Japan to raise nuke safety check competency per IAEA review — AP via ABC News

” Japanese nuclear regulators said they will revise laws, nearly double inspection staff and send some inspectors to the U.S. for training to address deficiencies cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority announced the plans Monday in response to an IAEA evaluation of Japan’s nuclear safety regulations since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The report was submitted to the government last week.

The IAEA review, its first since the Japanese nuclear authority’s establishment in 2012, was conducted in January to determine whether the country’s new regulatory system meets international standards. The IAEA report said even though Japan has adopted stricter safety requirements for plant operators, inspections are reactive, inflexible and lack free access. The report noted that the nuclear authority has made efforts to increase its transparency and independence.

The authority’s commissioners met Monday and decided to give inspectors greater discretion and free access to data, equipment and facilities.

Current on-site checks have largely become a choreographed routine. Inspectors’ requests for access to data and equipment outside of regular quarterly inspections are not mandatory, and there is no penalty for plant operators that fail to meet safety requirements. Inspections also tend to be limited to a checklist of minimum requirements.

The IAEA report came as nuclear safety concerns increased among the Japanese public following two powerful deadly earthquakes in southern Japan.

Three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns in March 2011 following a massive earthquake and tsunami. A series of investigations have blamed safety complacency, inadequate crisis management skills, a failure to keep up with international safety standards, and collusion between regulators and the nuclear industry as the main contributing causes of the disaster.

The authority plans to revise laws next year and enact them in 2020 to implement the IAEA’s recommendations, officials said Monday.

The authority also said it would increase the size and competency of its staff. The IAEA urged Japan to develop training programs and step up safety research and cooperation with organizations inside and outside the country.

Japan plans to send five inspectors to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year for training in nuclear safety inspections. The trainees will be sent to NRC regional offices and its technical training center in Tennessee, according to Shuichi Kaneko, an authority official.

“We look to the U.S. as a model,” he said. “We are finally beginning to catch up, though a framework is not there yet.”

While the 1,000 U.S. inspectors are given two years of training, Japan has only 150 staffers who receive just a two-week basic course, Kaneko said. He said on-site inspections at each plant in the U.S. average 2,000 hours a year, and only 168 hours in Japan.

The authority plans to start hiring more staff next spring and eventually increase its staff by at least 100 to adapt to increased inspection needs, Kaneko said. Theoretically, to match U.S. safety inspection levels, Japan would need at least 250 inspectors.

Japan largely ignored an IAEA review in 2007 that concluded that its inspection system was inadequate. ”

by Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press

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Japan’s worst quake since 2011 seen delaying nuclear starts — Bloomberg

” Japan’s biggest earthquake in five years may slow a government plan to restart the country’s atomic fleet that was shuttered amid safety concerns after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the triple meltdown at Fukushima.

A series of earthquakes, including a magnitude-7.3 tremor that struck about 119 kilometers (74 miles) from the Sendai nuclear facility on the southern island of Kyushu this month, destroyed hundreds of homes, snapped bridges and left at least 49 people dead. It has also revived an effort to halt the plants’ operations.

The events may delay Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of returning the country’s nuclear power plants to operation. About 60 percent of Japanese citizens oppose restarting reactors, according to a Nikkei newspaper poll from February, and the earthquake is intensifying pressure on the country’s nuclear regulator to vet safety rules.

“Nuclear is under a magnifying glass now, so even the smallest problem can create big delays,” Michael Jones, a Singapore-based gas and power analyst at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. said in an e-mail. “Fukushima has changed everything, and earthquakes and volcanoes are only making things worse.”

Transport Disruptions

Trains and highways were damaged in the Kyushu earthquake and if there is a nuclear accident from another earthquake or volcanic eruption, evacuations may be difficult, Datsugenpatsu Bengodan, a group of lawyers working to wean Japan off nuclear power said in an April 19 statement. The group said Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai No. 1 and 2 reactors, which were the first to restart under post-Fukushima safety rules last year, should be shut.

An e-mail to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority outside of normal business hours wasn’t immediately answered.

