Nuclear issues in Japan piling up but no easy resolutions

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Over 60,000 demonstrators gather at a protest against the nuclear industry at Shiba Park in Tokyo, Japan.
Over 60,000 demonstrators gather at a protest against the nuclear industry at Shiba Park in Tokyo, Japan in June of 2013.

There is a widespread and deep-seated dissatisfaction in Japan today surrounding the nuclear industry and its’ cozy relationship with the central government.  All but two nuclear reactors are currently shut down while the nation formalizes an energy plan that will dictate whether or not any nuclear reactors will be allowed to restart.  The public dissatisfaction is not just generated by the idling of the nuclear power plants in the island nation, the accumulating amounts of nuclear waste, the MOX fuel debate, or the continual increasing of rates by utilities in Japan due to costs incurred due to the shutdown of the nuclear reactors, it is all of the above and more.

The extended nuclear power plant shutdowns have created many unanticipated consequences on the nuclear industry.  The nuclear generators and corporations continue to determinably march forward as if the accident at Fukushima Daiichi never happened. Despite public polls showing that the majority of Japanese citizens prefer that all nuclear reactors remain shutdown, utilities are jockeying in anticipation of any opportunity to restart their shutdown plants despite not having complied with new regulation safety standards that will not even go into effect until July 8th.

The central government is attempting to alleviate as much of the pressure from the industry as possible, spending countless time and resources dispelling “baseless rumors” about the nuclear industry or Fukushima disaster, which have a nasty habit of turning out to be true.  Nuclear regulators in Japan have been coming under increasing criticism related to their work monitoring the safety of the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, especially related to the newly released plan to decommission the crippled complex which was remarkably vague.  An investigation panel commissioned by the Japanese parliament even said that the oversight of TEPCO is too lax and that the regulators were effectively “rubberstamping” work.  When asked about the timetables for the decommissioning, however, the answers are becoming less and less specific and more and more like “we don’t know.”

Four nuclear reactors in Japan were testing the use of MOX fuel prior to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, including Fukushima Daiichi reactor 3, but safety concerns had delayed its acceleration.  Experts were concerned that the control rods used to stop nuclear fission in the reactor are not as effective with MOX fuel as with other regular nuclear fuel types.  It is not known whether power companies will be able to use MOX fuel under the new regulations.

Japan was researching the development of MOX fuel as an option for reducing its plutonium stocks, which have increased 400% in the last 20 years.  Some of the fuels are stored internationally in Britain and France, who reprocess the spent fuel for Japan.  In the wake of the nuclear disaster, fuel shipments have been significantly delayed, and Britain and France have been putting pressure on Japanese utilities to accept the reprocessed fuel despite the fact they are not currently operating.

The Kansai Electric Power Company operates the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which has just received the first shipment of MOX fuel in Japan since the March 11th disaster, despite the fact that both reactors are shutdown with no restart date set.  The utility will be forced to sell the recycled plutonium fuel with no clear date for when they will be able to use it.

The central government’s attempts to market nuclear technology to export overseas and the efforts required to continue doing business no matter the circumstances is starting to strain suppliers and nuclear power plants alike.  Economic factors are straining local economies, and all suppliers of nuclear power plant parts are starting to feel the ripple down effect of no new orders, tight budgets, and looming layoffs.

Two of the last three Prime Ministers of Japan have advocated the abandonment of nuclear power in Japan.  Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan has publicly admitted that he is ashamed that he advocated the export of nuclear technology while he was in office and apologized for those actions.  He is now working with various efforts to promote the development of renewable energy in Japan.  Japan’s former Prime Minister, Prime Minister Noda, increased public attention with his decision to create an energy policy for Japan that phased out nuclear power plants in the next 20 years.  Newly elected Prime Minister Abe is working non-stop to reverse his predecessor’s policies and has even tried to stimulate a debate in Japan to redraft its national constitution in order to allow the development and possession of nuclear weapons.  His work to export Japanese nuclear technology is even opposed by his wife, even she admits to having told him it was not the best option for Japan.  I feel bad that Japan is trying to sell nuclear power plants overseas because I am anti-nuclear,” she said.  “I think Japan should use part of the money being spent for nuclear power for developing new energy and try to sell Japan-made clean energy abroad.”

Politicians and utilities in Japan have worked to ensure that the current dissent does not frame the context for a new debate over the export of nuclear technology, but Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of New Komeito, told NHK that the public will not approve of the Japanese government promoting the export and sale of nuclear technology to other nations.  It seems that some government officials are concerned that the public would not approve of the export of nuclear technology to other nations when the situation at Fukushima Daiichi is still so far from under control.

