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 a surprise move, the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations has delayed making a decision on TEPCO’s recent request to divert a quarter of the 400 tons of groundwater that currently pour into reactor buildings each day at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. TEPCO hopes to pump the water before it can become radioactive, and release it into the ocean. The utility has said that radiation tests conducted on 200 tons of water pumped from the 12 wells show that contamination levels are “the same as rivers in surrounding areas,” which were contaminated by the disaster but are already flowing into the ocean. However, many members want confirmation that the government will monitor the situation. Some are concerned that there will be no way to determine whether TEPCO is dumping groundwater with very low-contamination levels, or highly radioactive water which is currently being stored onsite. Tetsu Nozaki, who leads the Federation, said that the group will not make a decision on the matter until at least June. “As for giving our consent,” he said, “that is something that must go back to the drawing board.”

This winter, TEPCO plans to remove the cover over reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, in order to remove highly radioactive debris left over from the 2011 hydrogen explosion and to install a crane that will be used to remove spent fuel. Workers will then install a new cover.  The current shield was put in place in October 2011, in order to reduce the amount of radiation that leaks into the atmosphere. Officials said that they expect atmospheric radiation levels to rise during the process, but insist that they will not have a major impact on people’s overall exposure to contaminants. The entire process is expected to take four years.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Despite numerous public opinion polls showing that the nation is seeking an end to collusion between the government and the nuclear industry, Japan’s pro-nuclear administration is once again expressing support for nuclear power providers. This week, Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), announced that the government will take the lead in trying to convince local officials and residents of the safety of nuclear power, in order to facilitate the restart of reactors nationwide. “Nuclear plant operators have been forced to bear a heavy burden. The government will now come to the front for explanations to municipalities.” He did not discuss the burdens borne by those who were forced to evacuate their homes and livelihoods in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that he plans to lead the charge in promoting Japan’s nuclear technology to the international community, despite widespread public opposition to such exports. Earlier this month, Abe traveled overseas to sign agreements with both the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has issued a formal warning to three companies caught up in a decontamination scandal affecting worker safety, and for the first time, has publicly named them: Yamoto Engineering Service, Sowa Kogyo, and Aguresu. Four additional companies reportedly escaped disciplinary action because of a paperwork loophole. The firms are accused of illegally assigning workers to install pipes at the crippled plant, and dispatching workers from more than one firm. A majority of decontamination workers assigned to deal with radioactive waste leftover from the Fukushima nuclear disaster do not work directly for TEPCO, but rather, for multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors, making it tough to regulate whether or not firms are following labor laws and protecting workers’ safety, including regulating their radiation exposure. Late last year, the Ministry criticized eight firms accused of misrepresenting the amount of radiation to which workers had been exposed, but refused to identify the companies.

Approximately 150 members of the National Police Agency (NPA) and the Coast Guard staged a joint anti-terrorism drill this week at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, located approximately 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where three nuclear meltdowns occurred in March 2011. Participants were forced to wear protective gear, as radiation levels in the area remain dangerously high. The event was observed by officials from the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces (SDF). After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, security experts warned that terrorists could gain access to both central control rooms and reactors themselves, leading to a nuclear crisis. However, the Fukushima Daiichi crisis showed that disabling a plant’s cooling functions and power sources could also produce catastrophic results, prompting this most recent drill. One NPA official noted, “The disaster revealed how vulnerable nuclear power plants are. It’s become much easier for nuclear power plants to be targeted by terrorists, as the disaster has exposed facilities’ weak points.” Nevertheless, at the current time, utilities, rather than the central government, are responsible for establishing security against terrorist attacks at nuclear power plants. Recent recommendations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) advised that the government should oversee that task, but a proposal to do so will not even be presented until next year.

The Environment Ministry plans to create guidelines that would allow residents forced to evacuate their homes in the case of disasters—including those involving nuclear meltdowns—to bring their pets with them to evacuation centers. In the months following the Fukushima crisis, many people chose to live in their cars rather than abandon their companion animals; in the no-entry zones, scores of cats and dogs were found dead after starving to death. The new regulations will aim to prevent those scenarios in the future.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) will reportedly prevent the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) from restarting the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture for the time being, charging the entity with poor safety management. In addition, JAEA will be ordered to revamp its safety and inspection practices, a move that could lead to serious delays in restarting the reactor. Late last year, the JAEA was charged with failing to perform safety checks on nearly 10,000 pieces of equipment at Monju (out of 39,000), some of which were “Class-1” elements, considered crucial to the reactor’s safety. Moreover, seismic experts suspect that fault lines below the reactor may be active, which would legally prevent the reactor from being restarted. JAEA officials, including President Atsuyaki Suzuki, have dismissed the claims, saying that the almost 10,000 ignored safety checks were minor and should have no consequence. In addition, Suzuki insists that the earthquake experts who warn of active fault lines are wrong. In December, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the operator “lacks the basic safety culture” needed to manage the facility. The Monju reactor, which was supposed to play a critical role in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, first went online in 1994, but almost immediately shut down in 1995 after a serious sodium coolant leak and fire. JAEA officials tried to cover up the accident, resulting in public outcry. The reactor remained offline until 2010, but another accident involving heavy equipment that fell into the reactor vessel shut it down again. So far, the project has cost nearly 1 trillion yen in taxpayer funds.

The NRA has asked Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), operator of the only two online reactors in Japan, reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture, to examine three fault lines beneath the facility, which it believes could move in tandem if a massive earthquake strikes. However, KEPCO officials said that the study is unnecessary, and there is no need to consider how the faults might move simultaneously.