Three ways radiation has changed the monkeys of Fukushima — Forbes

” This year the evacuated residents of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture began returning home, and as they resume their lives, the monkeys who have lived there all along have some cautions for them—in the form of medical records.

The Japanese macaques show effects associated with radiation exposure—especially youngsters born since the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, according to a wildlife veterinarian who has studied the population since 2008.

Dr. Shin-ichi Hayama detailed his findings Saturday in Chicago as part of the University of Chicago’s commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the first man-made controlled nuclear reaction, which took place under the university’s football stadium in 1942 and birthed the technologies of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Hayama appeared alongside documentary filmmaker Masanori Iwasaki, who has featured Hayama’s work in a series of annual documentaries exploring the impact of fallout from the reactor meltdowns on wildlife. The fallout led the Japanese government to evacuate residents from a highly contaminated area surrounding the plant and extending to the northwest. The plume crossed the Pacific Ocean and left much diluted quantities of fallout across the United States, an event closely monitored on this page.

Since 2008, Hayama has studied the bodies of monkeys killed in Fukushima City’s effort to control the monkey population and protect agricultural crops (about 20,000 monkeys are “culled” annually in Japan). Because he was already studying the monkeys, he was ideally positioned to notice changes affected by radiation exposure.

“I’m not a radiation specialist,” Hayama said Saturday in Chicago, “but because I’ve been gathering data since 2008—remember, the disaster took place in 2011—it seems obvious to me that this is very important research. I’ve asked radiation specialists to take on this research, but they have never been willing to take this on because they say we don’t have any resources or time to spare because humans are much more important.

“So I had to conclude that there was no choice but for me to take this on, even though I’m not a specialist in radiation,” Hayama said, his remarks translated by University of Chicago Professor Norma Field. “If we don’t keep records, there will be no evidence and it will be as if nothing happened. That’s why I’m hoping to continue this research and create a record.”

Fukushima City is 50 miles northeast of the Fukushima-Daiichi Power Plant, so the radiation levels have been lower there than in the restricted areas, now reopening, that are closer to the plant. Hayama was unable to test monkeys in the most-contaminated areas, but even 50 miles from the plant, he has documented effects in monkeys that are associated with radiation. He compared his findings to monkeys in the same area before 2011 and to a control population of monkeys in Shimokita Peninsula, 500 miles to the north.

Hayama’s findings have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature. Among his findings:

Smaller Bodies — Japanese monkeys born in the path of fallout from the Fukushima meltdown weigh less for their height than monkeys born in the same area before the March, 2011 disaster, Hayama said.

“We can see that the monkeys born from mothers who were exposed are showing low body weight in relation to their height, so they are smaller,” he said.

Smaller Heads And Brains — The exposed monkeys have smaller bodies overall, and their heads and brains are smaller still.

“We know from the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that embryos and fetuses exposed in utero resulted in low birth weight and also in microcephaly, where the brain failed to develop adequately and head size was small, so we are trying to confirm whether this also is happening with the monkeys in Fukushima,” Hayama said.

And it appears that it is.

Anemia — The monkeys show a reduction in all blood components: red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, and the cells in bone marrow that produce blood components.

“There’s clearly a depression of blood components in the Fukushima monkeys,” said Hayama. “We can see that in these monkeys, that there is a correlation between white blood cell counts and the radio-cesium concentrations in their muscles. This actually is comparable to what’s been reported with children of Chernobyl.”

“We have taken these tests from 2012 through 2017, and the levels have not recovered. So we have to say this is not an acute phenomenon. It has become chronic, and we would have to consider radiation exposure as a possible cause,” Hayama said.

Hayama has appeared in several documentaries by Masanori Isawaki, who was 70 years old in 2011 and ready to retire from a thirty-year career making wildlife documentaries—he is best known for his portrait of “Mozu: The Snow Monkey”—when the Fukushima reactors melted down.

