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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has released a final draft of new safety regulations for the nation’s nuclear reactors, which will take effect on July 18. A team of experts drew up the rules, which include guidelines addressing the significant risks posed by earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters, and terrorism. The agency is now inviting comments from outside experts. Nevertheless, plant operators will reportedly be allowed to restart reactors before implementing certain requirements, such as building secondary control rooms in case the first is destroyed as a nuclear disaster is unfolding. Some analysts have charged that the government is making concessions to utilities in order to speed restarts. NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) hope that reactors will be restarted within three years is unrealistic.

The regulations concerning earthquakes will stipulate that nuclear power operators must establish that no seismic movement has occurred beneath both reactors and critical safety equipment required for their operation within the last 400,000 years. Previously, guidelines only required no movement within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years. The new rules specifically state that reactors and “key facilities” cannot be built over an active fault line, a major change from earlier guidelines, which explicitly downplayed the possibility of a major earthquake, stating that nuclear regulators “do not expect” a massive quake to occur. The new rules are expected to affect TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture, and Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture, among others.

In addition, the NRA has significantly tightened requirements regulating tsunami safety, expanding them to include tsunamis caused by volcanoes and landslides, as well as earthquakes. Earlier safety guidelines barely mentioned tsunamis, but now, a so-called “reference-tsunami,” which is the estimated highest possible tsunami expected to hit that area, will be determined for every nuclear reactor in the country. Operators will be expected to build seawalls and retrofit plants in order to ensure that reactors, power sources, and other vital equipment is safe from flooding and possible power loss that could affect cooling functions at the facility. 

NRA Commissioners also confirmed that they are considering making background checks for workers at nuclear plants mandatory, in line with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines, as previously reported earlier this week. Japan is the only developed country that does not require background screenings for criminal history, debt, and drug and alcohol addiction. The IAEA first suggested that nuclear power operators conduct background checks on workers in 1999, and in 2011, recommended that governments oversee those checks. Japan reportedly considered doing so in 2005, but the plan went nowhere. In March 2012, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) wrote a report supporting background checks, but the government failed to act.

Ironically, the need for such a system was highlighted this week, as police in Fukushima Prefecture arrested Yoshinori Arai, a member of the well-known Japanese organized crime syndicate Sumiyoshi-Kai, for a scheme in which he provided workers to contractors decontaminating areas affected by the Fukushima disaster, but then pocketed large portions of their wages. “The recovery operations involve a lot of money, so they are a godsend for gangs that have trouble making money due to a police crackdown on gang activities,” noted one person intimately familiar with the syndicate’s workings. He said that gang members have also been involved in other aspects of Fukushima’s reconstruction, including demolition of destroyed buildings and disposal of radioactive waste. 

Nuclear Politics in Japan

In response to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement that his administration will assist TEPCO in cleaning up its nuclear disaster, the government has allotted an additional 156.4 billion yen to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) in order to speed up decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Abe has been vocal about his desire to reinvigorate the nuclear industry in Japan, but ongoing public concerns about radiation, as well as thousands still unable to return to their homes as a result of the nuclear crisis, continue to overshadow that plan.

Miles Pomper, a US expert on nuclear power from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said this week that Japan’s decision to recycle nuclear fuel creates an appreciable terrorism risk. Pomper, who was speaking at a United Nations disarmament conference in Japan, said that the recycling process, which extracts plutonium from spent fuel, leaves Japan and other parts of the world open to attack if terrorists manage to obtain the plutonium, which could then be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Chubu Electric admitted this week that it has detected additional damage to reactor #5 at its Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. In May 2011, the government ordered Chubu officials to shut down all five reactors because the plant sits on an area at particularly high risk for a magnitude 8 or higher earthquake. During the shutdown process, the condenser building of reactor #5 was accidentally flooded with 400 tons of seawater, and officials determined that approximately 5 tons of the water may have flooded the reactor itself. The high saline content of the seawater has since caused significant rusting and corrosion, leading to permanent damage. The utility continues to insist that the reactor, which is now covered, is safe and poses no danger to nearby residents.

This week, NRA-appointed seismic experts formally endorsed a report stating that a fault line running beneath Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture is most likely active. The decision means that the NRA will not perform safety checks required for a restart of the two idled reactors there, and the plant will ultimately be decommissioned. Japan Atomic Power continues to insist that the fault is not active, and said that it will conduct yet another seismic survey

State of the Fukushima Reactors

Members of the media who were invited on a tour of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant this week reported that although TEPCO is making progress in digging wells, in an attempt to control a burgeoning problem with groundwater seeping into basements of the reactor buildings, the compound remains in a visible state of disrepair, with downed wires and overturned vehicles in the same spots they were when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima coast almost two years ago. Reporters were not allowed to leave the bus for the majority of the three-hour tour, except for a stint in the plant’s emergency response office. Dosimeters recorded a total radiation dose of 38 microsieverts; peak levels, measuring 1.3 millisieverts per hour, were recorded near reactor #3.

Beginning in July, TEPCO plans to use robots to assist in cleaning reactor buildings, including using high-pressure sprayers, at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to accelerate the decommissioning of the reactors, but radiation levels there remain so high that humans cannot enter the buildings.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Officials in Namie town, which at its closest point is located just 5 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, have begun to organize medical examinations of children who were 18 years of age or younger in March 2011, when the nuclear disaster first began to unfold. Because of poor information provided by the government and TEPCO, many families evacuated to the far side of the town, approximately 30 km from the plant, in the first days after the crisis began, but unbeknownst to them, radiation levels there were exceedingly high there because of weather patterns that affected the radiation plume. Researchers from Hirosaki University are taking samples of the children’s blood in order to look for chromosomal changes that could indicate cancer or other deleterious effects of the radiation. Results will not be available for several months. The testing is voluntary, and so far, 23% of those eligible have opted to participate. (Source: NHK)