The Fukushima Daiichi accident was a big setback for nuclear power in Japan. But the industry’s hamfisted efforts to maintain support in the aftermath of that disaster may have an even bigger impact in eroding the public’s confidence in the sector. Other countries have given up on nuclear energy and Japan should do the same.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently argued for a swift restart of reactors, albeit after extensive “stress tests” of their safety and ability to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. A drastic loss of nuclear power would bring dire economic consequences, he has repeatedly argued, echoing warnings from Japan’s business lobby.
But he faces an uphill battle amid a collapse of public confidence in Japan’s nuclear program after the accident at Fukushima, where a tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems, setting off meltdowns and a major radiation leak.
After the series of disclosures in recent months painting government regulators and electric utilities as collaborating to stage-manage public community forums on local nuclear power, efforts to restart idled Japanese nuclear reactors have screeched to a halt.
Japanese government investigations uncovered a nationwide pattern of attempts to manipulate the public’s opinion about nuclear power by Japan’s biggest electric utilities. Some of those power companies then pointed the finger back at regulators for having covertly urged such efforts in the first place.
Now, a total of seven electric utilities have acknowledged they sent employees to make up as much as half the audience in regional community forums in incidents going back to 2005, according to a report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry issued on July 27.
Chubu Electric Power Co. and Shikoku Electric Power Co. said they were ordered to do so by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, ostensibly the government’s chief nuclear watchdog. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, who oversees the agency, admitted to, and apologized for, those actions by officials. At a parliamentary hearing where he was berated by opposition lawmakers for his handling of the mushrooming scandal, Mr. Kaieda broke down in tears.
Public trust in utilities and their regulators has already been dented by patchy and slow disclosure about the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima plant. With the government’s own credibility on the line after confusing signals on preconditions for restarts, the current work in Japan to restart shut-down nuclear stations should be postponed until the Fukushima disaster is under control, and all potential bias can be removed prior to making such an important decision.
At Fukushima Daiichi, operators and officials have been repeatedly humiliated as Tokyo Electric Power Co., has constantly bungled on-site operations, casting a foul shadow over the entire regime which has struggled to control the plant after it was damaged in a huge earthquake and tsunami March 11, unleashing the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
The announcement is expected to refer to cold shutdown “conditions”— less definitive phrasing than a cold shutdown. That’s partly because the operator cannot measure temperatures of melted fuel in the damaged reactors in the same way as with normally functioning ones, although the company believes they have reached a stable state.
Safety commission chairman Haruki Madarame urged TEPCO and the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency to regularly review and evaluate the plans because “the reactors are broken and we hardly know what it really is like inside the reactors and it’s difficult to predict what may occur.”
Because of the educated guesswork involved, Japanese authorities are using the phrase “cold shutdown conditions,” rather than “cold shutdown.”
The other key issue remaining unsolved is how to remove and dispose of the melted fuel inside of the crippled reactors.
“It would make sense to let the people in and outside the country know that the work is steadily continuing,” said Satoru Tanaka, a nuclear physicist at the University of Tokyo. “But achieving the (cold shutdown) status does not mean the problem is over. There are so many things that still need to be taken care of and clarified.”
The complex still faces numerous concerns, including the vulnerability of the spent fuel pools, which sit on the top floor of the damaged reactor buildings, and the vast amount of contaminated water that has collected in the reactor basements and nearby storage areas. Another severe earthquake could damage the spent fuel pools, which might cause the water to leak and allow the fuel to overheat.
To cool the reactors, TEPCO has been injecting water into the reactors, which is then leaking out through cracks. The radioactive water has been collected and stored in huge rooms converted into storage tanks before being decontaminated and put back into the reactors as coolant. Officials say the overall volume of contaminated water keeps growing, forcing the operator to keep searching for additional storage space.
Other recent leaks have raised questions about whether the plant really is fully under control. Last week, the utility said that about 45 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from the plant’s water processing system, some possibly leaking into the ocean.
Officials have said those are isolated incidents that are being taken care of and do not affect the overall plant status.
Normally, a nuclear reactor is considered to be in cold shutdown when its coolant system is at atmospheric pressure and the reactor cores are at a temperature below 100 Celsius (212 Fahrenheit) so that it would be impossible for a chain reaction to take place.
