Government and utilities shaken by high court challenge to public trust in Japan’s nuclear authority — The Japan Times

” Wednesday’s ruling by the Hiroshima High Court halting the planned restart of a nuclear reactor in Ehime Prefecture has cast doubt on the judgment of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority — which had approved the restart under stricter post-Fukushima guidelines — shocking the government and utilities across the nation.

The ruling deals a heavy blow to a plan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to bring more reactors back online, and is sure to prompt the government and utilities to keep a closer eye on similar cases continuing across the country.

Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer representing local residents, called the ruling the “most important” since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, spurred by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

About 40 court cases — including those seeking injunctions — were filed in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown disaster. But while district courts have ordered some reactors stopped, each shutdown decision has been overturned by a high court.

“This is the first time (plaintiffs) have won at the high court level,” Kaido said at a news conference in Tokyo. He said the ruling may signal a turn of the tide.

Wednesday’s ruling was also noteworthy for touching on the risk of volcanic eruption.

“The possibility of heated rock and volcanic ash reaching the reactor cannot be evaluated as small. The location is not suitable” for a nuclear reactor, said presiding Judge Tomoyuki Nonoue in handing down the ruling. The reactor affected is the No. 3 unit at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant, which is located about 130 kilometers from the caldera of the volcanically active Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture.

“The effect that volcanic ash may have on reactors nationwide is underrated,” Kaido said.

Government officials were quick to attempt to play down the risk. “It’s just a court ruling. The government’s position to seek the restart for reactors approved by the (Nuclear Regulation Authority) remains unchanged,” said a senior trade ministry official.

The central government’s target for power generations calls for 20 percent to 22 percent of the nation’s supply to be contributed by nuclear reactors by 2030.

Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa told a news conference that the high court decision would not influence its ongoing and future safety screenings of other reactors.

“We will just fulfill the role of a regulator,” Fuketa said.

But the reality is that utilities have been seeking to convince municipalities that reactors cleared by the watchdog under the tougher guidelines are safe.

“I’m worried that it could create negative momentum,” said an industry official.

For Shikoku Electric, the blocked restart will mean a spike in fuel costs as it will be forced to rely mainly on non-nuclear power generation.

“While the nuclear reactors are suspended, we will need to rely on thermal power, which means we will need to shoulder a ¥3.5 billion loss per month for fuel,” an executive of the utility said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Other utilities are facing similar constraints. Kyushu Electric Power Co. aims to restart two reactors at its Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture, but local residents have filed an injunction seeking to halt the move. A Kyushu Electric executive said he was “surprised at the unexpected ruling” on the Ikata plant.

Meanwhile, the response of residents in Ehime Prefecture was mixed.

One man voiced concern over the ruling’s potential to damage the local economy. The man, who runs a lodging business, said the town accommodated several hundred nuclear power plant workers a year before the Fukushima disaster.

“Ikata is a town of nuclear power,” he said. “I feel that (the ruling) has left locals behind.”

Another resident, however, welcomed the move as a judicial “breakthrough.” ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Japan court bars restart of nuclear reactor shut after Fukushima — Bloomberg

” A Japanese court overturned a ruling that allowed a nuclear reactor in the country’s south to operate, frustrating the government’s push to bring online dozens of plants shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The decision by the Hiroshima High Court, which cited risks from nearby volcanoes, sides with local citizens and reverses a lower court’s ruling that had cleared the way for Shikoku Electric Power Co. to operate its Ikata No. 3 unit, according to an emailed statement Wednesday from the company. The reactor, which restarted last year under stricter safety regulations, has been shut for maintenance and was scheduled to restart on Jan. 20.

Shikoku Electric fell as much as 11 percent in Tokyo, the biggest decline in more than four years, before paring the drop to 8.3 percent.

The injunction issued by the court is a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of having nuclear power account for as much as 22 percent of the nation’s electricity mix by 2030. Public opposition through local courts and municipal governments has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to that plan. Just four of Japan’s 42 operable nuclear reactors are currently online.

