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

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Non-violent anti-nuclear protests continue to flourish each Friday in Japan, when tens of thousands of demonstrators gather in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence to express opposition to nuclear energy, including restarting the country’s idled reactors, and to demand the complete eradication of nuclear power. The anti-nuclear movement, which has engendered the largest demonstrations since the 1960s, has spanned lines of ideology, class, gender, and age, and attracts many people who have never before protested. Takeshi Tamura, a 67-year-old former office worker who has since retired, said, “I used to complain about this to my family, but I realized that doesn’t do any good. So I came here to say this to his office. I don’t know if we can make a difference but I had to do something and at least it’s a start.”

In fact, experts now contend that the demonstrations are indeed having an impact on the way lawmakers have begun to view nuclear power. A recent poll of members of Parliament conducted by Asahi reveals that 42% favor completely ending reliance on nuclear power. In addition, 60% said that they were against rebuilding new plants or relicensing old ones after current licenses expire. Analysts say that nuclear energy is certain to be a major issue in the upcoming national party elections.

And, the movement is no longer only attracting those with left-leaning sensibilities. Controversial right-wing author Yoshinori Kobayashi, well known for his manga (comics), spoke out against nuclear power and said that the country needs to completely abandon it as an energy source. “Shouldn’t Japan immediately abandon the old science of nuclear power that is linked to the destruction of the nation, and carry out an energy revolution that will lead the world? Morality and economic growth are possible without nuclear power,” he said in the afterward to a new book released this week. “The Friday protests also have some right-wingers. It’s not just lefties,” he added, highlighting the wide range of those to whom the demonstrations appeal.

In a major policy change to Japan’s previously-established nuclear fuel cycle, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said this week that it plans to amend the nation’s Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Law. The legislation currently mandates that spent nuclear fuel be sent to the Rokkasho plant in Aomori Prefecture, where it will presumably be reprocessed for reuse in nuclear reactors. However, problems at the Rokkasho plant have been rampant, and the plant has never operated at full capacity since it first began operations in 1993. In the meantime, an estimated 14,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel have built up around the nation, and some plants will completely run out of storage space within the next four years. Assuming that Japan plans to eradicate nuclear power usage by 2030, there will no longer be any need to recycle spent fuel; instead, METI officials say that the new legislation will allow for burying the radioactive waste. However, no permanent burial site has yet been identified, even as Japan’s reactors continue to create approximately 1,000 tons of spent fuel each year. The move signals the government’s realization that public opposition to nuclear power continues to grow.

In an equally significant development, the government said that it is now considering the possibility of eradicating nuclear power by 2030. As the nation reviews its future energy policy, government-appointed experts had proposed that the nation rely on 0%, 15%, or 20-25% nuclear power by 2030. When the options were first announced, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said that the government planned to embrace the 15% option. However, widespread opposition to nuclear power now has many in the government, including lawmakers in Parliament, rethinking the best course of action, and prompting the government to consider the 0% option.

But, a new poll conducted this week by Asahi shows that 58% of Japanese people want to completely abandon nuclear power within the next ten years, out of concern about nuclear power’s inherent dangers—far sooner than the previously identified target of 2030. And, 55% said they would be willing to shoulder higher electricity rates in exchange. The survey was sent to 3,000 people; a whopping 75% submitted responses.

Members of the Noda cabinet approved nomination of five members to the nation’s newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including presumed-Chairman Shunichi Tanaka. The appointees must now obtain Parliamentary approval. The process has been highly controversial, as analysts question the impartiality of the nominees. Tanaka was formerly Vice-Chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which established the nation’s nuclear energy policy. In addition, documents reveal that four of the five nominees have accepted money from the nuclear industry.

After accepting a petition containing 165,127 signatures to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, Shizuoka Prefecture Governor Heita Kawakatsu said that he will prepare an ordinance to hold a referendum on restarting the reactors there. The number of signatures far exceeded the 61,541 required to file the petition. The prefectural assembly must now approve the ordinance.

Meanwhile, a group of anti-nuclear activists in Niigata Prefecture said that it has gathered enough signatures to call for a referendum preventing the restart of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant there. The group collected over 50,000 signatures, although they only needed 40,000. Governor Hirohiko Izumida must now submit a request for referendum to the prefectural assembly. Izumida, who has raised questions about the plant’s safety, noted, “ The referendum will open up community-wide discussion.” 

