Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Newly Established Nuclear Regulation Authority
The head of Japan’s newly-created Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), Shunichi Tanaka, announced this week that the NRA plans to completely rewrite nuclear safety guidelines. He emphasized that controversial so-called “stress tests,” computer simulations conducted by nuclear power operators themselves, will be discarded and the new regulations drawn from scratch. Tanaka hopes to submit a draft outline by the end of the fiscal year in March; by law, the new regulations must be completed by July. “Such tasks as drawing up countermeasures against severe nuclear accidents and determining how to deal with possible active faults beneath nuclear facilities will take a lot of time. I think the timeline is very tight.” Tanaka has not said when some of the nation’s 48 idled reactors might be restarted, although he clarified it would not be before next summer at the earliest. And, he pointed out that if reactors do not meet new guidelines, technical upgrades and retrofitting might mean that it could be years before they are approved for restart. Two reactors at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture--#3 and #4—were restarted under the direction of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and Tanaka said he has no plans to reverse that decision, in spite of the fact that they are sitting on a seismic fault that scientists believe may be active. If so, operating those reactors would be a violation of Japanese law.
The new standards will reportedly include guidance on evacuating areas surrounding nuclear reactors in the event of a major nuclear disaster. Evacuation areas called “urgent protective action planning zones” (UPZ) will be increased from an 8-10 km radius around a reactor to 30 km; those within a 5 km radius will be forced to evacuate immediately. Municipal officials, who will need to create new evacuation and disaster management plans by March for up to three times as many people as before have complained that the central government is not providing nearly enough guidance or technical support. In some areas, there are not enough roads and vehicles to perform such a wide-scale evacuation if a nuclear crisis occurs. Tanaka said that if surrounding areas do not submit appropriate evacuation and emergency plans, reactors will not be restarted.
Japan’s Nuclear Energy Policy
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), has announced that the government will ask operators of nuclear power plants who have not yet begun construction on planned new reactors to rescind those plans. Although the recently revealed national energy plan stated, “no new or additional nuclear reactors will be constructed,” nine new reactors are currently in the works, with three under construction. However, work has not yet begun on the remaining six, including reactors #3 and #4 at Fukui Prefecture’s Tsuruga Power Station and reactors #1 and #2 at Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant. Edano said, “The government’s Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment has a certain binding force on nuclear power and the energy industry. We will examine whether the government will have power companies take voluntary responses in light of the government strategy, or if any legislative measures are necessary.”
Edano is currently doing interviews with major media outlets in anticipation of the release of his new book, entitled, “What I Must Say Even If I Were To Be Criticized,” scheduled to come out today. In the book, he writes that the government should take control of all of the nation’s nuclear power plants, out of concern for unmanageable liability on the part of power companies if a nuclear disaster occurs, and in order to facilitate the nation-wide decommissioning of nuclear reactors. “Practically speaking, I see no alternative but to have nuclear plants run by the state,” which would provide “unilateral power to decide on the operation of reactors and the timing of decommissioning them,” he said.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
Hirofumi Hirano, head of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) said this week that the government currently has no plans to disable the controversial Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, in spite of Japan’s recent announcement that it will eradicate nuclear power by the 2030s. The Monju reactor was designed to produce plutonium in order to fuel other reactors around the country, and was long considered a linchpin in the Japanese nuclear cycle. Proponents argued it would allow Japan to make nuclear fuel without importing uranium from the United States. However, the project has been plagued with technical problems, cover-ups, and accidents, and over the course of 25 years, at a cost of $13 billion, the Monju reactor has produced electricity for a grand total of one hour. In addition, the reactor lies directly adjacent to a fault line, raising concerns about what would happen if a massive earthquake struck. Greenpeace Japan’s Kazue Suzuki, a Nuclear and Energy Campaigner, is alarmed about the possibility of a Monju-related disaster: “What’s frightening is that once it starts running out of control, it can’t be stopped, just like any other reactor, and it would load 60 times the explosive power of the Nagasaki nuclear bomb. Ultimately, it will end in failure.”
METI officials said that renewable energy sources in Japan produced power equivalent to that created by one nuclear reactor, or 1.3 million kilowatts, in just three months since a new feed-in tariff program was started in July. Under the program, nuclear power companies are required to purchase power produced by renewable energy sources, including solar and wind, at pre-established rates.
Japan’s Meteorological Society said this week that much of Japan will experience either average or warmer than normal temperatures this winter. That prediction could have a positive effect on the nation’s ability to make it through yet another season without electricity blackouts. This summer was hotter than normal, but despite dire warnings from the nuclear industry, no power shortages occurred, thanks to power-saving efforts by citizens. Electricity use in Japan ranged between 8% and 16% less during this summer than in 2010.
State of the Fukushima Reactors
TEPCO officials are saying that spent and unused fuel rods being stored in the spent fuel pool of reactor #3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant appear to have sustained no visible damage and are not, to their knowledge, releasing radiation into the environment. The announcement came after workers accidentally knocked a 470 kg, seven-meter long beam into the pool as they were trying to remove it using a remote-controlled crane. TEPCO said it used an underwater camera to examine the fuel rods, which are submerged in an 11.5-meter deep pool. The utility admitted that an object weighing more than 300 kg could potentially damage the fuel rods stored there. The pool is home to a total of 40,752 nuclear fuel rods, stored in 514 spent fuel assemblies and 52 unused fuel assemblies, each containing 72 rods.
TEPCO officials announced that as of October 3, they will begin accepting claims from victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including evacuees and those suffering psychological damage, for the period beginning June 1 and after. Those eligible may request up to five years’ worth of compensation in one lump sum. Payments will begin at the end of October.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Starting next Monday, October 1, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare will begin enforcing new regulations requiring that beef and rice contain less than 100 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. The previous limit, established immediately after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, was 500 Bq/kg, but standards were changed in April of this year for water, milk, and most foods. New standards for soybeans will take effect in January.
Japan’s central government continues to encounter stiff opposition from local communities as it struggles to find places to deposit 42,000 tons of radioactive waste from nine prefectures, including ash and sewage sludge. That number is expected to rise sharply as decontamination efforts ramp up across the country. By law, waste containing 8,000 Bg/kg or more of radioactive cesium must be stored in sites with roofs; reinforced, leak-proof floors and walls; and nearby wells where groundwater contamination levels can be monitored. This week, Katsuhiko Yokomitsu, Senior Vice Minister of the Environment, met with municipal and prefectural leaders of Takahagi City, which is in Ibaraki Prefecture. The government wants to build a new waste repository in a state-owned forest there next summer, but residents are expressing concern about radiation and the fact that they received so little advance notice. Last week, the Environment Ministry was harshly criticized for informing Tochigi Prefectural officials that a waste facility would be built in Yaita Forest just one hour before it formally announced the decision to the public. The Ministry said it has no plans to change the way it communicates with local officials.
Other Nuclear News
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chairman Yukiya Amano said this week that he will seek another term. His first term, which spans four years, is due to expire at the end of November next year. Currently, he has no challengers. Meanwhile, the IAEA announced that nuclear energy growth has declined for the second year in a row in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which dampened global enthusiasm for nuclear power and raised significant concerns about its safety, liability, and cost.