The ruling was the first time a high court in Japan has overturned a lower court on the issue of nuclear restarts since the Fukushima disaster. A district court in Hiroshima sided with the utility in March in deciding not to issue a temporary injunction.

Shikoku called Wednesday’s ruling “unacceptable” and said it will try to get it reversed. The injunction is effective through Sept. 30, 2018, according to court documents.

The Hiroshima High Court said risks from volcanoes weren’t being “rationally evaluated” by the Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority. The agency declined to comment because it wasn’t involved in the court case. ”

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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Japan still at a stalemate as Fukushima’s radioactive water grows by 150 tons a day — The Japan Times

” More than six years after a tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Japan has yet to reach consensus on what to do with a million tons of radioactive water, stored on site in around 900 large and densely packed tanks that could spill should another major earthquake or tsunami strike.

The stalemate is rooted in a fundamental conflict between science and human nature.

Experts advising the government have urged a gradual release to the Pacific Ocean. Treatment has removed all the radioactive elements except tritium, which they say is safe in small amounts. Conversely, if the tanks break, their contents could slosh out in an uncontrolled way.

Local fishermen are balking. The water, no matter how clean, has a dirty image for consumers, they say. Despite repeated tests showing most types of fish caught off Fukushima are safe to eat, diners remain hesitant. The fishermen fear any release would sound the death knell for their nascent and still fragile recovery.

“People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon as the water is released,” said Fumio Haga, a drag-net fisherman from Iwaki, a city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) down the coast from the nuclear plant.

And so the tanks remain.

Fall is high season for saury and flounder, among Fukushima’s signature fish. It was once a busy time of year when coastal fishermen were out every morning.

Then came March 11, 2011. A magnitude 9 offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people along the coast. The quake and massive flooding knocked out power for the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors had partial meltdowns. Radiation spewed into the air, and highly contaminated water ran into the Pacific.

Today, only about half of the region’s 1,000 fishermen go out, and just twice a week because of reduced demand. They participate in a fish testing program.

Lab technicians mince fish samples at Onahama port in Iwaki, pack them in a cup for inspection and record details such as who caught the fish and where. Packaged fish sold at supermarkets carry official “safe” stickers.

Only three kinds of fish passed the test when the experiment began in mid-2012, 15 months after the tsunami. Over time, that number has increased to about 100.

The fish meet what is believed to be the world’s most stringent requirement: less than half the radioactive cesium level allowed under Japan’s national standard and one-twelfth of the U.S. or EU limit, said Yoshiharu Nemoto, a senior researcher at the Onahama testing station.

That message isn’t reaching consumers. A survey by the Consumer Affairs Agency in October found that nearly half of Japanese weren’t aware of the tests, and that consumers are more likely to focus on alarming information about possible health impacts in extreme cases, rather than facts about radiation and safety standards.

Fewer Japanese consumers shun fish and other foods from Fukushima than before, but 1 in 5 still do, according to the survey. The coastal catch of 2,000 tons last year was 8 percent of pre-disaster levels. The deep-sea catch was half of what it used to be, though scientists say there is no contamination risk that far out.

Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo expert on disaster information and social psychology, said that the water from the nuclear plant shouldn’t be released until people are well-informed about the basic facts and psychologically ready.

“A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said. “A release when people are unprepared would only make things worse.”

He and consumer advocacy group representative Kikuko Tatsumi sit on a government expert panel that has been wrestling with the social impact of a release and what to do with the water for more than a year, with no sign of resolution.

Tatsumi said the stalemate may be further fueling public misconception: Many people believe the water is stored because it’s not safe to release, and they think Fukushima fish is not available because it’s not safe to eat.

The amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is still growing, by 150 tons a day.

The reactors are damaged beyond repair, but cooling water must be constantly pumped in to keep them from overheating. That water picks up radioactivity before leaking out of the damaged containment chambers and collecting in the basements.

