(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest news from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Yohio Hachiro, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), announced that he wants to restart currently-idled reactors ‘as soon as possible’ once local governments agree — and possibly before investigators determine the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
Hachiro also said that because Prime Minister Noda does not want to build new nuclear power plants, and aging ones will eventually be decommissioned, the country will ultimately be left with no nuclear reactors. For plants whose construction has begun but not yet completed, Hachiro said he will decide on a course of action based on recommendations of an advisory committee on energy and natural resources.
Nuclear power companies have begun to conduct stress tests on thirteen idle reactors, in a move they hope will eventually allow them to be restarted. The tests require power companies to conduct computer simulations of earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters, as well as power loss to see how reactors fare. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will evaluate the results. However, even if the reactors pass the tests, local governments must approve restarting them. In many municipalities officials have been vocal about their reluctance to do so.
Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda visited the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, as well as other nearby areas profoundly impacted by the March 11 disaster. He thanked workers for their profound sacrifice, and pledged to allot $2.8 billion dollars to rebuild the area devastated by the disaster.
Goshi Hosono, Nuclear Crisis Minister, said that Japan needs to develop new technology to reduce the volume of radioactive waste at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, adding that it will need to be stored, at least temporarily, in Fukushima Prefecture.
Japan will not limit power use this winter because it is not expecting large power outages. Residents will still be asked to conserve electricity.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted this week that the March 11 crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was a man-made disaster, not a natural one, and occurred as a result of poor communication between the government and TEPCO, as well as a complete lack of effective crisis management. He said efforts to communicate with TEPCO on the day of the disaster were frustrating, and he did not get the information he needed.
TEPCO’s President said this week that the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant will be decommissioned, as expected. However, plans for reactors #5 and #6, as well as four reactors at the nearby Daini plant, are still up in the air, and may eventually be restarted if local municipalities allow.
After a Japanese House of Representatives investigative committee requested copies of two nuclear crisis manuals from TEPCO, the company responded by forwarding only one to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA); the second book was never submitted. The manual was so heavily redacted that it was unreadable. TEPCO officials tried to request a ‘guarantee of nondisclosure’ citing intellectual property concerns, but NISA refused. Hiroshi Kawauchi, Committee Chair who is leading the probe into the March disaster, said that if TEPCO executives continue to refuse to cooperate, they may be called as witnesses and forced to testify before the committee.
TEPCO is planning to build an 800-meter ocean-side wall, comprised of iron pipes, to prevent highly radioactive water from contaminating the sea. TEPCO admitted that this may cause a rise in groundwater levels around the plant, but will monitor the situation. They expect to complete construction within two years.
TEPCO’s President, Toshio Nishizawa, said the company will release an interim report in November, detailing the status of bringing the Fukushima nuclear crisis under control.
Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s Foreign Minister, has criticized TEPCO’s request to raise consumer prices, saying, “The government should not permit this plan.”
Officials in Fukushima Prefecture launched a search close to the Daiichi plant this week for some of the 242 people still missing after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami last March. Radiation in the area is still very high (25-35 microsieverts per hour) and searchers were forced to wear protective gear.
Power Company Scandals
The head of Saga Prefecture’s Nuclear Safety Panel—which was established in May to examine power company scandals that have come to light since the Fukushima disaster — has resigned, after he admitted that he accepted ¥50,000 in political donations from Kyushu Power Company.
Executives of the Kyushu Electric Power Company admitted that they agreed in 2009 to pay a ¥700 million debt incurred by a local cooperative of fisheries. That same year, Kyushu began a plutonium-thermal (“pluthermal”) project at the nearby Genkai plant; experts say that the payment assured local support from fishermen. As of 2010, ¥460 million of the debt had been repaid by Kyushu; the money covered the cooperative’s construction, renovation, and promotion costs.
A government panel investigating power company scandal and corruption has accused the governor of Saga Prefecture of colluding with power companies to influence public opinion. The panel alleges that the governor asked Kyushu Power Company executives to encourage staff to send emails supporting the resumption of nuclear reactors at the Genkai Plant. The governor has denied the claims.
Contamination (Including Human Exposure)
Scientists from the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and other educational institutions reported that the disaster at the Daiichi plant may have released more than three times as much radiation into nearby ocean waters as initially reported by TEPCO. Research estimates measured contamination at 15,000 terabecquerels of iodine-131 and cesium-137, which includes radiation released into the air that has returned to the sea via rain. TEPCO’s estimate was only 4,720 terabecquerels. The scientists are still determining the effects of the disaster on the ocean.
Officials in Saitama Prefecture have asked farmers not to ship tea produced from early-harvested leaves, after several cesium-contaminated samples were discovered. One sample from Iruma measured 1,240 Bq/kg.
Wild deer, killed this month in a culling program designed to protect crops, were contaminated with cesium, according to Togichi Prefecture officials. Readings were as high as 2,037 Bq/kg in one of the animals, and hunters are being advised not to eat deer meat. A radioactive wild boar was caught in Miyagi Prefecture last month.
Japan’s Agriculture Minister announced that the government will use new methods to decontaminate farmlands, especially rice paddies, in Iitate Village. The land is highly contaminated as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and currently cannot be used for farming. The process will be paid for through a special government fund.
Tokyo Meat Market, Inc., has begun checking all of its cattle for radiation contamination before auctioning. Test results are attached to each cow at the time of sale.
Other Nuclear News
Regulators at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission say that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the East Coast may have exceeded the seismic design capacity of the North Anna reactors by 200%. This contradicts Dominion Power’s assertion that the quake exceeded the plant’s design only by 10-20%. Dominion officials admitted that the reactors shut down as a result of a problem caused by the quake itself, not loss of external power. The earthquake was so powerful that it shifted 115-ton waste storage casks several inches.