By Christine McCann
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
A panel investigating the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster released a 506-page highly critical interim report on Dec. 26, saying that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) directly contributed to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Yotaro Hatamura, Professor Emeritus at Tokyo University, chaired the 10-person panel of experts—Hatamura is well known for so-called “science of failure,” which examines design flaws and human error. The panel said that communication broke down on numerous levels during the emergency, TEPCO staff was unfamiliar with the workings of their own equipment, and in general, the utility failed to acknowledge or prepare for the possibility of natural disasters.
The report cites numerous examples of ineptitude and gross negligence. For instance, a worker failed to obtain supervisory approval before shutting down a cooling unit at Reactor 3 in an effort to save its battery—no backup cooling was in place. Meanwhile, TEPCO staff did not know that loss of power meant that cooling systems in Reactor 1 would malfunction; as a result, they failed to provide alternate means of cooling. Both reactors, along with Reactor 2, melted down soon after. The plant’s designated emergency response center had no filters to protect the building from radiation contamination. Workers’ cellphones were rendered useless after the earthquake, in spite of the fact that the same type of cellphones had malfunctioned at another TEPCO plant after an earthquake in 2007. TEPCO earlier declared that it had made no major operational errors in handling the disaster.
In addition, the panel asserts that TEPCO did not adequately prepare the plant and train its staff for natural disasters, and points out that TEPCO itself predicted the possibility of a tsunami exceeding nine meters. The panel has not yet addressed the role that the earthquake played in the meltdowns. The results of that investigation are expected to have a profound effect on the fate of nuclear reactors around the nation. TEPCO has insisted that the meltdowns were an indirect result of the tsunami, not the earthquake, and said there was no way it could have predicted it, in spite of the fact that the company submitted a report revealing the possibility of the nine-meter tsunami to NISA just four days before the earthquake struck. The panel will release its final report this summer.
Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is expected to present a plan to deregulate the nation’s power industry to the Cabinet this week. The government will examine four different models of reform, with the goal of giving consumers more choices and making it easier for new companies to compete with long-time providers.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono has revealed details about Japan’s proposed new nuclear regulatory agency, expected to be named the Nuclear Safety Agency (NSA). The entity will employ 486 people and will integrate the current NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission. The NSA will oversee utilities in the case of nuclear emergencies, and monitor environmental radiation, which was previously under the purview of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Hosono admitted that the new agency might be “the last chance” for the government to restore public confidence in the safety of nuclear power and the way it is regulated by the state.
Kyushu Electric has shut down Reactor #4 at its Genkai plant for routine inspections. Almost 90 percent of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are now offline.
Toshio Manabe, the embattled president of Kyushu Power, said he might resign as early as March. He has been under fire for an email scandal designed to misrepresent public support for restarting nuclear reactors at Kyushu’s Genkai plant. Manabe already said he would resign once before, in July, but then retracted the offer.
The Diet has approved the Environment Ministry’s budget for the next fiscal year, topping one trillion yen, which is five times higher than that of the previous year. The money will be used for reconstruction, decontamination and waste removal, as well as provide 50.4 billion yen to the new Nuclear Safety Agency.
TEPCO will raise rates for corporate consumers by 20 percent in April 2012, in order to cover costs of thermal fuel production, which currently costs more than nuclear power. The utility reportedly also plans to request a rate hike of 10 percent this spring for household consumers, with new rates going into effect by October. By law, the Japanese government must approve power rate increases for households. Earlier this year, it was revealed that TEPCO had been overcharging its customers for years.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO will use a radiation-proof industrial endoscope to examine the interior of Reactor 2’s containment vessel at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This will mark the first time that the utility has been able to examine the containment vessels, where melted fuel from the reactor is believed to have accumulated, since the nuclear disaster occurred last March.
Contamination (Includes HumanExposure)
Local governments are expressing concern about new cesium limits for food and water, recently announced by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The new standards for infant food and milk, drinking water and food for the general population are considerably stricter than previous limits, and lower than international limits. Municipal officials say that expensive new equipment will be required to conduct testing, and the processwill be more time consuming. However, some farmers are praising the new regulations, which test food in the condition in which it’s meant to be eaten. For instance, tea will be tested once it is brewed, as opposed to testing dry leaves. Farmers say the new measurements will more accurately assess the amount of radiation being ingested.
A study by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare shows that residents of Fukushima Prefecture consume eight times more cesium than those who live in Tokyo, but that level remains below government guidelines. In order to conduct the survey, scientists chose commonly consumed foods and prepared them before measuring cesium. They estimated that Fukushima residents would be exposed to an estimated .0193 millisieverts per year, which is less than the government limit of 1 millisievert per year.
Japan’s forestry industry is expressing concern about radiation levels in wood used for timber, charcoal and mushroom cultivation. A decline in business and concern about long-term effects on product reputation is leading some to abandon the industry altogether.
Scientists from the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology are collecting swallows’ nests across Japan, in order to study the effects of radiation on birds and the ecosystem at large. Studies of swallows that live near Chernobyl show that more than 25 years later, the birds have lower white blood cell counts and smaller brains.
TEPCO will reportedly request an additional 600 billion yen ($7.7 billion) from the government-controlled Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, in order to make more compensation payments to victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The government has increased the number of people eligible for compensation to include those outside the evacuation zones, whether they voluntarily left or not. Experts estimate that an additional 1.5 million people will be eligible for recompense. In addition, Japan is considering injecting one trillion yen into the company to cover decommissioning costs. The move, which would give the government a majority of shares, would effectively nationalize TEPCO.
In the meantime, Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato is calling for the government to compensate all residents of the prefecture for emotional distress and damage to the reputation of Fukushima-made products, in the wake of the nuclear disaster. Currently, only 23 municipalities are eligible for compensation—residents from the southern part of the prefecture and the Aizu region are not.
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To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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