Evacuation Procedures

“Given this is the largest earthquake in over a century in Kyushu that has caused significant damage to infrastructure, it could slow down the pace of restarts,” said Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Mathyos, a Tokyo-based energy consultant. “It may now be even more imperative that emergency evacuation procedures are thoroughly tested.”

A nuclear accident at Sendai would require the evacuation of about 5,000 people in the surrounding 5 kilometers and more than 200,000 would need to seek immediate shelter within a 5- to 30-kilometer radius, according to a local government simulation from 2014.

The NRA, Japan’s nuclear regulator, said on April 18 that it sees no need to shut the two Sendai reactors. A high court on April 6 upheld a ruling that the Sendai reactors can withstand seismic damage and don’t pose a risk to the surrounding area.

A local court issued an injunction in March preventing the operation of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama No. 3 and 4 reactors, questioning whether evacuation plans and tsunami prevention measures — which had been endorsed by the government — were robust enough.

The earthquake near Japan’s only operating reactors “may boost the nation’s anti-nuclear sentiment,” Joseph Jacobelli, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in an April 22 note. “Technical and political obstacles mean even those units approved for restart are returning at a snail’s pace.” ”

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Fukushima parents find relief from radiation at indoor playgrounds — Ari Beser, National Geographic Fulbright

” FUKUSHIMA, Japan—One of the biggest health problems facing Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear disaster are not directly caused by radiation exposure.

Instead, it’s the fear of exposure that has driven rates of childhood obesity in the past five years, according to the Director of Internal Medicine, Dr. Sae Ochi, M.D. who has spent the last five years researching the social impact of the nuclear disaster.

Parents who are worried about their children being exposed to radiation have discouraged them from playing outside, which has led to more sedentary activities among Fukushima youth.

Their fears are not unfounded. For one, radiation levels have decreased in the prefecture, but not disappeared entirely, according to safecast, the citizen science radiation monitoring program.

And children are most susceptible to radiation exposure, according to the American Thyroid Association. It can cause underactive thyroids, thyroid nodules, and even cancer in kids.

“Its not that the parents shouldn’t fear radiation,” says Ochi, “it’s just that radiation concerns have led to unhealthy practices, when it should be the opposite. People living in areas where radiation lingers should take steps to eat healthier, to move more to combat their exposure. Instead we are seeing the opposite. In lieu of eating vegetables, even vegetables from outside Fukushima, people are eating processed junk food, and fast foods, and staying at home at developing sedentary lifestyles.”

Though radiation-related problems may take years to manifest in children, the consequences of a lack of exercise and physical exertion are immediate.

Enter PEP Kids Koriyama, a free, publicly funded indoor playground 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of the crippled nuclear reactor in the city of Koriyama, where parents can let their kids loose without the threat of radiation.

The Benimaru supermarket chain donated the space, which used to be a storage facility, and the local city government funded the transformation into an over-the-top play area outfitted with all of the amenities a kid could want.

The playground’s interior represents Fukushima’s geography. A giant ball pit with a swing is Lake Inawashiro, Japan’s pacific coast, and mountains are painted on the wall. There’s also an indoor sand garden, a giant moon bounce, play houses, and even a kitchen.

“People come from all over Japan to come here. We even get families who evacuated Fukushima as far as Tokyo that come back for the day and let their kids play here,” said Midori Ito, director of PEP Kids. Koriyama is not technically in the evacuation zone, and anyone who chooses to leave receives no compensation.

“I love that I can take my kids here,” mother Chime Fukase told me over the din of cheering and shouting children.

“I can’t say that my concern about radiation is at zero. … I have nowhere else to take my family. I’m grateful for PEP kids to give my daughter a place to enjoy herself,” says Fukase, who is expecting another child.

PEP Kids isn’t Fukushima Prefecture’s only indoor escape: Fukushima City has its own indoor skate park and sports facility called Channel Square. Owner Manabu Tara modeled the facility after Channel Street Skate Park in San Pedro, California.

