Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant this week, for the second time since September 2011. Some analysts are questioning whether the visit was a political move, as he prepares for general elections later this year. Noda’s popularity has fallen precipitously in recent months, as public opposition to nuclear power remains widespread. During his visit, Noda, clad in white protective gear, visited the central control room for reactors #1 and #2 as well as reactor #4, where a hydrogen explosion destroyed the roof and left a spent fuel pool, containing 1,535 fuel rods, exposed. TEPCO has since built a cover there, but experts warn that the building, which is bulging, could collapse if another massive earthquake strikes.
Noda also said that he has ordered newly-appointed Environment Minister Hiroyuku Nagahama—who also acts as Nuclear Crisis Minister—to hasten decontamination efforts in Fukushima Prefecture, where many residents are still forbidden from returning to their homes, more than 18 months after the nuclear crisis first began to unfold.
In addition, Noda spoke to approximately 200 TEPCO workers at the so-called “J-Village”, a former soccer stadium that is now used as a daily staging area for the plant’s 3,000 workers. For the first time, he met with and thanked eight of the “Fukushima 50”, older workers whose heroic efforts, including using batteries from their own cars to power monitoring equipment, prevented a far more catastrophic disaster. However, six of the eight workers refused to have photographs taken or even to give their names to reporters. TEPCO, who says that the men are afraid their children will be discriminated against because of widespread anger towards the utility, would not allow reporters to give business cards to the men, in case they later changed their minds and decided they would like to share their sides of the story. The workers told of rising fear as the disaster unfolded. One said, “I thought it was over. I thought, ‘This is the end of it all.'" Masatoshi Fukura, a unit leader and one of the few men identified, noted, “Nearly 20 people each in two central control rooms held down the fort without anyone coming to relieve us for 48 hours. All we had to eat was hardtack and water.” Another lamented, “I still feel strongly that we can’t cause anything like this to happen again.”
A lawsuit in Kanazawa District Court in Ishikawa Prefecture, charging that Hokuriku Electric’s Shika nuclear power plant is unsafe to operate, has begun. The utility is seeking to have the case dismissed. But residents of Ishikawa and nearby Toyama Prefectures say that a fault line adjacent to the plant is active, and a massive nuclear disaster could occur if a major earthquake hits the plant.
Additional details have surfaced in last week’s admission by Fukushima Prefectural officials, who said that they conducted secret meetings with 19 health experts and government officials, discussing the impact of radiation on human health, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The secret gatherings were held before official meetings, and participants were instructed not to tell anyone that they had participated. Now, the Mainichi Daily News is reporting that the officials decided in advance what the research panel should say during public meetings, and advised panelists not to answer any questions regarding data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI). The prefecture produced a two-page chart outlining the direction the proceedings should take, along with prearranged conclusions.
Yukio Edano, the head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said last week that he will not approve a request from the Chugoku Electric Power Company to begin construction at the proposed site of the Kaminoseki power plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Japan’s central government recently announced that it would eradicate nuclear power in the 2030s, and would prohibit construction on any new reactors. However, some experts criticized the plan after officials admitted that three power plants currently under construction would be allowed to proceed. If those plants are allowed to run for the government-allotted 40-year period, they would operate at least a decade longer than the 2030s. (Source: NHK)
Meanwhile, residents of Kaminoseki are continuing to protest the proposed plant—as they have been doing every week for the past 30 years. Many protestors are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Chugoku has made concerted efforts to woo the town with monetary boondoggles, including paying tens of millions of yen to build a coastal road. A utility official admitted, “We are doing this because [some] local residents have cooperated with us a great deal in our plan to build the plant.” Another local resident, who works for a construction company associated with the project, pointed out that if Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda loses elections expected to be held later this year, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is pro-nuclear, takes office again, the project could very well move forward. “We should be very patient. You never know what will happen if a change of government takes place and Abe becomes Prime Minister again,” he said.
Nuclear Regulation Authority
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) staged its first emergency drill this week, simulating power loss after a massive earthquake at the Rokkasho processing plant in Aomori Prefecture. The drill focused on communication between the plant’s operator and government agencies, including using video links. Yoshihide Kuroki, an NRA official, noted that the drill went well, but admitted that it took more than five hours for him to reach the plant’s emergency response center. (Source: NHK)
Kunihiko Simazaki, a commissioner with the Nuclear Regulation Commission (NRC), announced this week that all nuclear power plants in Japan will be subjected to screening for active earthquake fault lines. Japan forbids operation of nuclear reactors if they sit atop or adjacent to fault lines. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), predecessor of the NRA (which operates under the direction of the NRC), previously determined that six plants would be required to undergo testing after admitting, “the possibility of active faults existing [beneath them] cannot be ruled out.” But Simazaki said that all plants will now be subjected to testing, noting, “We will formulate new safety standards, and will proceed with regulations by applying them to existing nuclear plants. In the future, all nuclear plants will eventually be reviewed [for seismic safety].” The Oi nuclear power plant, where two reactors were restarted this summer despite widespread public opposition, will be examined first, starting late this month. If active fault lines are found, reactors could be forced to shut down.
TEPCO released a 6-hour video to the public this week, compiled from footage of videoconferences conducted in the five days immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster 18 months ago. The tapes show major communication challenges as workers at the plant’s emergency headquarters attempted to get guidance from the utility’s headquarters, government regulatory agencies, and the Prime Minister’s office. This summer, TEPCO released only 150 hours worth of footage, collected between March 11 and March 16, 2011, to the media. TEPCO was widely criticized when officials said that reporters could only view the tapes at their offices for a limited period of time, and could make no copies. Many sections of the footage were blurred, and names were obscured; the utility insisted that this was necessary as a result of “privacy concerns.” Media outlets continue to urge TEPCO to release all videos from the days following the nuclear meltdowns, but so far, company officials have refused. The 6-hour video—whose content was entirely chosen and edited by TEPCO itself—is available online here.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
The Association for Citizens and Scientists Concerned About Internal Radiation Exposures said last week that radiation data it collected in Fukushima Prefecture at approximately 100 monitoring posts established by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) shows that the Ministry may have manipulated data to make contamination levels appear lower than they really are. The group’s readings were between 10 and 30% higher than MEXT readings in some areas, and between 40 and 50% higher when they measured 10 meters away from the official monitoring stations. Katsuma Yagasaki, Professor Emeritus at the University of Ryukus, who is affiliated with the group, said, “We are afraid that the Ministry might have thoroughly decontaminated areas immediately adjacent to the monitoring posts or tinkered with numbers in an attempt to get lower readings.” The Ministry denies such claims.