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

Japan’s Energy Policy

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is now insisting that Japan will abolish nuclear power by 2040. The statement comes after the government announced last week that it would eradicate nuclear power, and then in essence reversed the decision the next day, when a document approved by Noda’s cabinet failed to mention the zero-use clause. Analysts attributed the about-face to intense pressure and concerted lobbying from the business community and local governments who depend on the nuclear industry for jobs, as well as from the United States, which had expressed concern about reduced expertise and capability in the nuclear sector, on which it depends for its own nuclear power. The flip-flops were widely reported on and criticized by the Japanese media. Public opinion remains stanchly opposed to nuclear power. The Daily Yomiuri reported that a source connected to the Prime Minister’s office said, “I wonder if such manipulative tactics can sway the public.”

Nuclear Regulation in Japan

Shunichi Tanaka, the newly-sworn in head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), announced this week that although the summer’s peak demand for electricity is over, and public opinion remains staunchly opposed to nuclear power, he has no plans to shut down reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The decision comes despite warnings by seismic experts that the plant lays on fault lines that may be active and could place the plant at risk of the effects of a major earthquake. The NRA plans to conduct its own geological surveys at the plant in late October. If the faults are found to be active, the entire plant could be permanently shut down and decommissioned.

Tanaka also said that he will abolish the widely derided “stress test” system that the government implemented to determine whether or not nuclear reactors are safe, and will replace it with a new system that takes into account “unforeseeable” emergencies. “Restarts will be extremely difficult unless nuclear disaster response plans are in place, so that people in communities nearby can live with peace of mind,” he said. “We will not use ‘stress tests’ as our judgment criteria.” Tanaka plans to incorporate “probabilistic safety assessments”—the idea that supposedly “unforeseeable” disasters can, in fact, occur—into the new tests. “It is an effective way to identify challenges. I want to incorporate it in the safety regulations from now on,” he noted.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

In political news, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was reelected president of his political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) last week, winning by a large margin. His term will run for three years. Almost immediately afterward, Noda appointed Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono as the DPJ’s policy chief. Analysts say the move is designed to raise the profile of the DPJ, in anticipation of a general election that will be scheduled sometime within the next year. Currently, the approval rating for Noda’s cabinet is less than 30%, and members of the DPJ remain concerned that they will suffer massive losses in the upcoming election. (Source: NHK)

Officials from Chubu Electric Power Company in Shizuoka Prefecture met this week in a closed session with Tokyo High Court officials, as well as with local residents who are protesting the restart of reactors at the Hamaoka power plant this week. The Chubu officials strenuously argued that an 18-meter seawall they are currently constructing is capable of withstanding the effects of a 23-meter tsunami. Residents asked what would happen if an even larger tsunami struck. Experts across Japan were shocked when a powerful tsunami, the result of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011, resulting in power loss to the plant and leading to three separate nuclear meltdowns. Those in the nuclear power industry insisted it could never happen. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) has ruled that nuclear plant operators must protect plant compounds from the effects of a tsunami.

In a new survey conducted by the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ), more nuclear experts are expressing concern about the safety of nuclear power, and questioning its value in Japan. The survey was unveiled at a meeting of the Society on September 20. Only 50% of those experts questioned said that nuclear energy would be useful 20 years from now—30% fewer than those who responded positively before the Fukushima nuclear crisis. When asked if they “can agree [that] safety awareness and efforts of those engaged in the use of nuclear energy are trustworthy,” only 23.4% of experts polled said yes. One of the members of the survey group, Shoji Tsuchida of Kansai University, said, “Nuclear energy experts are upset after experiencing a nuclear disaster. They are apparently trying to rethink the safety and value of nuclear power generation,” adding, “The accident shocked many AESJ members.” AESJ President Shigeo Nomura noted, “Nuclear experts have remained silent because of remorse over not having been able to prevent the accident.”

A sampling of randomly selected local residents also completed the AESJ questionnaire. When asked if they felt “insecure” about the safety of nuclear energy, a whopping 70.8% of residents answered yes, an increase from 49.8% before the disaster. And, those residents who said that the country should continue to embrace nuclear power dropped to only 20.6%.

Researchers from Europe have released a new study, published in the journal Natural Hazards, identifying 22 nuclear power plants, in addition to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, that are at risk of being struck by a tsunami. The majority of them are in East and Southeast Asia. The authors note, “The most important fact is that 19 (two of which are in Taiwan) out of the 27 reactors [currently being built in China] are being built in areas identified as dangerous.” In addition, seven plants in Japan are at risk; South Korea has two plants that could be struck. One of the researchers, Joaquin Rodriguez-Vidal of the University of Huelva, said, “The location of nuclear installations does not only have implications for their host countries but also for the areas which could be affected by radioactive leaks.” 

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Newly-released data from Fukushima Prefecture shows that the Kamihatori District in Futaba, located 5.6 km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, received 1,590 microsieverts of radiation per hour at 3 pm on March 12, 2011. That’s one day after the nuclear meltdowns began, and just 36 minutes before a hydrogen explosion occurred at reactor #1. The government safety limit advises that people should not be exposed to more than 1,000 microsieverts over the course of a full year. A prefectural official acknowledged that the high readings were taken before the reactor exploded, admitting, “Radioactive materials must have been leaking even before the blast, and wind direction may have played a role.”

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said this week that the first confirmed piece of debris from the 2011 tsunami—a blue bin used for shipping seafood with the name of a Fukushima vendor—has reached the shores of Hawaii. The bin has been put into quarantine. It is the twelfth confirmed item from the tsunami to arrive on the US or Canadian coast. Experts estimate that between one and two million tons of debris, much of it possibly radioactive, washed out to sea and is now floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Waste Disposal

With only one hour’s notice to municipal officials, the Environment Ministry announced that it would build a disposal site for highly radioactive waste in a state-owned forest in Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture. Mayor Tadashi Endo and other local officials were livid, while residents are expressing concern because an irrigation dam sits downstream, and they fear negative impact on farm sales. Endo said, “It was a bolt from the blue. We should have been consulted beforehand.” The central government is currently trying to decide what to do with almost 43,000 tons of so-called “specified” radioactive waste measuring 8,000 Bq/kg or more, including incinerated trash, sewage sludge, and contaminated rice straw. At the moment, it’s being stored in temporary facilities across nine prefectures, including Fukushima. With the exception of Fukushima, the government has decreed that waste must be stored in the prefecture where it originated, and said it will announce by the end of the month final locations in Miyagi, Ibaraki, and Chiba Prefectures. The announcement for Gunma Prefecture will be slightly delayed but will reportedly happen soon, with waste transfer beginning in the summer of 2014. An official from Miyagi Prefecture lamented, “We [still] haven’t heard anything from the central government.” An Environment Ministry official admitted that failing to give advance notice to Tochigi prefectural officials was unpopular, but said, “I wouldn’t say this is the best way, but we will stick to this method in the future.” Because the land is owned by the state, the government is not legally required to gain local permission, although nearby residents are certain to be affected by the decision.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

Members of the town assembly in Okuma, Japan, home to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, have voted to declare the town off-limits to any residents for the next five years. Ninety-five percent of the town has already been declared uninhabitable—probably for decades, and perhaps permanently—but the Environment Ministry deemed the remaining five percent ready for decontamination. That process would allow residents to return at some point, albeit not in the near future. However, Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe said, “We had aimed to let residents return home soon, but radiation levels are too high and we had to make a tough decision.” In the interim, the assembly plans to set up administrative offices for municipal operations in the city of Aizuwakamatsu. (Source: NHK)