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ordered geological surveys on two more nuclear plants, in response to scientists who raised concerns about active fault lines beneath nuclear plants in Japan, which they say could compromise the safety of nearby residents. NISA officials said they will examine the earth beneath the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Monju fast-breeder reactor and Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO)’s Mihama power plant, both in Fukui Prefecture. NISA is already reviewing fault lines beneath four other nuclear plants: Tsuruga power plant, operated by Japan Atomic Power Company; Shika power plant, operated by Hokuriku Electric; Higashidori plant; and the recently restarted Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, all operated by KEPCO. The utilities insist that the fault lines are inactive, but NISA said tests are necessary. In addition, the agency ordered additional fault studies at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Fukushima Prefecture. Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, and KEPCO’s Takahama plant in Fukui. TEPCO will also conduct a voluntary geological survey at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

Worker Safety

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare is raising concerns that many of the 3,000 workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will soon reach legally-allowed radiation exposure limits. Experts warn that the situation could result in a workforce shortage, as the government struggles to decommission both the crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant as well as other aging reactors around the nation. Japanese law mandates that workers be exposed to no more than 50 millisieverts over the course of one year and no more than 100 millisieverts total over five years. (Source: NHK)

In the latest of a string of safety violations involving worker radiation exposure, TEPCO reported this week that since June 2011, workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have “lost” 20 dosimeters, and eight other radiation detection devices were not attached to workers’ protective suits, as required. The utility said that the incidents involved contractors and subcontractors at the crippled plant. A TEPCO representative said, “At the time, we thought that there was no problem, but clearly there was insufficient supervision.” The announcement comes just weeks after several subcontractors admitted that they were forced to shield dosimeters to prevent their actual exposure rate from being detected. Others admitted to doing so willingly, or to hiding their devices, in order to keep their exposure readings low. In Japan, workers are prevented from exceeding radiation exposure levels of 50 millisieverts per year, or an accumulated 100 millisieverts over five years. Many are fearful that if they reach the legal limits, they will lose their jobs.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

For the first time, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet Office has ordered thyroid checks for an additional 4,500 children aged 18 and under outside of Fukushima Prefecture. The move comes in response to a recent discovery that more than one-third of 38,000 Fukushima children have abnormal lumps on their thyroid glands. Over 13,000 children are affected. Prefectural officials have said that the lumps are not necessarily dangerous, but many parents are significantly concerned. Thyroid radiation exposure can cause cancer, and children are especially susceptible.

Fukushima Prefecture has begun to inspect all rice being shipped out of the prefecture in order to ensure that none exceeds radiation levels measuring 100 Bq/kg. Farmers have taken precautions to reduce the contamination levels of radioactive cesium in their soil after last year’s scandal, when prefectural officials declared all rice safe. It was later discovered that some of the rice shipped to market exceeded government standards for radiation. The effect of the nuclear disaster on the prefecture’s rice growers has been devastating.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono was quick to deny reports this week that the government has identified Minamiosumi in Kagoshima Prefecture as the final disposal site for radioactive waste generated by last year’s massive nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Nevertheless, he did not completely rule out the possibility. Earlier in the week, Japanese television station TBS reported that government officials had spoken to municipal leaders in Minamiosumi and had tapped the town as a strong candidate for storing waste. However, town officials were immediately said that they knew nothing about the decision. Waste from the disaster is scheduled to be stored in temporary facilities until as late as 2045, at which point it will be moved to permanent storage. But, identifying potential sites has stymied government officials as local residents pose fierce opposition to housing vast amounts of contaminated waste. Hosono has said that Fukushima Prefecture has shouldered enough burdens and should not be forced to house the waste indefinitely.

Officials from the Environment Ministry are meeting with municipal leaders in Fukushima Prefecture this week to reevaluate decontaminating forests there. Previously, the Ministry announced it would only decontaminate within 20 km of community areas, despite the fact that over 70% of the prefecture is covered with forested land. However, local residents protested , expressing concern that leaving so much radioactive land untreated will affect reconstruction efforts and could contaminate water supplies. (Source: NHK)

Evacuation and Resettlement

Japan’s central government announced a new plan to rebuild infrastructure in 12 areas previously declared evacuation zones because of their proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The roadmap includes plans to rebuild roads, sewage systems, water supplies, and transportation systems over the course of the next five years. They also hope to develop new industries, including renewable energy and medical supply companies, within ten years in an effort to provide jobs. Many evacuees have expressed concern that there will be nothing there for them if and when they are able to return to their homes.