There people can ride their boards on the ramps, practice yoga, eat and drink at the café, or attend meetings about radiation concerns at the Fukushima 30-Year Project, an NPO that researches the radiation exposure that shares space with the indoor park. It’s name is based on the 30 year half life of the most prevalent radioactive contaminant in Fukushima, Cesium 137.

But unlike PEP kids, Channel Square isn’t publicly funded—which means it’s been more of a challenge to keep Channel Square going.

“Japan doesn’t really have a crowdsourcing culture,” says Tara, “so we have to be creative about how we raise money. We want to compensate for the lack of public land the kids can play on for free, so we don’t want to raise the entrance fee.”

“However if we don’t have money,” he says, “we can’t exist.” ”

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*Editorial: 40-year rule for nuclear reactors on verge of being a dead letter — The Asahi Shimbun

” The 40-year lifespan for nuclear reactors, established after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, is now in danger of being watered down to irrelevance.

The rule requires the decommissioning of aging reactors, starting with the oldest, for a gradual, carefully controlled process of phasing out nuclear power generation in this country.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on April 20 formally decided that the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which have been in service for over 40 years, meet new nuclear safety standards introduced after the devastating 2011 accident.

This is the first license renewal for a reactor that has been in operation for more than four decades under the new standards.

If they pass the remaining regulatory inspections concerning technical details by the July deadline, the reactors will likely continue to generate electricity for two more decades.

The 40-year lifespan provision was introduced through a revision to the law after the Fukushima disaster.

Just one service life extension of up to 20 years is allowed, but only as an “extremely exceptional” measure.

This exception was made to avoid a shortage of electricity. But concerns about any serious power crunch have virtually dissipated thanks to a marked rise in levels of power and energy conservation in society.

The NRA’s formal decision to extend the life of the two aging reactors came amid a series of earthquakes rocking central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture which have been described by the Japan Meteorological Agency as “a deviation from the rules extracted from past experiences.”

Many Japanese are concerned that the quakes could affect Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear plant in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture. The NRA’s decision to grant an exception to the rule so quickly could have the effect of relaxing the safety standards and deepening public distrust of the government’s nuclear regulation.

The Abe administration is leaving all licensing decisions on individual reactors entirely to the NRA. But it has mapped out a long-term energy supply plan based on the assumption that the service life of reactors will be extended.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who repeatedly pledged to lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power as much as possible, has been changing his stance little by little without announcing any clear policy shift.

The NRA’s mission is to enhance the safety of nuclear plants from a scientific viewpoint.

But the way the nuclear watchdog assessed the safety of the reactors at the Takahama plant has raised questions about its appropriateness. The NRA has, for instance, allowed Kansai Electric Power to delay required quake resistance tests.

If it has scheduled its assessment work in a way to ensure that the July deadline will be met, the agency has got its priorities completely wrong.

A troubling situation is now emerging where decisions on whether to decommission specific reactors are effectively left to the utilities that operate them. As a result, these decisions are being based primarily on whether extending the life of the reactors will pay.

Operating many nuclear reactors in Japan, a small country with a large population that is highly prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, inevitably entails a large risk.

This grim reality was the starting point for the reform of the nuclear power policy prompted by the Fukushima accident.

If the government sticks to the policy of maintaining nuclear power generation, the burden on society, including the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, could increase over the long term.

There is a clear global trend toward raising energy self-sufficiency through efforts to develop renewable energy sources.

A transition period may be necessary. But the only policy that makes sense is to shut down reactors steadily over a period of years.

The 40-year rule is one of the key principles of this policy. The government should remember this fact.

–The Asahi Shimbun, April 21 ”

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Kyushu earthquakes expose unaddressed nuclear reactor risks — SimplyInfo

Here is a good critique by SimplyInfo that questions safety standards surrounding the shutdown of nuclear reactors in the event of multiple earthquakes and aftershocks. This article also contains sources that explain how seismic movement data is collected, seismic safety concerns and the seismic movement during the 2011 earthquake at Fukushima Daiichi.

How Japan came to rank worse than Tanzania on press freedom — Los Angeles Times

” The state of press freedom in Japan is now worse than that in Tanzania, according to a new ranking from the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders.