There, the volume of contaminated water grows, because it mixes with groundwater that has seeped in through cracks in the reactor buildings. After treatment, 210 tons is reused as cooling water, and the remaining 150 tons is sent to tank storage. During heavy rains, the groundwater inflow increases significantly, adding to the volume.

The water is a costly headache for Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the utility that owns the plant. To reduce the flow, it has dug dozens of wells to pump out groundwater before it reaches the reactor buildings and built an underground “ice wall” of questionable effectiveness by partially freezing the ground around the reactors.

Another government panel recommended last year that the utility, known as Tepco, dilute the water up to about 50 times and release about 400 tons daily to the sea — a process that would take almost a decade to complete. Experts note that the release of tritiated water is allowed at other nuclear plants.

Tritiated water from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was evaporated, but the amount was much smaller, and still required 10 years of preparation and three more years to complete.

A new chairman at Tepco, Takashi Kawamura, caused an uproar in the fishing community in April when he expressed support for moving ahead with the release of the water.

The company quickly backpedaled, and now says it has no plans for an immediate release and can keep storing water through 2020. Tepco says the decision should be made by the government, because the public doesn’t trust the utility.

“Our recovery effort up until now would immediately collapse to zero if the water is released,” Iwaki abalone farmer Yuichi Manome said.

Some experts have proposed moving the tanks to an intermediate storage area, or delaying the release until at least 2023, when half the tritium that was present at the time of the disaster will have disappeared naturally. ”

by Mari Yamaguchi, The Japan Times

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Disposal of low-level radioactive waste from Fukushima crisis begins — The Japan Times

” FUKUSHIMA – Disposal began Friday of low-level radioactive waste generated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, more than six years after the crisis was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

A disposal site in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, accepted the first shipment of the waste, which contains radioactive cesium ranging from 8,000 to 100,000 becquerels per kilogram, and includes rice straw, sludge and ash from waste incineration.

The Environment Ministry is in charge of the country’s nuclear waste disposal, which totaled 200,000 tons from 11 prefectures as of the end of September. The majority of the waste, 170,000 tons, originates from the prefecture hosting the crippled nuclear power plant.

“I would like to ask the central government to move this project forward while taking adequate safety steps in mind,” a Tomioka official said. “Building mutual trust with local residents is also important.”

Under the ministry’s policy, each prefecture’s waste is to be disposed of. However, Fukushima is the only prefecture where disposal has started, whereas other prefectures have met with opposition from local residents.

In Fukushima, it will take six years to complete moving the stored waste to the disposal site, the ministry said.

The government “will continue giving first priority to securing safety and properly carry out the disposal with our best efforts to win local confidence,” Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa said at a news conference.

The government proposed in December 2013 that Fukushima Prefecture dispose of the waste at the then-privately owned site. The request was accepted by the prefectural government two years later.

To help alleviate local concerns over the disposal, the government nationalized the site and reinforced it to prevent the entry of rainwater. ”

by The Japan Times

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Fukushima evacuee to tell UN that Japan violated human rights — The Guardian

” A nuclear evacuee from Fukushima will claim Japan’s government has violated the human rights of people who fled their homes after the 2011 nuclear disaster, in testimony before the UN in Geneva this week.

Mitsuko Sonoda, who voluntarily left her village with her husband and their 10-year-old son days after three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant went into meltdown, will tell the UN human rights council that evacuees face financial hardship and are being forced to return to neighbourhoods they believe are still unsafe almost seven years after the disaster.

“We feel abandoned by the Japanese government and society,” Sonoda, who will speak at the council’s pre-session review of Japan on Thursday, told the Guardian.

An estimated 27,000 evacuees who, like Sonoda, were living outside the mandatory evacuation zone when the meltdown occurred, had their housing assistance withdrawn this March, forcing some to consider returning to their former homes despite concerns over radiation levels.