“Having turned 70 I thought, I’ve done enough, I can sit back. And then the nuclear disaster struck,” he said, his remarks also translated by Field. “I watched TV shows and read the newspaper for a year and kept asking myself, is there something left in me that I can do? A year later in 2012, with a cameraman and a sound engineer, the three of us just decided: In any case let’s just go to Fukushima, see what’s there.”

Since then he has made five films, one each year, documenting radiation impacts on wildlife, grouping them under the title “Fukushima: A Record of Living Things.” Two episodes were screened Saturday in Chicago, their first screenings in the United States.

At first Iwasaki documented white spots and deformed tails on the reduced number of barn swallows who survived after the disaster.

“It’s something we haven’t seen anywhere else but Chernobyl and Fukushima,” says the narrator of Iwasaki’s 2013 film, “so it’s clearly related to radiation. It probably doesn’t hurt the bird to have some white feathers, but it’s a marker of exposure to radiation.

“The barn swallows in Fukushima are responding in the same way as what we’ve seen in Chernobyl. The young birds are not surviving. They are not fledging very well.”

The white spots also turned up on black cows. Some types of marine snails vanished, then gradually returned. Fir trees stemmed differently, and the flower stalks of some dandelions grew thick and deformed. Dandelion stalks are a favorite food of Japanese monkeys, but the monkeys showed no obvious deformities, so Isawaki turned to Hayama to find out how radiation was affecting them.

Iwasaki’s 2017 film, just completed, is his first to investigate effects in the monkeys’ primate cousins, the humans: an unusually large number of children with thyroid cancer. ”

by Jeff McMahon, Forbes

source with internal links and scattered plot graphs

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In Fukushima, a land where few return — The Japan Times

” A cherry tree is blooming in the spring sunshine outside the home of Masaaki Sakai but there is nobody to see it. The house is empty and boarded up. Weeds poke through the ground. All around are telltale signs of wild boar, which descend from the mountains to root and forage in the fields. Soon, the 60-year-old farmhouse Sakai shared with his mother and grandmother will be demolished.

“I don’t feel especially sad,” Sakai says. “We have rebuilt our lives elsewhere. I can come back and look around — just not live here.”

A few hundred meters away the road is blocked and a beeping dosimeter begins nagging at the bucolic peace. The reading here is a shade over 1 microsievert per hour — a fraction of what it was when Sakai’s family fled in 2011.

The radiation goes up and down, depending on the weather, Sakai says. In gullies and cracks in the road, and up in the trees, it soars. With almost everyone gone, the monkeys who live in the forests have grown bolder, stopping to stare at the odd car that appears instead of fleeing, as they used to.

A cluster of 20 small hamlets spread over 230 square kilometers, Iitate was undone by a quirk of the weather in the days that followed the nuclear accident in March 2011. Wind carried radioactive particles from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is located about 45 kilometers away, that fell in rain and snow on the night of March 15, 2011. After more than a month of indecision, during which the villagers lived with some of the highest radiation recorded in the disaster (the reading outside the village office on the evening of March 15 was a startling 44.7 microsieverts per hour), the government ordered them to leave.

Now, the government says it is safe to go back. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate, Nagadoro, was reopened on March 31.

The reopening fulfills a pledge made by Mayor Norio Kanno: Iitate was the first local authority in Fukushima Prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation in 2012, when the mayor promised to reboot the village in five years. The village has a new sports ground, convenience store and udon restaurant. A clinic sees patients twice a week. All that’s missing is people.

Waiting to meet Kanno in the government offices of Iitate, the eye falls on a book displayed in the reception: “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” Listed at No. 12 is the beloved rolling patchwork of forests, hills and fields the mayor has governed for more than two decades — population 6,300, famous for its neat terraces of rice and vegetables, its industrious organic farmers, its wild mushrooms and the black wagyu cow that has taken the name of the area.

The description in the book is mocked by reality outside. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Promethean attempt to decontaminate it of the radiation that fell six years ago. There is not a cow or a farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty. As for the population, the only part of the village that looks busy is the home for the elderly across the road from Kanno’s office.