But meeting that strict definition is impossible at Fukushima Dai-ichi because the damaged reactors’ fuel has melted and its exact whereabouts is unknown. Authorities suspect most of the fuel has fallen to the bottom of the innermost steel pressure vessels, and some most likely dribbled through to the beaker-shaped containment vessel. That makes it virtually impossible to know the exact temperature of the fuel.
In any case, experts caution that the progress so far at Fukushima should not be overstated, and that problems could still crop up.
“TEPCO and the government are anxious to bring a certain closure to the crisis,” said Kazuhiko Kudo, a nuclear physicist at Kyushu University. “It would be a problem if the announcement gives an impression that the plant has received an official safety certificate.”
The announcement would mark the end of the second phase of the government’s lengthy roadmap to completely decommission the plant — a process that could take about 30 years, authorities have said.
The government’s handling of the crisis and its aftermath, from the inadequate evacuation of local residents to scandals involving the restart of other reactors, have added to the public mistrust.
In fact, the governor of the southern prefecture of Saga had tentatively agreed to allow the restart of two idle reactors at Genkai in July. But he rescinded his permission when it was found that Kyushu Electric had tried to manipulate public opinion with fake e-mails to support a reopening of the reactors.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll of Japanese voters conducted this summer, 6 out of 10 respondents said they had little or no confidence in the safety of the country’s nuclear plants. Only 5 percent were very confident.
This December the latest polls in Japan show that support for Prime Minister Noda and his cabinet has dropped to it’s lowest ratings since forming in September. With support dropping quickly and disapproval on the rise, Japanese officials have no one to blame but themselves. The latest survey also showed that for the first time, the disapproval rating for Noda’s Cabinet surpassed the approval rating.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been constantly brushing aside mounting popular opposition to nuclear power, saying he was determined to restart idled reactors by next summer, adding that it was “impossible” for the country to get by without them or to consider a quick phaseout of nuclear energy.
Noda has also repeatedly said that Japan will be able to bring the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s overheating reactors to safe temperatures, or to a stage known as “cold shutdown,” by year-end, a month ahead of schedule. “We hope our experiences can contribute to efforts in various nations to prevent disasters and improve nuclear safety,” he said.
Eighty-five percent believed that Noda failed to explain his own policies and ideas sufficiently to the public. This remains largely unchanged from the results of the last poll.
Many international and Japanese experts have called for Japan to abandon nuclear power, but Mr Noda said that plants offline since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami should be restarted to meet power shortages.
“It is not productive to see things in simple black and white, and talk in either anti-nuclear or pro-nuclear terms,” he said.
This year Kyushu has been in the headlines frequently after an employee with Kyushu Electric Power Co instructed workers at the utility and affiliates to pose as ordinary citizens and send e-mails backing the restart of reactors in southern Japan to a televised public hearing, the first of a deluge of such findings which rocked the Japanese Nuclear Industry.
Kyushu Electic President Toshio Manabe apologised for the email scandal on Friday.
“I am reflecting deeply on the actions that tried to influence a hearing that should be fair and neutral,” Jiji news agency quoted Manabe as telling a senior vice minister for trade and industry. “I apologise to the people.”
“The environment in Japan has changed radically since the Fukushima crisis erupted, but Kyushu Electric appears to have behaved as if it’s business as usual,” Nobuo Gohara, tapped by the company to head up an independent probe of the PR campaign, said in an interview. “Japan’s electric power monopolies have long operated in a closed-off world that calls into question their commitment to corporate governance,” added Mr. Gohara, a former prosecutor and an expert on regulatory compliance.
“The fact that the symposium I participated in turned out to be just a tool for promoting nuclear power leaves a very bad taste in my mouth,” said Yoshinobu Hirata, 49, a part-time rice farmer and former municipal official, who was one of a handful of local residents invited to the government-sponsored event in June. “It will take a lot of time for Kyushu Electric to heal the wounds in the local community.”
Analysts say the scandal reflects panic in Japan’s atomic power industry, long coddled by political, corporate and regulatory interests dubbed the “nuclear village” but now facing growing anti-nuclear sentiment as workers battle to end the Fukushima crisis.