In addition, as the government attempts to rebuild the Fukushima region by reopening decontaminated neighbourhoods that were once no-go areas, tens of thousands of evacuees who were ordered to leave will lose compensation payments and housing assistance in March next year.

The denial of financial aid has left many evacuees facing a near-impossible choice: move back to homes they fear are unsafe, or face more financial hardship as they struggle to build lives elsewhere without state help.

“People should be allowed to choose whether or not to go back to their old homes, and be given the financial means to make that choice,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan.

“If they are being put under economic pressure to return, then they are not in a position to make an informed decision. This UN session is about pressuring the Japanese government to do the right thing.”

Evacuees are being encouraged to return to villages and towns near the Fukushima plant despite evidence that some still contain radiation “hot spots”.

In Iitate village, where the evacuation order was lifted this March, much of the surrounding forests remain highly radioactive, although homes, schools and other public buildings have been declared safe as part of an unprecedented decontamination effort.

“You could call places like Iitate an open-air prison,” said Ulrich. “The impact on people’s quality of life will be severe if they move back. Their lives are embedded in forests, yet the environment means they will not be allowed to enter them. Forests are impossible to decontaminate.”

After months of moving around, Sonoda and her family settled in Kyoto for two years, where local authorities provided them with a rent-free apartment. They have been living in her husband’s native England for the past four years.

“We’ve effectively had to evacuate twice,” said Sonoda, who works as a freelance translator and Japanese calligraphy tutor. “My son and I really struggled at first … we didn’t want to leave Japan.”

Concern over food safety and internal radiation exposure convinced her that she could never return to Fukushima, aside from making short visits to see relatives. “It’s really sad, because my village is such a beautiful place,” she said. “We had a house and had planned to retire there.”

The evacuations have forced families to live apart, while parents struggle to earn enough money to fund their new accommodation and keep up mortgage payments on their abandoned homes.

“Stopping housing support earlier this year was an act of cruelty,” Sonoda said. “Some of my friends had to go back to Fukushima even though they didn’t want to.”

Greenpeace Japan, which is assisting Sonoda, hopes her testimony will be the first step in building international pressure on Japan’s government to continue offering financial help to evacuees and to reconsider its resettlement plan.

It has called on the government to declare Fukushima neighbourhoods unsafe until atmospheric radiation is brought to below one millisievert (mSv) a year, the maximum public exposure limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

While 1 mSv a year remains the government’s long-term target, it is encouraging people to return to areas where radiation levels are below 20 mSv a year, an annual exposure limit that, internationally, applies to nuclear power plant workers.

“Why should people, especially women and children, have to live in places where the radiation level is 20 times the international limit?” Sonoda said. “The government hasn’t given us an answer.” ”

by The Guardian

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Fukushima court rules Tepco, government liable over 2011 disaster — Reuters

” TOKYO (Reuters) – A district court in Fukushima prefecture on Tuesday ruled that Tokyo Electric Power and the Japanese government were liable for damages totaling about 500 million yen ($4.44 million) in the largest class action lawsuit brought over the 2011 nuclear disaster, Kyodo news agency said.

A group of about 3,800 people, mostly in Fukushima prefecture, filed the class action suit, marking the biggest number of plaintiffs out of about 30 similar class action lawsuits filed across the nation.

This is the second court ruling that fixed the government’s responsibility after a Maebashi district court decision in March.

All the three district court decisions so far have ordered Tepco to pay damages. Only the Chiba court decision last month did not find the government liable for compensation.

The plaintiffs in Fukushima case have called on defendants for reinstating the levels of radioactivity at their homes before the disaster, but the court rejected the request, Kyodo said.

Tepco has long been criticized for ignoring the threat posed by natural disasters to the Fukushima plant and the company and the government were lambasted for their handling of the crisis. “

reporting by Osamu Tsukimori and Aaron Sheldrick; editing by Christian Schmollinger and Gopakumar Warrier, Reuters

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