“The village will never return to how it used to be before the disaster,” Kanno says, “but it may develop in a different way.”

Recovery has started, Kanno says, wondering whether returnees will be able to start building a village they like.

“Who knows? Maybe one day that may help bring back evacuees or newcomers,” Kanno says. “Life doesn’t improve if you remain pessimistic.”

Even for those who have permanently left, he adds, “it doesn’t mean that their furusato can just disappear.”

The pull of the furusato (hometown) is exceptionally strong in Japan, says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about Iitate.

Yearning for it “is expressed in countless sentimental ballads,” Gill says. “One particular song, simply titled ‘Furusato,’ has been sung by children attending state schools in Japan since 1914.”

The appeal has persisted despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the rural/urban imbalance in Japan is more skewed than in any other developed nation, Gill says; just 10 percent of the nation’s population live in the country.

This may partly explain the extraordinary efforts to bring east Fukushima back to life. By one study, more than ¥2.34 trillion has been spent decontaminating an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

There has been no official talk of abandoning it. Indeed, any suggestion otherwise could be controversial: When industry minister Yoshio Hachiro called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, the subsequent outrage forced him to quit a week later.

Instead, the area was divided into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: Communities with annual radiation measuring 20 millisieverts or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order,” districts of 20-50 millisieverts per year are “no-residence zones” and the most heavily contaminated areas of 50 millisieverts or more per year, such as Nagadoro, are “difficult-to-return.”

In September 2015, Naraha, which is located 15 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, became the first town in the prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. Naraha has a publicly built shopping street, a new factory making lithium batteries, a kindergarten and a secondary school.

A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house — in some cases several times. Of the pre-disaster 7,400 residents, about 1,500 mainly elderly people have returned, the local government says, although that figure is likely inflated.

In Iitate, the cost of decontamination works out at about ¥200 million per household. That, and the passage of time, has dramatically reduced radiation in many areas to below 20 millisieverts a year. However, Kanno says, the cleanup extends to only 20 meters around each house, and three-quarters of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive elements are blown back onto the fields and homes.

“All that money, and for what?” asks Nobuyoshi Itoh, a farmer and critic of the mayor. “Would you bring children here and let them roam in the fields and forests?”

Itoh opted to stay in one of the more heavily toxic parts of the village after everyone fled, with little apparent ill effect, although he says his immune system has weakened.

One of the reasons why Iitate was such a pleasant place to live before the nuclear crisis, he recalls, was its unofficial barter system. “Most people here never bought vegetables; they grew them,” he says. “I would bring someone potatoes and they would give me eggs. That’s gone now.”

At most, he says, a few hundred people are back — but they’re invariably older or retired.

“They alone will not sustain the village,” Itoh says. “Who will drive them around or look after them when they are sick?”

As the depth of the disaster facing Iitate became clear, local people began to squabble among themselves. Some were barely scraping a living and wanted to leave, although saying so out loud — abandoning the furusato — was often difficult. Many joined lawsuits against the government.

Even before disaster struck, the village had lost a third of its population since 1970 as its young folk relocated to the cities, mirroring the hollowing-out of rural areas across the country. Some wanted to shift the entire village elsewhere, but Kanno wouldn’t hear of it.

Compensation could be a considerable incentive. In addition to ¥100,000 a month to cover the “mental anguish” of being torn from their old lives, there was extra money for people with houses or farms. A five-year lump sum was worth ¥6 million per person — twice that for Nagadoro. One researcher estimates a rough figure of ¥50 million for the average household, sufficient to leave behind the uncertainties and worries of Iitate and buy a house a few dozen miles away, close enough to return for work or to the village’s cool, tranquil summers.

Many have already done so. Though nobody knows the true figure, the local talk is that perhaps half of the villagers have permanently left. Surveys suggest fewer than 30 percent want to return, and even less in the case of Nagadoro.

