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

Decontamination Scandal

A major decontamination scandal continues to unfold in Fukushima Prefecture, prompting the Environment Ministry to conduct its own investigation into shoddy practices after a series of articles in the Asahi Shimbun revealed photographic, video, and audio evidence of contracted workers blatantly disregarding Ministry rules regarding appropriate disposal of radioactive materials and other decontamination procedures. After the articles first began to appear in Asahi on January 4, Ministry officials asked four construction firms contracted to do the decontamination to conduct their own investigations into the charges, which included illegally dumping radioactive materials into rivers, streams, and forested areas. However, the construction company officials only admitted the three infractions, including allowing contaminated water from high-pressure sprayers to flow into gutters and washing boots and other equipment covered in radioactive mud in rivers and ditches. They blatantly denied the other allegations, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Asahi reporters uncovered 14 instances of wrongdoing, and approximately 30 whistleblowers who had worked at the decontamination sites contacted the Ministry after being ordered to improperly dispose of the debris. In one instance, reporters took a series of 27 photographs of a Kajima Corporation supervisor kicking radioactive leaves into a river. Kajima officials continue to insist that the incident didn’t happen, instead saying that he was trying to recover a rake that had slid down an embankment into the river. However, none of the pictures showed a rake, and the embankment near the river was covered with roots, branches, and other foliage, making it difficult or impossible for the rake to slide down the hill. In another instance, a report said that contractors did not use pressurized sprayers to clean roofs, when Asahi photographs clearly show that they were used, a violation of Environment Ministry decontamination policies.

Some workers have blamed lack of training and the prospect of a nearly impossible task with no clear-cut goals for the poor work practices. One worker mused, “Theories and experience in the field are different. It’s something no one has experienced before. No one knows how it should be done, exactly.” He added, “Those overseeing us from the contracting company or government offices nag at us to work safely, but they don’t give us any specific instructions,” noting that some workers in his crew did not even wear protective footwear when working in highly radioactive areas.

In addition, problems have surfaced in Fukushima City, which is not one of the central government’s 11 officially designated “special decontamination areas”, but has received government funding for cleanup. Although the prefectural government told Environment Ministry officials that it would use zeolite-filled sandbags to filter radioactive materials out of water contaminated by the cleaning process, it failed to do so, instead allowing the water produced by pressurized sprayers to flow into gutters. Ministry guidelines say that houses are supposed to be decontaminated by wiping, not spraying, and when spraying is used, radioactive water should be collected. Officials blamed the failure on lack of temporary storage space for the contaminated sandbags. In Fukushima City, although 90,000 homes have been certified radioactive, only 4,000 have been decontaminated almost two years after the nuclear disaster first began to unfold.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Newly appointed Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Toshimitsu Motegi, is insisting that Japan will not abandon its efforts to recycle nuclear fuel, despite decades of problems with the process. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture was first built 20 years ago, but has been plagued with problems and has never operated at full capacity. Meanwhile, the Science and Security Board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose stated mission is to “inform the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences,” has asked US President Barack Obama to urge Japan to abandon its fuel recycling efforts. The organization is concerned that plutonium and uranium produced in the process could ultimately be used for development of nuclear weapons if they fall into the wrong hands.

A new study conducted by the Asahi Shimbun shows that nine Japanese utilities collectively spent 2.4 trillion yen ($27.6 billion) over the course of 42 years on television and print advertising in an effort to promote nuclear power. Of all the utilities, TEPCO was the biggest spender, paying 644.5 billion yen over four decades. Until 2012, when the government changed its policy, the cost of the advertising was directly passed along to Japanese electricity consumers as a regular expense, similar to payroll costs or fuel, and was considered each time utilities petitioned the government for permission to raise electricity rates. The expenditures were large enough that they became a major revenue source for media outlets and in some instances, changed the way they reported about nuclear power. One advertising agency employee admitted, “The nuclear industry paid exceedingly more to advertise than other industries did. It was meant to get media organizations to support nuclear power.”

In addition, utilities used advertising budgets—also covered by utility fees paid for by consumers—on expensive dinners and drinks for media executives. They sponsored television shows and bought advertising in publications run by Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which currently holds control of the Lower House of the Diet. Spending doubled after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, when many began to seriously question nuclear power’s safety. “It is easy to see that by spending a large sum on ads, utilities tried to keep a close eye on media organizations’ negative reporting on nuclear power plants,” noted Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, an associate professor of media theory at Rikkyo University. Tatsuo Hatta, a visiting professor of economics at Gakushuin University, agreed: “With advertising money, media organizations became dependent on utilities for revenue and found it hard to criticize nuclear power.”

Toshimitsu Motegi, head of METI, announced this week that Japan will sell nuclear technology and infrastructure to other countries, even as Japan continues to reel from the aftereffects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to confirm an agreement that Japan will assist Viet Nam in building a nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to go online in 2020. Japan has also signed a pact with Jordan to export nuclear technology and equipment.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

In a new development, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced that it will require all 26 boiling water reactors (BWR) in Japan—the same type those that experienced full nuclear meltdowns during the Fukushima disaster—to install filtered vents in order to contain large releases of radioactive material in case of a nuclear disaster. Significantly, NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa stated that idled BWRs without filtered vents will not be allowed to restart until they have been retrofitted, a process that could be both expensive and time-consuming for utilities.

In addition, the NRA plans to order nuclear reactor operators to determine the maximum height of tsunamis to which nuclear plants could be exposed if a major earthquake strikes. Utilities will be required to retrofit plants, including building seawalls and waterproof housing for critical safety equipment, to prevent possible flooding. Establishing minimal elevations on which new reactors can be built is also being discussed.

The NRA will also change the definition of an “active fault” from one that moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years to any that experienced movement within the last 400,000 years. The new standards, set to take effect in July, are in line with those of Japan’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion. Japanese law states that nuclear reactors cannot be built atop active fault lines. Although an earlier draft of the new standards stated, “Reactor buildings can be built above active faults as long as they do not pose a serious threat to the facilities’ safety,” that clause has since been removed after NRA Commissioner Kunihiko Shimizaki, who is a seismologist, protested, saying that there is no way to establish whether or not such faults would affect a reactor’s safety.

In the meantime, a panel of experts assigned by the NRA remains in discussions regarding whether or not faults beneath and near reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture are active. Analysts say that a decision may not come any time soon. The Oi reactors were restarted in July at the order of then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, despite widespread public opposition to the move and concerns expressed by seismic experts.

Worker Safety

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare plans to update worker safety regulations for those who work at radioactive sites and with contaminated materials. Current standards only apply to decontamination workers assigned to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and up until now, no regulations have applied to those who are decontaminating highly radioactive areas in Fukushima Prefecture or those who work at waste disposal sites where highly radioactive waste is collected and processed. Under the new regulations, scheduled to take effect in July, companies will be required to provide those workers with dosimeters, conduct external exposure examinations each time they work at a site, and provide internal exposure checkups every three months. (Source: NHK)