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

State of the Fukushima Reactors

In response to charges that it intentionally misled a Parliamentary investigative panel trying to determine whether reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant suffered damage from a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March 2011, TEPCO plans to appoint a panel of outside experts to look into the issue. Earlier this month, a former member of the parliamentary panel, Mitsuhiko Tanaka, charged TEPCO with purposely blocking the panel’s efforts to examine isolation condensers at reactor #1 for damage, by telling members that a cover placed over the building to reduce leaking radiation rendered “pitch-black” darkness, making the area impossible to navigate. In fact, the cover allowed some sunlight to filter through, and it was fitted with mercury bulbs equivalent to the headlights of 40 automobiles. Backup lights were also installed and operational. Isolation condensers are instrumental in providing cooling functions to reactors, and their failure could lead to nuclear meltdown. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) now plans to investigate the equipment for damage, but has not yet announced when they will do so because of ongoing high radiation levels at the reactor.

Also this week, TEPCO admitted that it conducted its own evaluation of the isolation condensers last November—apparently having no issues with the poor visibility and high radiation levels about which it warned Parliamentary investigators—but never made that study, or its results, public. The utility is now saying that the probe proved that no damage was incurred during the earthquake, and blames lack of communication between its own departments for failure to publicize the internal investigation until now. If the condensers are found to have sustained earthquake damage, the NRA is likely to list that as a cause of the March 2011 triple meltdown, a decision that would have a profoundly negative effect on nuclear power nationwide in a country riddled with seismic faults.

Toshiba Corporation has developed new machinery that it says will reduce radiation levels at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant through use of dry ice. Officials say that the new system works by spraying dry ice particles on walls and floors, and then using a separate hose to vacuum them up. It is equipped with 100 meters of cable and can run for up to 30 minutes at a time. The machine will be tested at the Fukushima Daini plant this week, and then at the Fukushima Daiichi plant beginning this summer. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) underwrote half of the cost of developing the system, which totaled several tens of millions of yen.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Last week, Japan’s Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament (the Diet) finally approved the appointment of Shunichi Tanaka as head of the NRA, as well as four other NRA commissioners. The group was first put into office by then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in September, but the ruling party at the time, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), balked on confirming them, expressing concern about close ties between some of the commissioners and the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, Tanaka is slowly developing a reputation for tightening previously lax regulations on reactors, and new rules will be unveiled in July. The current ruling party of the Lower House, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is staunchly pro-nuclear, and although many members have quietly expressed concern that new NRA regulations will adversely affect the power industry and in turn the economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in January that he would not block the new appointments. After approval was granted by the Lower House, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga noted, “The NRA commissioners should draw up safety standards with confidence. The government will decide whether to reactivate nuclear reactors at its own discretion.”

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Toshimitsu Motegi, head METI, announced this week that the government will resume meetings to discuss the nation’s so-called “Basic Energy Plan.” “I think we can start full-fledged discussion from around March,” he said. Under the previous administration, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the country would abandon nuclear power by 2040. However, Shinzo Abe, who was elected Prime Minister in December, has promised to restart offline nuclear reactors and then take the next ten years to determine whether or not nuclear power should be part of Japan’s energy mix. Meanwhile, he plans to allow construction on new plants, which could have a life span of 40 years or more once they are completed.

Kenji Saito, Chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly, caused a stir at a meeting of the LDP’s Research Commission on Oil, Resources, and Energy when he walked out after some in the group of assembly chairs from 13 prefectures began to discuss restarting nuclear reactors. “I am walking out if the government plans to restart [reactors] without acting responsibly in dealing with the Fukushima accident. I cannot possibly join such a discussion,” he said, later telling members of the media, “All of the Fukushima chapter members of the LDP are opposed to any restarts. I cannot stand to be part of such a meeting.” However, his colleagues continued the meeting without him. Acting Executive Secretary-General of the LDP, Hiroyuki Hosoda, was dismissive of Saito’s response, saying, “I understand the Fukushima representative cannot respond to the issue in a constructive manner.”

Japan Atomic Power Company has signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to conduct a feasibility study for building nuclear plants, as well as to provide other technical assistance.  Japan Atomic operates the Tsuruga reactors in Fukui Prefecture; NRA experts just determined that reactor #2 was built atop an active fault line, in violation of Japanese law. In addition, the utility runs the Tokai Daini plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, which was shut down after the 2011 earthquake, and which did not pass subsequent stress tests designed to determine seismic safety.

Safety Issues at Other Nuclear Plants in Japan

In a significant development, a panel of seismologists appointed by the NRA to study two fault lines beneath Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture has drawn up a draft report determining that the fault lines are likely active, placing the reactors at risk for a major earthquake. The scientists studied volcanic ash near the faults, and dismissed a previous report by Tohoku Electric insisting that the fissures were inactive. A final report will be submitted to the NRA soon. The decision follows another last month, when NRA investigators determined that a fault beneath reactor #2 at the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture is also active. NRA regulators are continuing to check faults running beneath the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture, and say they will add three more reactors to their list of those that need to be checked.

In the meantime, officials at Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), operator of the Oi reactors, the only two currently in operation in Japan, are denying that there are active faults beneath their plant, and say they plan to conduct another seismic survey there. Some NRA experts have said that the faults are active, but others on the agency’s panel disagree. Kunihiko Shimazaki, an NRA Commissioner and seismologist, has requested that KEPCO dig a 70-meter long trench approximately 170 meters from reactor #3 at the compound to examine fissures, and ordered the company to submit a report on the issue by mid-July of this year. If the fault lines are determined active, the reactors will be taken offline and may be at risk of being decommissioned entirely.