Yoshitomo Shigihara, head of the Nagadoro hamlet, says many families made their decision some time ago. His grandchildren, he says, should not have to live in such a place.

“It’s our job to protect them,” Shigihara says. He lives in the city of Fukushima but returns roughly every 10 days to inspect his house and weed the land.

Even with so much money spent, Shigihara doubts whether it will bring many of his friends or relatives back. At 70 years of age, he is not sure that he even wants to return, he says.

“I sometimes get upset thinking about it, but I can’t talk with anyone in Fukushima, even my family, because we often end up quarreling,” he says. “People try to feel out whether the others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate. I’m starting to hate myself because I end up treating others badly out of frustration.”

Kanno has won six elections since 1996 and has overseen every step of Iitate’s painful rehabilitation, navigating between the anger and despair of his constituents and the official response to the disaster from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), operator of the crippled nuclear plant.

He wants more money to complete decontamination work (the government claims it is finished), repair roads and infrastructure. Returnees need financial support, he says. However, it is time, he believes, to end the monthly compensation, which, in his view, induces dependency.

“If people keep saying that life is hard, they will not be able to recover,” he says. “What we need is support for livelihoods.”

A new system gives seed money to people who voluntarily come back to start businesses or farms.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we are influencing people’s decisions or forcing them to return,” the mayor says, using the phrase “kokoro ni fumikomu,” which literally means “to step into hearts.”

Yet, next year, thousands of Iitate evacuees will face a choice: Go back or lose the money that has helped sustain them elsewhere for six years. Evacuation from areas exposed to less than 20 millisieverts per year will be regarded as “voluntary” under the official compensation scheme.

This dilemma was expressed with unusual starkness last month by Masahiro Imamura, the now sacked minister in charge of reconstructing Tohoku. Pressed by a freelance reporter, Imamura tetchily said it was up to the evacuees themselves — their “own responsibility, their own choice” — whether or not to return.

The comment touched a nerve. The government is forcing people to go back, some argued, employing a form of economic blackmail, or worse, kimin seisaku — abandoning them to their fate.

Itoh is angry at the resettlement. For him, politics drives the haste to put the disaster behind.

“It’s inhuman to make people go back to this,” he says. Like the physical damage of radiation, he says, the psychological damage is also invisible: “A lot of people are suffering in silence.”

Itoh believes the government wants to show that the problems of nuclear power can be overcome so it can switch the nation’s idling nuclear reactors back on. Just four are in operation while the fate of 42 others remains in political and legal limbo. Public opinion remains opposed to their restart.

Many people began with high hopes in Iitate but have gradually grown distrustful of the village government, says Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer who wrote a book titled “Genpatsu ni Furusato o Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”) in 2012. Right from the start, he says, the mayor desperately tried to hide the shocking radiation outside his office.

“Villagers have started losing interest,” Hasegawa says.

Meetings called by the mayor are poorly attended.

“But they hold meetings anyway,” Hasegawa says, “just to say they did.”

Kanno rejects talk of defeatism. A tourist shop is expected to open in August that will attract people to the area, he says. Some villagers are paving entrances to their houses, using money from the reconstruction budget. As for radiation, everyone “has their own idea” about its effects. The lifting of the evacuation is only the start.

Itoh says he once trusted public officials but those days are long gone. By trying to save the village, he says, the mayor may in fact be killing it. ”

by David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto, The Japan Times

source

Six years after Fukushima, much of Japan has lost faith in nuclear power — The Conversation

” Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones.

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 120 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy. ”

by The Conversation

source with graphics and internal links

Fukushima 5-year report — SimplyInfo.org Research Team

The research team for simplyinfo.org put together an excellent summary report of the status of each unit at Fukushima Daiichi, along with the various decommissioning and cleanup projects, including the frozen ice wall and barrier, radioactive water filtration, muon scans, storage tank farms, evacuation lifts and compensation for Fukushima evacuees, Fukushima-related lawsuits, and radiation exposure and contamination to people, food and the environment.

