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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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