Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Today marks exactly one and a half years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster took place on March 11, 2011. Tens of thousands remain unable to return to their homes, and much of the land around the plant will remain uninhabitable by humans for decades. The plant’s crippled reactors, heavily damaged by hydrogen explosions and full-scale nuclear meltdowns, remain unstable. TEPCO reports frequent leaks of highly contaminated water and other problems at the plant. Radiation levels within the reactors themselves are still so high that no workers have been able to examine them since the disaster occurred. The state of the melted fuel within them remains unknown.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said yesterday that he will make a decision by the end of the week regarding the nation’s future nuclear energy policy. Japan has been trying to decide how much nuclear power it will use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. At the end of last week, Noda’s own ruling political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), bowed to widespread public opposition to nuclear power and drafted a proposal that recommended “zero operating nuclear reactors by the 2030s,” a firm commitment to decommission reactors that are 40 years old, and a ban on building new reactors, as well as a recommendation that the country reevaluate its spent fuel recycling policy. An announcement on a final decision was scheduled for yesterday, September 10. However, on the morning that the announcement was expected, government officials said that they would delay the decision, after being heavily lobbied by business and nuclear power companies over the weekend, which object to abandoning nuclear energy. The issue is a hot potato for Noda and members of Parliament, who are facing an election later this month. While business interests are heavily pushing to keep using nuclear power, over 70% of the Japanese population wants to eradicate it, and protests, some amassing over 100,000 people, have been held in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence every Friday. Public protest in Japan is highly unusual.
 
Some analysts have expressed concern that politicians will support eradication of nuclear energy but provide no date by which to meet that goal—in essence, making the promise meaningless. Noda promised, “I will seriously take to heart the party proposal…and decide on the direction of the strategy this week.”

Meanwhile, municipal officials in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture, are threatening to return spent fuel that was sent from nuclear reactors around the country and was scheduled to be recycled at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant there. However, the plant has been plagued with problems for years and has never operated at full capacity. Currently, almost 3,000 tons of spent “nuclear garbage,” as Rokkasho officials call it, is sitting in storage there. If Japan eradicates nuclear power, there will be no need for the reprocessing plant. Rokkasho Mayor Kenji Furukawa has promised to return the spent fuel immediately, which means that spent fuel pools around the nation would fill up and force immediate shut down of the reactors, almost all of which are currently offline anyway. A 1998 agreement between Aomori Prefecture and the Rokkasho facility’s operator, Japan Nuclear Fuel, Ltd., supports the Mayor’s plan, stating, “If the implementation of the fuel cycle program encounters difficulties, measures will be taken to remove all spent nuclear fuel from the Rokkasho facility.”

Japan’s central government announced that it would lift energy-saving goals this week, after conservation efforts by residents in seven service areas of western and southwestern Japan exceeded targets and prevented power loss, even during peak usage periods in August. Power companies had engaged in fear mongering for most of the summer and had predicted possible blackouts, but none ever materialized. In all seven areas, power usage fell between 5% and 11%. Utilities are continuing to predict widespread power loss and blackouts in the coming months if nuclear reactors across the country are not restarted—but numbers from this summer do not support those claims. For instance, Kansai Electric, operator of the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, insisted this spring that its reactors #3 and #4 had to be restarted in order to supply the area with electricity during the hot summer months. In fact, if the reactors had not been restarted, the region still would have had a 2.7% power surplus. Although that amount is slightly less than the 3% surplus that utilities insist is necessary to maintain power in emergency situations, analysts say that the difference easily could have been covered through power sharing with other utilities in the region, who had a combined surplus of more than 9 gigawatts—far more than the 2.4 gigawatts supplied by the Oi reactivation. Kazuhiro Ueta, professor of Environmental Economics at Kyoto University, is questioning whether or not nuclear power is even necessary: “It was highly likely that Kansai Electric could do without any reactors online, given that [residential and commercial consumers] saved power even after the Oi reactors were restarted. We must analyze how much power-saving efforts have become part of the daily lifestyle and discuss whether nuclear plants are necessary, based on the findings.” Takumi Fujimani, senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute, agreed, and went further, questioning the motives of power companies. “Electric utilities are eager to restart nuclear reactors for the sake of their operations.”
 
Government officials admitted this week that although Japan’s newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is scheduled to being operations at the end of September, an emergency center hosting a hotline between the Office of the Prime Minster and those prefectures that host nuclear plants, as well as an electronic system that monitors active status of the nation’s nuclear reactors, will not be ready to operate for several more months. Until then, the emergency center will continue to be hosted by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which operates under the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), the entity responsible for promoting nuclear power. The NRC was created out of concerns about NISA’s conflicts of interest. In addition, experts have raised concerns that NRC staff posted in the new location will not be able to get to the emergency center quickly enough in case of a natural disaster or nuclear crisis. Under the best of circumstances, the emergency center is 30 minutes away. Professor Emeritus Hirotada Hirose, from the Tokyo Women’s Christian University, said that the government’s inability to move the emergency center from NISA offices to the new facilities shows that a year and a half after the Fukushima disaster, officials have still not absorbed important lessons.

