prefecture; Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture; Genkai in Saga Prefecture; and Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture. Although the errors, which involved mistakes in data input and conversion for wind direction, were made by the Japan Nuclear Safety Organization (JNES), Hideka Morimoto, Deputy Secretary-General of the NRA, admitted that the ultimate responsibility lies with his agency. “We should have verified the data on the premise that they could contain errors. We did lack that consideration,” Morimoto said. He added, “The objective of the Nuclear Regulation Authority is to set up a system to supervise nuclear plant operators, but regretfully, we are not living up to that goal. We will learn from the experience for what we do in the future.” Tanaka said, “I apologize to the people.”
The admission elicited frustration from municipal officials, who are using the radiation projections to develop complex emergency and evacuation plans that must be submitted by March, as well as farmers, whose crops could be contaminated if a nuclear disaster were to occur. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura criticized the NRA, noting, “It is quite regrettable, as local governments have a vital interest in the projections.” The NRA released revised forecast maps, correcting the errors, on October 29.
Meanwhile, the NRA formally adopted new evacuation guidelines in case of a nuclear disaster, expanding the evacuation zones around nuclear reactors from an 8-10 km radius to 30 km. Those who live within 5 km of reactors will be forced to evacuate immediately if there is even threat of a meltdown. Approximately 4.8 million residents in 135 municipalities will be affected by the change. The new standards are in keeping with international guidelines embraced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but recent data released by the NRA shows that radiation could extend as far as 40 km from the site of a meltdown, placing residents in those zones in danger with no official direction on how to proceed—and possibly no compensation for loss of property and income as well as psychological suffering afterward if they do so. The NRA has yet to decide whether or not to distribute iodine tablets widely. Iodine is used to protect the thyroid gland from radiation exposure and possible cancer; children are particularly susceptible. In addition, the agency has not made a final determination on the minimum amount of radiation dosage that would spur evacuations.
Other Nuclear Politics in Japan
As expected, Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) released an interim report this week upholding its long-held assertion that the 900-meter fault line beneath its Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture is inactive, despite recent concerns sounded by seismologists and other scientists that the fault is active. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda authorized the restart of reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant, ignoring widespread public opposition and concerns about safety of local residents. The NRA plans to conduct its own seismic survey of the area today, while also announcing that it intends to expand the definition of an “active fault line” from that which has moved within the last 120,000–130,000 years to within the last 400,000 years. In Japan, it is illegal to operate a nuclear reactor on an active fault line; the new definition could affect reactors across the country, including the Oi reactors, and render them legally inoperable. (Source: NHK)
Although decisions have not been made regarding when residents of Tamura, Kawauchi, Minamisoma, Iitate, and Naraha (all in Fukushima Prefecture) will be able to return to their homes, some businesses are beginning to move back. Residents were forced to evacuate when the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant began to unfold almost 20 months ago, and most remain displaced. Forty-two firms have reopened so far. The majority provide reconstruction and decontamination services. But Kaoru Saito, Director General of Naraha’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, admitted that because no residents have returned yet, “there are no prospects” for restaurants or retail stores at this time.
The Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Yuhei Sato, met with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose on Wednesday, and repeated his complaint that the utility is dragging its feet in compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including for loss of property and possessions. “Over and over again we have demanded TEPCO make full reparations as the company that cause the nuclear disaster, but I must say that the company’s response has been insufficient,” he said. Sato demanded that TEPCO compensate victims immediately and in full, and again asked Hirose to determine how those who voluntarily evacuated will be reimbursed. Hirose expressed remorse but gave no date by which evacuees can expect full compensation, nor did he clarify how voluntary evacuees will be paid.
A new study by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare shows that TEPCO has poorly monitored radiation doses of workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant—and the problem may be far vaster than that study suggests. The Ministry interviewed 1,813 workers who were supposed to be carrying electronic dosimeters, which calculate daily radiation doses, and glass badge dosimeters, which register accumulated radiation. In 29 instances, the doses differed by as much as 25%, suggesting that workers forgot to wear the detection devices at times, or intentionally did not do so. Earlier this year, a scandal arose when some TEPCO contractors and subcontractors admitted that they had told workers to cover dosimeters in an effort to hide the amount of radiation to which they had been exposed. However, the Ministry study only looked at .1% of all workers at the plant, and an official admitted, “We only investigated the most suspicious cases because of the limited survey personnel available. TEPCO said it will respond to the allegations by the end of this month.
A former contract worker assigned to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the days following the nuclear meltdowns there is suing his employer, Kandenko, charging that the company violated Japan’s Industrial Safety and Health Law when it knowingly sent him into a dangerous, highly radioactive area of the plant without informing him or his coworkers of high radiation levels and improperly equipping them to deal with them. The man, who is identified only as “Shinichi,” said he was asked to lay cable in the basement of reactor #3 on March 24, 2011, just two weeks after the disaster began to unfold. Radiation in the area measured 400 millisieverts per hour, and TEPCO workers had already evacuated. The contractors were sent into a radioactive, steaming water-filled basement, without adequate footwear or protective gear. Radiation alarms rang out, but the group’s supervisor said it must have been an error. Two workers who wore low boots, although not Shinichi, suffered beta-ray radiation burns to their feet. He was exposed to half of the government’s annual exposure limit in just that one day; one other worker was exposed to four times the annual limit. Kandenko claims it did not know that the radioactive water had leaked, although water was already filling other parts of the plant. Afterward, the company stopped calling him for jobs. The complaint seeks penalties, including possible fines and jail time for Kandenko, and tighter management over TEPCO’s safety violations. Taku Yamazoe, a lawyer working on the case, said, “Just sending the workers into the harsh environment and putting them at risk of exposure to dangerously high radiation is a labor safety violation. Even if TEPCO didn’t anticipate the consequences of all that water it had pumped in, it clearly lacked consideration for the workers’ safety.” Shinichi lamented, “I don’t have education, and I’m already over 40. There is little choice. I was dumped. I worked hard, sacrificed my family and my child, and this is how I ended up.”
Global Impact of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis
Andre-Claude Lacoste, the retiring head of France’s Autorite de Surete Nucleaire (ASN), which regulates the government-owned nuclear facilities there, warned this week that nuclear regulators in some countries lack independence from both the government and power industry, and as a result, are not providing adequate oversight. In many cases, regulators move back and forth between jobs within the industry and regulation, clouding their ability to be objective. Lacoste has repeatedly made a point of stressing the importance of transparency, but refused to name the countries about which he was speaking. He addressed the issue during an interview with the Associated Press. He was vocally critical of Japan’s lack of regulatory independence while heading a peer-review panel reviewing its regulatory system in 2007, and in the days following the Fukushima nuclear crisis last year, called the disaster a “collective failure.” Lacoste is retiring, and reportedly will be replaced by Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of the France’s Environment and Energy Ministry.