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 new guidelines for nuclear disasters, including expanding the evacuation zone around nuclear reactors from 10 to 30 km. The move will have a significant impact on local communities, which now need to craft complicated evacuation plans. Previously, only 45 municipalities in 15 prefectures were required to have nuclear emergency plans; now 135 municipalities in 21 prefectures are required to submit them by March 2013. Iodine tablets will also be distributed to anyone living within 50 km of a nuclear reactor. Local officials are complaining that the central government has not shared radiation diffusion simulation data, which makes it impossible to determine where to send people if a nuclear accident occurs.

In addition, many areas lack the infrastructure to conduct such large-scale evacuations. In some towns, roads are inadequate; in others, there are not enough vehicles to quickly evacuate all residents. For example, 930,000 residents live in Ibaraki Prefecture’s Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ) near the Tokai #2 Power Station, but the prefecture only owns enough buses to transport 240,000 people. Although some residents could escape in their own cars, roads are inadequate and officials fear complete gridlock in the case of a nuclear crisis. The NRA is also mandating that emergency response centers be no closer than 5 km to a nuclear power plant, and no further than 30 km away. Analysts point out that the increased burden on local communities may make it more difficult for nuclear plant operators, who hope to restart idled reactors, to get permission from municipal officials.

Tanaka continues to insist that although the NRA is responsible for determining safety at the nation’s nuclear power plants, it will not make the final decision about whether or not idled reactors should be restarted. “We are responsible for confirming whether safety standards are met from a scientific and technological standpoint. We will not be involved in [decisions regarding] electricity supply and demand and socioeconomic issues.” He added that determining whether or not the reactors should be restarted “is a major decision that must be made by somebody, and I believe that our safety assessment plays an important role in making that judgment. But to reactivate the reactors, there are various issues to consider, including gaining permission from local residents and municipal officials, and that is beyond the bounds of our authority.”

Tanaka’s position, which he has stated repeatedly, contradicts that of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who said last week that the NRA, not the government, would make the final decision on restarts. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura echoed that sentiment at a press conference on Wednesday, saying, “As an important source of electricity, a reactor will be utilized when the NRA confirms its safety from an independent standpoint.” On Thursday, Fujimura repeated that stance, saying, “In terms of giving approval, that duty has shifted from the trade minister and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to the regulatory committee that is now in charge of authorizing [the restarts].”

Fujimura added, however, that even if the NRA deems reactors safe, they may not be restarted unless they are determined necessary for power supply. “The problem of power supply and demand will naturally crop up. The government may decide it is unnecessary to restart reactors,” he said. Forty-eight of Japan’s fifty reactors have been offline since spring, and yet despite grave predictions from the nuclear power industry of widespread blackouts, no power loss occurred, even during peak-use days in August.

The government’s apparent shirking of the final decision has been poorly received by many, including the Mayor of Tomari, Hiroomi Makino, who said, “Any decision on a reactor restart must be made by the government and ultimately by the Prime Minister. I cannot but believe that the government is shunning responsibility by leaving the decision in the NRA’s hands.” The vast majority of the Japanese public opposes restarting the reactors; with elections looming within the next year, many politicians are loath to be seen as responsible for the restarts. However, the business and nuclear communities, worried about profits, continue to place pressure on them.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Municipal leaders and residents in towns surrounding Electric Power Development Company’s (known in Japan as J-Power) proposed Ohma nuclear power plant are protesting resumption of construction there, citing concerns about their safety in the event of a nuclear disaster. Although the government recently announced that it would eradicate nuclear power in the 2030s, and forbid the building of any new reactors, it said that construction already begun at three plants, including the Ohma facility, could continue. Experts have criticized the move, pointing out that if the Ohma plant is allowed to operate for the government-allotted 40 years, it will extend at least a decade past the 2030s eradication goal. The plant was originally scheduled to be completed in November 2014, but the schedule has now been extended by 18 months. A J-Power executive admitted that the utility was taking advantage of the apparent loophole, noting, “We rushed the announcement of the construction resumption to forestall any policy change.”

Meanwhile, the NRA, responding to concerns from seismic experts, who are worried that a major fault beneath the Ohma site may be active, said that it will consider either ordering J-Power to conduct a seismic study of the area, or will do so itself.