On-site at Fukushima Daiichi, there is due cause for concern as there has been no progress made locating the three melted nuclear cores which escaped from the nuclear reactor pressure vessel into the containment, subsequently there are no plans to remove any of the nuclear fuel before 2020, and even the experts admit that current technology is not capable of withstanding the extreme conditions they will face in the process.  In April of 2013, a Tokyo Electric Vice President admitted that the utility was falling short of their goals to decommission the nuclear power plant. That statement by itself is not too reassuring, even more so when considering the fact that plutonium has been found outside of the containment structures and reactor buildings in the surrounding environment and even the marine soil.

TEPCO admits it is unable to set an exact start date for retrieving the melted nuclear fuel from the reactor buildings because they do not know the position or condition of the melted fuel in Unit 1, 2 and 3.  The current strategy for coping with the problems are largely focused on using makeshift equipment to explore as many areas in the reactor buildings as possible to inspect structural damage and radiation levels, identifying and repairing leaks, keeping water circulating through the compromised containment vessels, and hoping to prevent another significant offsite release of radiation.  The lack of experienced workers on-site is ever apparent and multiple reports of misconduct and conducting operations without proper safety equipment have been reported.  TEPCO recently announced that groundwater contamination has shown a significant spike in strontium and tritium, at levels greater than those observed two years ago, which may indicate the underground transfer and movement of contaminated water.  It is hard to determine whether the more appropriate analogy is that of Humpety Dumpety or the Emperor’s new clothes.

In response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, after watching the mass exodus of citizens from Fukushima Prefecture, the Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Yuhei Sato, has continually pleaded with TEPCO, regulators, and the central Japanese government, to permanently decommission all of the nuclear reactors in the prefecture.  Official reports show some 1,817 residents of Fukushima Prefecture have been confirmed dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, but hundreds of thousands still remain unable to return to their homes due to the nuclear disaster, evacuees with no long term stability on the horizon.  Governor Sato has sent letters to the central government in Tokyo explaining that as the host of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, Fukushima Prefecture wants to abandon nuclear power and work towards a goal of sustainable economic and social development.

TEPCO on the other hand, who has been shown to be especially susceptible to organizational overconfidence more than once, is not even willing to accept the proposed decommissioning of the Unit 5 and Unit 6 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, as they were not crippled during the March 11th event and could be repaired, let alone the Fukushima Daini reactors as well.  Maybe Tokyo Electric cannot afford to, as they lost over 7 billion dollars in 2012 and are ever reliant on government aid to continue normal operations and compensation programs.  On July 28th, Naomi Hirose, President of TEPCO, met with Governor Sato.  During the meeting, Governor Sato repeated his request that TEPCO decommission all nuclear power plants in the prefecture, but Hirose said that decision rested in the final determination of the energy policy in Japan.  The Governor repeatedly urged Hirose that it was the “consensus of the citizens” that every nuclear power plant be decommissioned, but Hirose did not change his controversial stance.

Many communities in Fukushima Prefecture are raising the alarm that decontamination efforts are not providing satisfactory results and are now calling for re-decontamination efforts which the government is asked to cover.  It has been reported multiple times over the last two years that areas that have been decontaminated have been found to become re-contaminated over short periods of time.  Officials have blamed this on multiple issues ranging from the quality of decontamination work, proper disposal of contaminated waste, even the slow creep of contamination down from the mountains into the valleys with every rainstorm which will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

There is also the issue of contaminated water which continues to be generated, continues to accumulate, and continues to leak directly into the Pacific Ocean.  The dissatisfaction of local fisheries, who have a long tradition of profitable fishing and seafood industries in Fukushima, is preventing TEPCO from knowingly dumping processed, but still contaminated, water into the ocean.

In Tokyo the calls against nuclear power still echo every weekend.  In July of 2012, when then-Prime Minister Noda announced that the Ohi reactors would be allowed to restart, more than 170,000 people gathered to protest and gathered more than 8 million signatures of other citizens opposed to the restarts.  Nearly a year later, on June 2nd, 2013, over 60,000 people still come to meet at Shiba Park in the capital city to protest the government’s plans to restart idled nuclear reactors.

Prime Minister Abe now feels himself in the uncomfortable position of having to cope with this extra dimension of opposition from the public during an already very difficult time.  The Prime Minister requires public support to carry forward diplomatic affairs like the export of nuclear technology but it has never been harder for him to gather such support.  In time, as the distance between the opinions of the public and the Prime Minister moves like a pendulum swinging back and forth between two extremes, we may see an attempt to “meet at the middle” in the hopes of recapturing favor with those who may now be in opposition with current policies and actions.  Japan it seems has reached that fork in the road when the language of the government is compatible with the public opinion, but the policies that follow are not.  While conclusive judgments cannot be made at this early juncture without more time and development, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that the public of Japan have reached a turning point when it comes to accepting attempts to expand discussion on the role of nuclear in the nation’s energy cycle, and will soon have to make a crucial choice which will validate or indict itself over the course of time.

Source: JiJi Press

Source: The Japan Times

Source: NHK

Source: JiJi Press

Source: The Japan Times

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