Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Politics in Japan
In his new book, whose title translates to “What I Must Say Even If I Were to Be Criticized,” Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), says that nuclear power should be eradicated as soon as possible, since the danger it poses is far too great and because “Japan is not fit to hold the risk of nuclear power plants.” METI is responsible for promoting nuclear power. Edano referred to last year’s nuclear disaster at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, expressing horror as he watched “what was believed to be a masterpiece of modern technology succumb to natural disaster so easily.” “Now,” he said, “I want to eliminate nuclear power as soon as possible. Even if I get a beating I must say this.” However, he highlighted challenges inherent in decommissioning the nation’s nuclear reactors, including dealing with vast amounts of nuclear waste and spent fuel. Currently, Japan has no solid plans on how to handle the waste, which will remain highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
Edano added that the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) and local governments, not the central government, should be responsible for deciding whether or not offline nuclear reactors should be restarted. The government “is in no position to declare that they are safe,” he said. The NRA has abandoned previously established so-called “stress tests,” which many experts said were ineffective at determining reactors’ safety, and is in the process of creating new safety standards for nuclear power plants across the country. Those standards are not expected to be completed until late spring or early summer of 2013.
In addition, Edano said that the central government should take over operation of all nuclear plants in Japan, both because it would allow it to control the decommissioning schedule as the nation abolishes nuclear power by the 2030s, and because the liability to individual utilities is too great in case of a nuclear disaster.
Masayoshi Kitamura, President of Electric Power Development Company (known in Japan as J-Power), announced this week that the utility will restart construction on a nuclear plant in Ohma, located in Aomori Prefecture. Construction began there in 2008 and was scheduled to conclude in 2014, but stopped after last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Currently, the work is 40% complete. Yukio Edano, head of METI, said that the government will not forbid its construction, but did warn that reactors will not be allowed online unless the plant passes safety inspections by the NRA and obtains approvals from local governments—although he did not define what “local” means. (Source: NHK)
The mayor of Ohma, Mitsuharu Kanazawa, supports the building of the plant, in spite of the fact that evacuation routes from the city have not been established in case a nuclear accident were to occur. But Toshiki Kudo, mayor of nearby Hokodate, which is located just 20 km from the plant and would be in the Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ) in case of a nuclear disaster, said he will oppose the project and will never grant approval for the plant’s operation. A citizen’s group in Hokodate has already filed a court injunction against the work, and Kudo said that the municipality is also considering filing suit against J-Power.
If the plant does begin operating, and is allowed to run for the government-allotted 40 years, the plant would not go offline until the 2050s—at least a decade longer than the government’s goal of completely eradicating nuclear power by the 2030s. Construction has also begun on two other nuclear plants in Japan, and Edano has said that “there will be no change” in the government’s previous approvals to the utilities in question.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has made several changes to his cabinet, including appointing a new Nuclear Crisis Minister, who will also oversee the Environment Ministry. Hiroyuki Nagahma is a highly-ranked member of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and a former classmate of Noda’s at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, although Nagahama was a year below Noda. He replaces Goshi Hosono, whom Noda recently appointed as the new policy chief of the DPF, in anticipation of elections that will happen later this year.
This week marks the six-month anniversary of weekly non-violent anti-nuclear protests that continue to be held in front of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s official residence. The protests, which at times have attracted more than 100,000 people from all walks of life, are credited with changing the political conversation about nuclear power in Japan. One young protester noted, “It is essential that we keep raising our voices like this. I have just reached voting age; I will carefully weigh what political parties and politicians offer.”
State of the Fukushima Reactors
For the first time since the nuclear disaster occurred, TEPCO has released videotaped footage of the inside of reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The tapes reveals that a 7.5 cm lead plate designed to block radiation is missing; investigators say they assume that it melted in the days following the nuclear meltdown, when temperatures inside the reactor reached more than 700ºC (1,292ºF). Lead melts at 327ºC. The utility plans further tests later this month, including attempts to measure water levels, temperature, and radiation levels.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda plans to visit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, site of last year’s nuclear disaster and triple reactor meltdown, next week on October 7. This is only the second time Noda is visiting the plant; the first was over a year ago, in September 2011, approximately six months after the disaster first began to unfold.
Japanese prosecutors are reportedly gathering evidence for criminal charges against TEPCO in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and may begin interviews with the utility’s executives, as well as others, soon. They will decide by March whether or not they will file charges against the company and its staff for criminal negligence.
In other legal news, a hospital accused of negligence when 40 patients and nursing home residents died during an evacuation following the Fukushima nuclear disaster has released a report denying all responsibility and saying that deaths are a direct result of the nuclear disaster itself. The Futaba Hospital, which is located in Okuma, said, “The hospital did all it could and committed no errors,” instead blaming the deaths on the physical challenges of the evacuation process, which would not have been necessary had the nuclear disaster not occurred. In addition, they said that lack of help from municipal authorities and Special Defense Forces (SDF) exacerbated the situation. “The nuclear disaster forced the hospital to evacuate to a location at least 20 km away, and put the facility in a position where aid was difficult to obtain. As such, there is a causal relationship between the nuclear disaster and the patient deaths.” The hospital’s director said that the facility will continue its investigation and will provide any data it obtains to the patients’ families, who are expected to file for compensation from TEPCO. The hospital’s report could have an effect on other liability charges filed against the utility.
Contamination, Including Human Exposure
Researchers from Fukushima Medical University, which runs a thyroid testing program for children exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, said that they still have not received radiation dose summaries for almost 70% of the 80,000 children they have tested so far. Children are especially susceptible to thyroid cancer. Families of the young people were asked to prepare highly detailed hourly reports for the children’s activities in the two weeks following the disaster and anytime they went outdoors for the next four months.
However, they were not asked to complete the forms until several months after the fact, and many have complained that the paperwork is too arduous and there is no way to accurately remember what they were doing during those periods and whether or not the children were outdoors. But failure to submit the paperwork could be significant if the children later develop cancer, because the records are, the researchers say, the only way to create a causative relationship between cancer and the Fukushima disaster. If they are unable to prove a cause and effect relationship, they may not be eligible for compensation. Subaru Marata, Deputy Director at the Hannan Chuo Hospital in Osaka noted, “Dose estimates are essential for evaluating a causal relationship between disease and radiation in those cases where people unfortunately fall ill and consider applying for compensation. I advise people to keep records of any changes in their health conditions and their whereabouts, including from now on.”
Evacuation and Repopulation
Japan continues to struggle with repopulating evacuated areas around the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A new survey shows that only 505 of Hirono’s original 5,300 residents have returned, in spite of the fact that authorities have lifted evacuation orders there. Town officials say that infrastructure has been reinstated and 70% of local businesses have reopened. But one member of the local commerce and industry association noted, “Doctors haven’t returned and the supermarkets haven’t reopened. Many residents think it’s more convenient living in the places they evacuated to. The town has changed a lot.” In addition, Deputy Mayor Koki Kuroda pointed out that radiation and safety concerns remain a major impediment, and trust in the government and TEPCO is low. “Many residents feel uneasy and think the crisis hasn’t been resolved yet, as many workers from the nuclear plant come and go in the town,” he said