Fukushima 5th Year Report 2016

Five years after Fukushima: How to avoid the next nuclear disaster: Foreign Affairs

” Five years ago next month, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan, destroying its long-standing myth of zero-risk nuclear energy. The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant revealed significant shortcomings in Japan’s safety culture, which the country has since learned from and has been trying to address. Countries charging ahead with nuclear power should heed these lessons to avoid another Fukushima.

In the years since the accident, the Fukushima plant’s damaged reactors have been stabilized through a makeshift water-cooling system, and releases of radioactivity have been greatly reduced. Meanwhile, after decontamination efforts, some of the over 100,000 evacuees have been allowed to return home.

However, despite some notable successes in cleaning up the site, tens of thousands of people are still displaced, work conditions at the plant remain poor, storing the accumulating radioactive water is an ongoing concern, and Japan remains decades away from fully decommissioning the mangled reactors. The total economic damage has been estimated at over $100 billion, and none of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi will ever operate again.

There have been no deaths from the effects of the radiation (according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, any increase in cancer rates is expected to be too small to detect). On the other hand, forced evacuation is estimated to have played a role in over 1,000 premature deaths, and according to a World Health Organization health risk assessment, as with Chernobyl, the psychological toll of the disaster is a major concern and potentially outweighs other health consequences.

The disaster prompted many other countries to take stock of their own nuclear programs. The take-home lesson for some, including a majority of the Japanese public, was to move away from nuclear power. For example, Germany vowed to phase out all nuclear power by 2022, Italy voted overwhelmingly not to restart its nuclear program, and Switzerland banned the construction of new reactors.

Other nations were hardly slowed in their expansion of nuclear energy. China, India, and Russia lead the way with, all together, more than 40 reactors under construction and over twice as many planned. In their haste, it seems that many of these countries have not absorbed the key lesson from Fukushima: the importance of a rigorous and all-encompassing safety regime.

Before the Disaster

According to a National Academy of Sciences study, prior to the Fukushima accident, Japan’s nuclear regulatory agencies did not seem to have sufficient expertise, authority, resources, or independence to adequately protect public safety. In hindsight, the problem appears to be a classic case of regulatory capture, reinforced by the common practices of amakudari (descent from heaven), referring to retired powerful public officials being hired into private sector jobs, and amaagari (ascent to heaven), referring to private sector experts moving into government-related positions.

Moreover, the regulatory body was housed in the very ministry charged with promoting nuclear energy, which created a potential conflict of interest. (To avoid similar issues, in 1975, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was split to separate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from promotional functions.)

An independent regulator is not sufficient, though: a strong culture of safety must also be cultivated throughout the nuclear network—from operators and construction workers up to plant owners—as well as throughout the supply chain. Pride must come not just from the megawatts produced; each entity should prioritize public safety when building or operating nuclear plants and maintain alertness through frequent drills for workers at all levels.

The 2011 meltdown turned a spotlight on the flaws in the safety regime of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Fukushima Daiichi operator. It had falsified reports and fudged safety-related inspections long before Fukushima; it had also failed to update its seismic and tsunami safety standards. To be sure, it is difficult to prepare for an event that seems nearly impossible, such as an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan, but a superior safety culture can make a difference—some have argued that that was why the reactors at the Onagawa power station, which were slammed as hard as Fukushima Daiichi, remained intact and were safely shut down.

Praiseworthy Progress

Since the accident, Japan has taken admirable, although incomplete, steps to set up an independent regulator and to improve its safety culture, including by bringing in respected international advisers. Last year, it began gradually to reactivate some of the country’s functioning reactors. Before Fukushima, the more than 50 reactors had provided Japan with some 30 percent of its electrical power, but all were taken offline in the months after the accident.

Of course, Japan is not alone in facing these types of safety-related problems. After dissolving the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the United States, the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy, has faced criticism for the amount of influence the industry wields over its rule-making process. South Korea’s nuclear industry, too, has had problems, including a history of falsifying safety documents.

