Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Japan’s Energy Policy
Japan announced last Friday that it would completely abolish use of nuclear power by 2030, including limiting the lifetime of existing plants to 40 years and forbidding construction of new reactors. But by the middle of this week, it has essentially reversed that decision. The initial proposal stated that Japan would “mobilize every policy resource available to achieve the abolishment of nuclear power plants in the 2030s.” However, the document approved by the Cabinet on Wednesday instead said, “The government will promote energy and environment policy under constant examination and reviewing dialogue with affected local governments and the global community, as well as seeking understanding from the general public.” The original draft was included only as a “reference” attachment, and is not legally binding.
Analysts attribute the about-face to intense pressure and concerted lobbying from the business community and local governments who depend on the nuclear industry for jobs, as well as from the United States, which had expressed concern about reduced expertise and capability in the nuclear sector, on which it depends for its own nuclear power. Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Japan Business Federation, said, “I guess the goal [of ridding Japan of all nuclear plants by the 2030s] has effectively been retracted.” And, although the document had said that reactor operations would be limited to 40 years, Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura backpedaled and said that the newly-established Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), not the government, would be ultimately responsible for making that decision. Many now believe that the country will not abandon nuclear power.
Nuclear Regulation in Japan
This week, operations began at the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), and the government swore in Shunichi Tanaka, the newly-appointed chair of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is the secretariat that will oversee the NRA. The new entities replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), both of which were criticized for ineffectiveness and conflicts of interest in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. NISA operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which actually promotes nuclear power in Japan. Yukio Edano, head of METI, acknowledged the agency’s failures, saying, “Unfortunately, the ministry failed to avoid the disaster and meet public expectations. Everyone in the ministry has to acknowledge that the abolishment of NISA is based on the lessons and reflections from the failure.”
Accordingly, both the NSC and NISA ceased operations this week. The NSC was first established in 1978; 34 years later, its Chairman, Haruki Madarame, admitted in the wake of the Fukushima crisis that the Commission had failed in its efforts to establish effective safety standards and prevent nuclear disaster. Madarame urged the new safety agency, the NRA, to avoid being influenced by the nuclear industry and previously established practices. (Source: NHK)
However, the majority of the 460 employees at the NRA come from either the NSC or NISA, leading some experts to ask how independent the Authority will actually be. The newly appointed chair of the NRC, Shinichi Tanaka, was once Deputy Director of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which promotes nuclear power, and four of the five members of the Commission, including Tanaka, have accepted funds from the nuclear industry within the last few years. Public opposition has been significant, and opinion was split among members of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s own political party, prompting him to appoint the commission without Parliamentary approval, a rare move. A citizens’ group protested the new appointments, demonstrating in front of Noda’s office this week.
In a move that has angered many in the business community, Tanaka immediately announced that 48 idled nuclear reactors across the country will not be restarted until at least late spring, and possibly for up to 10 months, as the newly-created NRA draws up new safety standards. Tanaka said, “It is impossible to give the green light until we finish reviewing the current provisional standards [for reactivating reactors].” Currently, only two reactors are operating in Japan: #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Despite dire predictions by the nuclear industry of widespread electricity outages and blackouts this summer, Japan’s power supply remained stable, even through peak demand periods during a heat wave in August. Tanaka criticized the government’s decision to restart the Oi reactors, saying, “The Oi nuclear plant was restarted based on political judgment, out of consideration for energy supply and demand during the summer. But the provisional standards are incomplete, allowing the plant to be restarted with no disaster-prevention measures in place.” During his inaugural ceremony, he acknowledged that the agency has a tough job ahead in regaining the trust of the Japanese public: “The most important thing is to recover confidence in the nuclear safety administration, which has reached rock-bottom.” Tanaka has promised transparency at the NRC, saying, “The commission intends to secure as much transparency as possible."
Nevertheless, the government has not yet established the process for determining how reactors will be declared ready for restart, saying only that the NRA will have to declare them safe. When the Oi reactors were restarted, Noda made the final decision, in concert with Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono; Yukio Edano, the head of METI; and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. They said they based their decision on power demands and conversations with local governments, although public opposition was vocal and widespread. Nevertheless, that process had no basis in codified Japanese law. Fujimura admitted, “We have yet to discuss what standards to establish.”
Nuclear Politics in Japan
The President of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., Yoshihiko Kawai, said this week that completion of the Rokkasho Nuclear Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture will be delayed by one more year, and will not be finished until October 2013. The delay is expected to increase construction costs by 110 billion yen. The project, which was originally slated for completion by 1997, has now been delayed a whopping 19 times, and is expected to cost a total of 2.19 trillion yen ($28.11 billion), three times the initial estimate. Kawai blamed the delay on damage from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, as well as ongoing problems with a vitrification furnace. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be a linchpin in the Japanese nuclear cycle, allowing plutonium to be extracted from spent fuel and reused in fast breeder reactors such as the Monju. However, the Rokkasho plant has long been plagued with problems and has never operated at full capacity. In the meantime, highly radioactive nuclear waste continues to build up in Rokkasho Village and at storage sites in Great Britain and France, where it has been shipped from nuclear power plants across Japan. Aomori Prefecture has threatened to send it back to the plants from which it came if reprocessing is not continued, in spite of the fact that the procedure will not be necessary if nuclear power is abolished.
The governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, Heita Kawakatsu, submitted a draft referendum on reactivating Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka nuclear power plant to the Prefectural Assembly this week. The prospect of reactivating the reactor there has raised considerable concern among residents who, fearing for their safety, gathered 165,000 signatures in support of the referendum. The governor expressed support, saying, “The demand reflects many prefectural residents’ feelings and I take it seriously. It’d be inappropriate if prefectural residents were deprived of an opportunity to express their opinions on the issue. I’d like you to deliberate on the bill so that a prefectural referendum can be held smoothly.” However, the assembly members have largely expressed reluctance, in part because of perceived threats to their own power. One said, “If a decision is left to a local referendum, then the assembly will lose its raison d’etre.”
TEPCO officials said that they will contest the case of a man from Fukushima Prefecture who is suing the utility after his wife committed suicide in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last year. Mikio Watanabe, whose wife died by setting herself on fire, lamented, “I lost my wife, I lost my job, and my family is spread apart. My frustration represents the feelings of all evacuees. I want TEPCO to respond sincerely.” But the utility said there is no known connection between the woman’s depression and subsequent suicide, and the nuclear disaster that caused her and her family to be forced from their home. The case is one of two dealing with suicide; the second plaintiff, Eiko Isozaki, is also suing after her husband killed himself when they were forced to abandon their home and possessions in Namie.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
For the first time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has uploaded raw radiation data from March 11, 2011 through December 31, 2011 in Japan to its website, for third-party analysis. The information was provided to the IAEA by Japan, under the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident.
Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts
A new survey of schools within 10 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, conducted by The Mainichi Daily News, shows the profound and possibly long term social effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The study showed that school enrollment has dropped by 50% from before the nuclear crisis occurred. In the towns of Namie, Tomioka, Naraha, and Kawauchi, enrollment is only 20% what it was before the disaster. And in Nihonmatsu, that number stands at just 5%. Analysts say that radiation fears, delays in lifting evacuation zones, and lack of infrastructure mean that many families with children have not returned to the area, preferring to stay in the areas to which they were evacuated last year. Prefectural officials are expressing concern about the future of affected cities and towns. One noted, “If things remain as they are, our reconstruction will be gravely affected.”