The Mayor of nearby Hokodate, Toshiki Kudo, has threatened to file a lawsuit against the Ohma plant, pointing out, “The central government’s go-ahead for the construction is based on the safety myth that prevailed before the Fukushima disaster. Only 90,000 people live within 50 km of the plant in Aomori Prefecture (where the town of Ohma, financially dependent on the proposed plant, has granted its approval for the construction), but 370,000 live in Hokkaido. Those 370,000 people have heard nothing.” In addition, mayors in Kazamaura Village, Hokuto, and Nanae are protesting the construction, noting that no adequate evacuation routes exist. Each of the municipalities lies within 30 km of the plant, in the Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone (UPZ), and would be forced to evacuate should a nuclear accident occur. Nanae Mayor Yasukazu Nakamiya lamented, “They’ve learned nothing from the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”

A Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) working group tasked with drafting a new policy outline on nuclear energy said this week that it will end its work, in light of the recently announced government plan to eradicate nuclear power in the 2030s. The group has been drafting such outlines every five years since 1956. Analysts are predicting that the JAEC itself, which was created to promote nuclear power, may eventually be disbanded. (Source: NHK)

As duties are transferred from the now defunct Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to the newly-created Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the Nuclear Energy Library, which gave the public access to over 40,000 documents relating to nuclear power, will close. The Library was created in 1997 to create transparency after a leak and subsequent cover-up at the Monju fast-breeder. It was heavily visited in the period following the Fukushima nuclear disaster; many documents there are not available online. Experts are criticizing the decision. Kenji Sumita, former head of the NSC, said, “An access point for ordinary citizens to obtain information about nuclear power should be maintained. The NRA’s response is simply shabby, and to restore confidence in nuclear power, it should be quickly reopened.” Yukiko Miki, head of Information Clearinghouse Japan, agreed: “It’s unforgiveable for the level of information release to fall below the level seen before the Fukushima nuclear accident.”

Officials from Fukushima Prefecture have admitted that they conducted secret meetings with 19 health experts and government officials, discussing the impact of radiation on human health, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The meetings were held before official meetings, and participants were instructed not to tell anyone that they had participated. Meeting materials were collected after the meeting so that they could not be removed from the room, and no minutes were kept. A Prefectural official has admitted that it was a mistake, saying, “We can’t argue if we are blamed for holding secret meetings. We regret having such gatherings; we’ll not hold such meetings anymore.”

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO has finally installed a new thermometer in the crippled #2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The reactor experienced a meltdown in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster; since then, five out of six thermometers in the reactor have broken. If the final thermometer broke, the utility would have no way of knowing if the reactor was overheating and in danger of further meltdown. Although they cannot see inside the reactors, workers believe that the new thermometer is near the bottom of the pressure vessel.

The NRA will declare the Fukushima Daiichi plant a “special nuclear facility” in order to oversee stabilization of the plant, as well as its decommissioning. Currently, the agency has no authority over TEPCO’s plans there. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka said this week that the Fukushima plant is still unstable, contradicting earlier government reports that operations there had been stabilized.

This week, TEPCO began removing 764 spent fuel rods from reactor #4 at its Fukushima Daini power plant. The Daini plant is located approximately 11 km from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a triple meltdown occurred after power was lost there after last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami. Although a nuclear emergency was also declared at the Daini plant, workers were able to recover cooling systems and avoid meltdowns at the reactors. The utility is moving the rods to a storage pool on upper floors of the building, and eventually plans to follow suit with reactors #1, #2, and #3, a process that will continue through the end of 2014. (Source: NHK)

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

The JAEC has begun monitoring radiation levels in restricted zones of Fukushima Prefecture via unmanned helicopters. The project, which was requested by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), marks the first time that radiation has been measured from the air in the no-go zone. The agency will compile a report by the end of the month, including radiation maps of hotspots. Meanwhile, another research team is studying radiation levels in forests and rivers there, in order to determine their effect on human habitats and the ocean. The research will continue for the next 20 years. (Source: NHK)

Researchers from the Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University (NVLU) have begun to study the effects of radiation on Japanese macaques, noting that the similarities between primates and humans may help them determine how radiation could eventually affect people. Shin-ichi Hayama, one of the scientists working on the project, said, “This presents an opportunity to study the impact of low-dose radiation on primates, which are so close to humans, over a more than 20-year period. That could help forecast the impact on humans, as well.”

Evacuation and Repopulation

In spite of efforts by the central government to lift evacuation orders and begin repopulating some areas of Fukushima Prefecture located between 20 and 30 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a new survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun shows that only 11% of those who evacuated the prefecture have returned.  Approximately 58,000 people lived there before the crisis erupted, and 48% evacuated in the months following the nuclear meltdowns. The area includes Minami-Soma, Tamura, Kawauchi, Nahara, and Hirono.

Waste Removal and Storage

Joining the chorus of voices opposing the government’s recent decision to build a nuclear waste depository in a national forest in Ibaraki Prefecture, the Tokugawa Museum is protesting the location choice, which is only 3 km from a forest it owns. That forest is home to a mountain villa built in 1886 by the 11th lord of the Mito domain and the brother of the last Tokugawa shogun. The museum plans to have it designated as a national important cultural asset. “We’re worried about all sorts of rumors [about radioactivity] ahead of our plan to have the villa designated an important cultural asset. We’ll strongly oppose construction.”