But most worrying are the developing countries entering the huddle. China leads the way, with plans to triple its nuclear-generating capacity by 2020, but its regulator is neither structurally independent nor well staffed. Because an accident has such massive potential for widespread damage, tight quality control is essential. China’s track record in this regard is not promising. For example, in 1987, the crew constructing a nuclear plant near Hong Kong misread blueprints and initially failed to incorporate a large portion of the requisite protective steel, raising questions about competence and oversight.

Some new powers are more prudent, including the United Arab Emirates, which began creating a solid regulatory framework, with a team of international experts to regularly assess the program’s progress, long before its first reactor comes online in 2017.

Others are more cavalier, such as Vietnam, another one-party state with nuclear ambitions and no precedent for any type of independent regulatory entity. Iran, a seismically active country, also has attracted concern over the safety of its current and future reactors and the lack of independence of its regulator, despite the recent nuclear deal with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany). India is another fast-growing nuclear power, with over 25 reactors either under construction or planned. But it is stuck on the question of regulatory independence since a proposed law on regulation, tabled in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, was not passed by the legislature.

Calls for International Atomic Energy Agency reforms that will require more rigorous international safety checks are welcome, but it must not stop there. Generating nuclear energy should be recognized as a serious responsibility, given the scale of damage and suffering when things go wrong—as the world was reminded five years ago. ”

by David Roberts and Norman Neureiter

source

‘Voluntary’ Fukushima evacuees denounce end of free housing, new assistance plan — The Asahi Shimbun

” The Fukushima prefectural government is maintaining its plan to terminate the free housing program for “voluntary” evacuees from the nuclear disaster despite a barrage of criticism and complaints expressed during an explanatory meeting.

Fukushima officials told the briefing session in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward on Feb. 7 that in April 2017, free housing will no longer be available to people who fled from homes located outside government-designated evacuation zones around the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Instead, the officials said, new assistance measures, including subsidies for moving and rent, will be offered.

Many of the 30 or so people in attendance, including evacuees, blasted the planned measures as insufficient.

“It just sounds like the prefectural government wants to make us return to the area as soon as possible and terminate the assistance,” one of them said. “Even though the nuclear accident has not yet come to an end, how can they say we should go back there?”

According to the prefectural government, about 6,000 households voluntarily evacuated to areas outside Fukushima Prefecture after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011. An estimated 5,700 voluntary evacuees were living in Tokyo in January this year.

Based on the Disaster Relief Law, the prefectural government has offered public housing and other free accommodations to nuclear evacuees regardless of whether their original homes were in state-designated evacuation zones.

The government is now moving to lift all evacuation orders around the nuclear plant except for certain areas where radiation levels are expected to remain high.

“We held discussions with the central government while taking the situation into consideration, and the central government agreed to extend the program to March next year,” a prefectural government official told the meeting. “It would be difficult to further extend the period.”

The new measures include up to 100,000 yen ($853) in subsidies for moving expenses, as well as preferential treatment in relocating to prefectural government-run housing.

For low-income households who continue to live in private apartments and other housing as evacuees, the prefecture will cover half the monthly rent up to 30,000 yen for the first year and one-third of the rent up to 20,000 yen for the second year.

“We cannot live with a subsidy of 30,000 yen,” one of the evacuees said at the meeting. “Do they understand the rent in Tokyo?”

A representative of Hinan Seikatsu o Mamoru Kai (group that protects evacuation life), which comprises evacuees living in areas around Tokyo, indicated that the proposed measures would put too much of a financial burden on many of the voluntary evacuees.

“Our biggest difficulty is the housing issue,” he said. “We strongly demand that the prefectural government withdraw the termination of the free housing program.”

Masaaki Matsumoto, chief of the prefectural government’s Evacuees Support Division, defended the plan and said the government does not intend to force evacuees to return home.

“The environment in Fukushima is being prepared for people to live in,” Matsumoto said. “By setting up the subsidy system, we also responded to those who want to continue their evacuation.” ”

by Jun Sato

source