“There is growing suspicion that power companies are playing fast and loose with data to support their cause and will go so far as to orchestrate public support,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
“The more the media pulls back the veil, the angrier the public is getting.” The e-mail scandal has been daily fodder for mainstream media, often accused of being soft on the industry.
The e-mail scandal was another twist in a confusing saga over whether utilities can win local communities’ agreement to resume operations at reactors shut down for regular checks. But with industry and government credibility in doubt, gauging the actual extent of the risk is tough.
Kyushu Electric Power Company submitted the results of primary safety assessments for 3 suspended nuclear reactors on Wednesday.
The reports to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency are one of the prerequisites for restarting reactors that have been idled for regular checkups. The other condition is approval of the local municipality.
The tests say the reactors can withstand seismic shaking of 945 to 1,020 gals and tsunami of 13 to 15 meters high.
Genkai mayor Hideo Kishimoto says resuming operations will not be easy. He wants Kyushu Electric to enact full disclosure practices in addition to making efforts to prevent accidents.
“We thought we had a relationship of trust, but now there are cracks,” Hideo Kishimoto, mayor of the southern town of Genkai told a TV broadcaster.
In a fresh blow to public confidence, the Genkai reactor in southern Japan went into automatic shutdown in October because of problems with its cooling system, clouding the outlook for an imminent restart of the country’s idled nuclear plants.
Kyushu Electric, the operator of the reactor at the Genkai nuclear power plant, characterized the incident as minor and said there was no risk of a radiation leak. A problem with the condenser unit that turns steam back into cooling water appeared to have caused the halt, but the reactor stopped safely and was undergoing checks, the utility said.
Still, the shutdown came as the government was renewing a push to restart reactors that were idled after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March. Kyushu Electric said that inspection work had been carried out on a valve of the condenser in question on Tuesday, raising the possibility that human error had triggered the shutdown.
“As we saw in Fukushima, cooling systems are central to the safety of nuclear reactors,” said Chihiro Kamisawa, a researcher at the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear organization.
“We cannot take lightly the fact that there was also trouble with the cooling system at Genkai,” he said. “It underscores the fact that safety problems riddle Japan’s reactors.”
According to sources familiar with the matter, ministry officials told the municipalities the government is considering purchasing or leasing land in areas with high levels of radiation expected to remain uninhabitable for an extended period.
The Environment Ministry plans to build interim facilities to store soil and ash contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, in the prefecture’s Futaba county, sources said Tuesday.
Toshitsuna Watanabe, mayor of Okumamachi, told The Yomiuri Shimbun, “The government plans to construct interim storage facilities in Futaba county, but it should work on a model decontamination project first.”
The ordinance says the central government will shoulder the cost of decontaminating soil in areas with radiation levels of 0.23 microsieverts per hour or above.
The government is also responsible for disposing of sludge and debris contaminated with radioactive cesium of more than 8,000 becquerels per kilogram.
Meanwhile, Takashi Kusano, mayor of Narahamachi in the county, said, “As [the radiation] came from the Fukushima plant, we have no choice but to [build the facilities in the county].”
The Environment Ministry will next week announce the names of more than 100 municipalities in northern Japan and areas around Tokyo where clean-up efforts are necessary.
A group of layers told a news conference that it would call several hundred people affected by the nuclear disaster together and help them negotiate collectively with TEPCO, the operator of the crippled nuclear power station, as early as next spring.
Japan’s former prime minister, Naoto Kan agreed with sentiment from the public and key scientific advisers and asked Chubu Electric to immediately shut down Hamaoka’s two working reactors in May of 2011. A third reactor has been shut down for inspection and two others are being decommissioned.
The plant is expected to remain closed while a tsunami-resistant wall is built and emergency backup generators installed to improve its ability to function after a natural disaster.
Company officials estimate it will take two to three years to build a 12-metre-high tsunami wall stretching nearly a mile along the Pacific coast. At present the plant is protected by sand hills high enough to withstand an 8m tsunami. The waves that knocked out the power at Fukushima were at least 14m high.
About 79,800 people live within a six-mile radius of the Hamaoka plant.
Kan’s order was not legally binding, but few expected Chubu Electric to resist, despite concerns that the closure of its only nuclear plant could cause power shortages in central Japan this summer.
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