Almost a year and a half after the worst nuclear disaster in the nation’s history, Japan’s Central Disaster Management Council is finally unveiling new safety guidelines for how to handle the next nuclear crisis. Suggestions of the Council—which has no legal power to enforce its own recommendations—include increasing evacuation zones around nuclear reactors from between 8-10 km to 30 km; encouraging local governments to formally cooperate with one another; and to release information from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) right away. In addition, the Council recommends that government officials immediately proceed to the Office of the Prime Minister in case of a nuclear disaster, in order to provide a coordinated response. Plant operators are being advised to install remote-control operated equipment and to establish emergency headquarters both on- and offsite. Officials plan to present the recommendations to the newly-created NRC when it begins operations, presumably later this month.

Newly-released documents from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) show that despite the Commission’s initial plan to advise the government to abandon recycling of nuclear fuel, in favor of disposal by burying it, pressure from METI officials resulted in a change in JAEC recommendations. A scandal recently erupted when JAEC officials admitted that they held secret, closed-door meetings with pro-nuclear members of the power industry that led to changes in their official recommendations to the government, but this is the first time that METI officials have been implicated.

More details have emerged in last week’s incident at Hokuriku Electric’s Shika power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture, when plant officials refused to allow leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) access to the plant after they requested a safety inspection. Hokuriku officials openly admitted that their decision was based solely on politics: “We declined the request because we concluded it was low on our list of priorities. We feel that even if we granted a tour to officials of a political party that espouses a phase-out of nuclear energy, we were not likely to win their support for nuclear power.” An SDP official noted, “We asked Hokuriku Electric officials for a further explanation of what the problem is. But they said they didn’t even want us to come and ask questions as long as we were not pro-nuclear.”

A United States National Academy of Sciences investigative panel studying the Fukushima nuclear crisis has concluded that TEPCO was unprepared to handle the disaster last March. In particular, they questioned why utility officials were unaware that backup power sources had been disabled, and no experts were onsite at the plant to oversee cooling operations.  (Source: NHK)

TEPCO

TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said this week that his company cannot afford to invest in renewable energy. “We tried to develop those renewable powers, but unfortunately after 3-11 we do not have much money and cannot spend much money to build renewable energy,” he said. Hirose insists that Japan must continue to embrace nuclear power, in spite of the fact that 70% of the public opposes that plan out of concerns about their safety. Hirose also said that nuclear power is key to TEPCO’s financial stability, but did not mention the safety of nearby residents. “It is true that in order to be in healthy financial condition, nuclear power is helpful.” Nevertheless, TEPCO said this week that it plans to award a total of 230.34 million yen to its 22 directors and executive officers over the next fiscal year, which began in June. Each official will receive an average of 13 million yen ($165,000), although TEPCO President Naomi Hirose and 14 other executives received 95 million yen of the total, making their awards much greater. Only Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe refused payment. The state of affairs at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still not under control, and radiation levels there remain astronomically high.
 
TEPCO plans to set up a new advisory panel comprised of outside experts to explore safety issues at its plants. Sources say that the decision to include international experts is an effort to improve TEPCO’s credibility outside of Japan’s so-called “nuclear village,” which has long been accused of collusion and presenting conflicts of interest. However, the panel will reportedly include Dale Klein, former Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who now sits on the boards of Southern Company and Pinnacle West in the US, both of which operate nuclear reactors. TEPCO is hoping to improve its reputation in anticipation of efforts to restart reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture next year. Local residents are strongly opposed to that move.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

The Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations said that fishermen have begun more experiments to see if an additional 10 types of seafood, including a type of crab and squid, are radioactive or safe to eat. So far, radiation levels have measured below legal limits. Earlier this year, one type of shellfish and two kinds of octopus were deemed safe to eat by the government. However, exceedingly high levels of radioactive cesium were discovered just last week in cod caught off the coast of Aomori Prefecture. Meanwhile, scientists in New Zealand are testing a 600-pound tuna caught by an Australian fisherman in the Tasman Sea, off the coast of Greymouth, NZ. Researchers have expressed concern that tuna, which typically migrate long distances, could be contaminated as a result of eating radioactive prey near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Earlier this year, radioactive Bluefin tuna migrated all the way across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast of the United States. Although officials said that radiation levels were not dangerous for humans, they nevertheless expressed surprise that the contaminated tuna had reached the West Coast. “We were frankly kind of startled,” said Nicholas Fisher, author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “That’s a big ocean. To swim across it and still retain these radionuclides is amazing.”

Officials from Fukushima Prefecture admit that only 22.8 percent of the prefecture’s 2.06 million citizens responded to medical questionnaires designed to determine the amount of radiation they absorbed following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 18 months ago—and the chances of accurate responses continue to decrease as time goes on. Officials initially sent questionnaires to residents asking them about their activities between March 11 and July 11, 2011. However, many people did not receive the questionnaires until that autumn, and could not remember their daily activities from six months before. The exposure estimates are supposed to be used as a baseline to monitor residents’ health in the coming decades.