Japan came in 72nd of the 180 countries ranked in the group’s 2016 press freedom index, falling 11 places since last year.

Europe’s media was deemed to have the most freedom this year, but the situation has worsened significantly in most of the Asia-Pacific region.

For Japan’s journalists, things have taken a turn for the worse relatively recently. Just six years ago, the country ranked 11th in the world.

Getting worse

Japan’s poor performance on press freedom is particularly surprising given its standing as one of the world’s leading developed countries. The island nation of 125 million people has the world’s third-largest economy and a vibrant democracy whose postwar constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, press and assembly.

“With Japan hosting the G7 meeting next month of leading democracies, the press crackdown is an international black eye for Japan and makes it an outlier in the group,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of history and director of Asian studies at Temple University and author of the book “Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s.”

The 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant set the stage for the erosion of press freedoms, Kingston said. “Japan’s slide in the rankings began with the incomplete coverage of the Fukushima meltdowns and the government’s efforts to downplay the accident; Tokyo Electric Power Company (and Japan) denied the triple meltdown for two months,” he said. “Sadly, the Japanese media went along with this charade because here it is all about access. Those media outlets that don’t toe the line find themselves marginalized by the powers that be. Since [Fukushima], Japan’s culture wars over history, constitutional revision and security doctrine have been fought on the media battlefield.”

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned for a second term in 2012, five years after he resigned abruptly amid growing unpopularity in 2007, his administration began cracking down on perceived bias in the nation’s media.

At first, the media didn’t hold back in criticizing his administration. The press lambasted Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso for saying that Japan should learn from the way the Nazi party stealthily changed Germany’s constitution before World War II. But critics say Aso’s suggestion foreshadowed things to come.

Two years ago, the Abe administration pushed through a state secrets bill ostensibly designed to prevent classified information from leaking to China or Russia. But the measure allows for journalists and bloggers to be jailed for up to five years for asking about something that is a state secret, even if they aren’t aware it is one. Thousands protested the law when it was passed on Dec. 6, 2013.

Abe’s friend, conservative businessman Katsuto Momii, became the head of Japan’s major public broadcasting company, NHK, in 2014, in a move that has compromised the independence of its reports. Momii has stated publicly that NHK “should not deviate from the government’s position in its reporting.”

Abe’s Liberal Democratic party also recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the government to curtail speech that “harms the public interest and public order.”

In June 2015, members of the party urged the government to punish media outlets critical of the government and pressure companies not to advertise with them.

This year, Abe’s Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi threatened to shut down news broadcasters over “politically biased reports” — something TV and radio laws in Japan empower her to do.

A week later, three television presenters who had been critical of the Abe administration were all removed from their positions.

Veteran reporters in Japan have criticized Abe’s government for applying pressure to reporters, but also decry the increasing self-censorship going on in the country’s press. “To me, the most serious problem is self-restraint by higher-ups at broadcast stations,” Soichiro Tahara, one of the country’s most revered journalists, told reporters last month.

“The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan,” Reporters Without Borders concluded in its report released this month about declining media freedoms in Japan.

“Independence of the press is facing serious threats,” David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday. “Many journalists who came to me and my team asked for anonymity in our discussions. Many claimed to have been sidelined or silenced following indirect pressure from politicians.”

The state originally invited Kaye to visit last December, but the trip was canceled abruptly after Japanese authorities claimed to be unable to set up meetings in time.

Kaye called for Japan’s Broadcast Law to be revised to ensure press freedom, and criticized Japan’s press club structure as detrimental to an independent press. In Japan, reporters are granted access through press clubs, or “kisha clubs,” formed around groups and government organizations. They serve as gatekeepers, and typically don’t grant access to weekly magazines, like Shukan Bunshun, which excel at investigative journalism.

“Journalists in those kisha clubs tend to be focused very much together in this same kind of social network. And I think that allows for mechanisms of pressure. It may be a kind of peer pressure that’s very difficult to resist,” Kaye said. ”

by Jake Adelstein

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