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

TEPCO has finally completed installation of a cover over reactor #4 at the Fukushima power plant, which was heavily damaged in a hydrogen explosion following the nuclear disaster there nearly two and a half years ago. The new cover is designed to reduce spread of radiation in the atmosphere once workers begin to remove 1,533 spent and unused fuel rods from the reactor’s spent fuel pool, which is located on the building’s fourth floor. In addition, TEPCO officials said that they are working to reduce a 4 km network of pipes comprising a makeshift cooling system to approximately 3 km, which they hope will reduce the chance of leaks occurring. The pipes carry highly radioactive water used to cool reactors.

Fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture are questioning TEPCO’s ability to safeguard their livelihood from further damage, after the utility was once again forced to correct recent announcements about radiation in groundwater collected near the plant. In order to deal with an ongoing and continually worsening buildup of highly radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—each day, 400 tons of groundwater seeps into damaged reactor buildings and becomes contaminated—TEPCO recently said that it would drill 12 wells near the reactors, from which it hoped to pump water and subsequently release it into the Pacific Ocean. Initially, officials insisted that the water contained no more radiation than that of nearby rivers and streams. Then, on June 3, they admitted that they had made a mistake, and the water actually contained .61 Bq/liter of radioactive cesium. Now, officials say they have once again miscalculated, and in fact, the water is less radioactive than they thought, containing .055 Bq/liter. The issue highlights a long string of errors and miscalculations at the company that have led to numerous leaks, power outages, and equipment malfunctions at the plant. Many experts have begun to question whether TEPCO is capable of managing a long-term decommissioning process that most analysts agree will take at least 40 years to complete.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has approved a policy that will extend the life of reactors in Japan from 40 to 60 years. Reactors will be required to undergo special safety checks in addition to the agency’s new regulations that will be unveiled in July. However, many analysts believe that the upgrades required to meet such safety regulation will be so cost-prohibitive that older reactors will be ultimately be decommissioned.

Japan’s Reconstruction Agency is scrambling to save face after a senior official in charge of counseling victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster slandered lawmakers and other attendees of a non-governmental organization (NGO)-sponsored meeting via his personal Twitter feed. The meeting, at which participants were discussing radiation exposure, was held at the Members’ Office Building of the House of Representatives. The official, Yasuhisa Mizuno, is a 45-year old bureaucrat who worked at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and was temporarily assigned to the Reconstruction Agency last August. He was in charge of creating a policy that would assist victims in accordance with the Act on the Protection and Support of the Children and Other Victims of the TEPCO Disaster. Although the Act was passed a year ago, it has not effectively been put into practice yet, resulting in criticism from disaster victims and other advocates. Mizuno was previously the Mayor of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture. In his Twitter feed, which originally bore his name but then was listed under a pseudonym, Mizuno wrote, “I went to a meeting to listen to those [expletive]head leftists heaping scorn.” He added, “I just felt pity for their lack of intelligence.” The Twitter account has since been deleted. The incident elicited angry responses from the Diet, including Takayuji Kobayashi, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who said, “People who lost so many precious things to the quake disaster have been striving to get their lives going, and his tweets are extremely disrespectful of those who have been working so hard to support them. I urge strict responses be taken.” Yoshiaki Takaki, Diet Affairs Chief for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), said that Mizuno should be held accountable for his behavior.

In light of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent efforts to restart nuclear reactors in Japan, questions remain regarding whether or not he and his administration will blatantly override the anti-nuclear will of the people and municipal officials that represent them. In preparation or that possibility, several local governments are actively expressing opposition to nuclear power. In Osaka, for instance, a 10-person panel of experts, including two economists from Kyoto University and Ritsumeikan University, has released a report saying the “Japan can achieve a nuclear-free society by 2030.” 

The Osaka report recommends reforming the nation’s power supply before the current 2020 deadline, promoting reactor decommissioning, and ending government “grants” given to communities that host reactors. Anti-nuclear sentiment in Osaka has been spurred by fears of massive contamination of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, which provides drinking water for approximately 15 million people, as well as concerns about Fukui Prefecture’s significant dependence on nuclear power. Before the Fukushima disaster, Kansai Electric derived 50% of its electricity from nuclear energy. “The weakness of the electricity supply system centering on nuclear power generation became clear,” noted the report. Significantly, it added, “Nuclear power generation does not have an economic advantage” over alternative power supplies, including renewables, because of the high cost of constructing nuclear reactors and huge financial liability following nuclear disasters.

In response to the NRA’s demand that Kansai Electric ensure that the emergency control room for reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant (the only reactors operating in Japan at the moment) is located in a seismically isolated building, the utility announced this week that it would create a makeshift control room near reactors #1 and #2 at the plant, which are currently idled. The NRA approved the plan, but said that reactors #1 and #2 will not be given permission to restart until the permanent emergency control room has been completed for #3 and #4. That construction is not slated to conclude until 2015. Even then, the idled reactors will need to adhere to new NRA safety regulations, scheduled to be formally unveiled on July 18, before they can be considered for restart.

Japan’s Minister of Defense, Itsunori Onodera, said this week that the government may engage the nation’s Special Defense Forces (SDF) in training exercises with the coast guard and police force, in order to prepare for possible terrorist attacks at nuclear reactors, as well as other nuclear crises. Municipal authorities have increasingly called for additional support in dealing with such threats to their populations. In the case of a nuclear emergency, the SDF could only be employed via a direct order from the Prime Minister.

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

A new survey conducted by Fukushima’s prefectural government reveals that over 60% of respondents believe that radiation exposure from the 2011 nuclear disaster will have an “extremely high” or “high” impact on the genetic health of their offspring. The poll illustrates intense anxiety that continues to plague victims of the Fukushima crisis. Surveyors queried 180,000 people, and received 73,000 valid responses.