Japan wants Fukushima evacuees to go home. They’re not so sure. — The Christian Science Monitor

” About 160,000 people left their homes in 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Today, the government says it’s safe for many to return. But regaining residents’ trust remains a challenge. “

” For Toru Takeda, the best and worst parts of life in Yonezawa are the same: snow. Located in the mountains 150 miles north of Tokyo, the city typically lies under a few feet every winter. It snows so much that many streets in Yonezawa are equipped with sprinklers that spray warm underground water to keep them clear.

Mr. Takeda is still getting used to the sheer amount of snow and the inconveniences that come with it. Train delays. Slow traffic. Shoveling. It doesn’t snow nearly as much in Fukushima City, his hometown, an hour-long drive away in good weather.

But snow has its benefits when it melts. “The soil here is rich because the snow melts slowly,” Takeda says one morning at a diner in downtown Yonezawa. He’s certain that the gradual thaw makes the fruits and vegetables grown in the region some of the best in Japan. Taking a sip of coffee, he adds solemnly, “The water and soil in Fukushima [Prefecture] is still contaminated.”

It’s been almost seven years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The cleanup is projected to cost $200 billion and take up to 40 years. Yet already many of the area’s 160,000 evacuees have started to return.

The Japanese government says it’s safe, but Takeda isn’t convinced. His faith in authority was shattered by the botched response to the meltdown. Today, he remains suspicious of everything from regulatory agencies to utility companies, to say nothing of food safety and, of course, nuclear power. Whether the government is able to regain Takeda’s trust – and the trust of thousands of others like him – is an important test of its ability to revive the cities and towns of Fukushima.

“We don’t believe the government anymore,” Takeda says, speaking for himself, his wife and daughter, and about 20 other evacuees he knows who have refused to leave Yonezawa. “I’ll do anything and everything I can to make sure we can stay,” he declares. That includes going to court.

Man on a Mission

It all started last March, when the Fukushima prefectural government ended unconditional housing subsidies to nearly 27,000 people who left areas not designated as mandatory evacuation zones – including Takeda and many others in Yonezawa. Faced with the choice of returning to areas they fear are still unsafe or paying rent many can’t afford, they’ve chosen neither. Instead, they’ve stayed in their apartments and refused to pay rent. The local public housing agency tolerated this for a while. Then, in September, it filed an eviction lawsuit against the so-called voluntary evacuees, who quickly hired a team of lawyers in response.

“The Japanese government and Tepco caused the disaster,” Takeda says, referring to Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “They should have to pay.”

Since moving to Yonezawa in April 2011, Takeda, a 77-year-old retired high school English teacher, has emerged as the de facto leader of the city’s evacuee community. He organizes social gatherings and frequently meets with local government officials. He and his wife even set up a learning center in their small, three-room apartment for evacuee children. The center closed after two years, and now Takeda spends most of his time on the lawsuit. He does everything from fundraising to meeting with lawyers.

 “The government hates me,” he says. “If not for me then the evacuees would have already gone back.”

While the lawsuit in Yonezawa continues, some victims have already found redress. In October, a district court in Fukushima ruled that the Japanese government and Tepco must pay damages totaling $4.4 million to about 2,900 people. It was the third case in  which a court found the company negligent in not preventing the meltdown.

‘It breeds distrust’

Yonezawa, which lies 60 miles northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was once home to as many as 3,900 evacuees from Fukushima. There are fewer than 500 now left, according to government figures. Some have returned home, either out of financial necessity or because they believe it’s safe, but many have refused. In a survey conducted last April by the Fukushima government, 80 percent of voluntary evacuees living in other parts of Japan said they had no intention of going back.

 The government has worked hard to assuage any lingering fears. But Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace, says officials have played down the potential health risks because of the pressure they feel to put a positive spin on the situation. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to deliver on his promise that the Fukushima cleanup effort is “under control.”

“Having zones where people can’t live is politically unacceptable for the government,” Mr. Burnie says. “It creates the impression that a nuclear disaster can destroy whole communities for a long time.”

As the government rushes to revitalize Fukushima, it may run the risk of deepening public distrust, diminishing the respect for authority that is deeply rooted in Japanese society. A 2017 Pew survey found that 57 percent of Japanese have at least some trust in the national government to act in the country’s best interests, though just 6 percent have a lot of trust in national leaders.

Timothy Jorgenson, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, wrote in a 2016 online commentary that one of the government’s mistakes was its decision to increase the maximum limit of radiation exposure from 1 microsievert to 20 microsieverts per year. (Microsieverts measure the effects of low-level radiation.)

“To the Japanese people, this raising of the annual safety limit from one to 20 mSv appears like the government is backpedaling on its commitment to safety,” Dr. Jorgenson wrote. “This is the problem with moving regulatory dose limits after the fact to accommodate inconvenient circumstances; it breeds distrust.”

Jorgenson wrote that the government would be better off to just explain what the health risks are at various radiation doses and leave it at that. Armed with such information, evacuees could decide for themselves if they want to return home.

For now, the government appears poised to further cut housing subsidies to evacuees. Its current plan would remove 5,000 households from the roll by March 2019. Advocacy groups are pressuring it to reconsider. In a written statement submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Feb. 2, Greenpeace and Human Rights Now, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, called on the government to “provide necessary housing support to all Fukushima evacuees, including those who evacuated from outside the government designated areas, as long as needed to ensure their ability to freely choose where they will live without pressure to return areas where their health or life would be at risk.”

If the Japanese government were to take such advice, the lawsuit in Yonezawa could end. Takeda says it’s a tempting thought, but rather than waiting for the government to change its plan, he’s busy preparing for his next court appearance on March 20.

“I don’t have much time left,” Takeda says. “I can’t go home.” ”

by Michael Holtz, The Christina Science Monitor; contributions from Takehiko Kambayashi

source with internal links


Japan’s plutonium glut casts a shadow on renewed nuclear deal — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO — The decision Jan. 16 to automatically extend a nuclear agreement with the U.S. came as a relief to a Japanese government worried about the prospect of renegotiating the basis for a cornerstone of its energy policy. But friction remains over a massive store of plutonium that highlights the problems with the nation’s ambitious nuclear energy plans.

The nuclear fuel cycle pursued by Japan’s government and power companies centers on recovering uranium and plutonium from spent fuel for reuse in reactors. This is made possible by the unique agreement with the U.S. that lets Japan make plutonium. The radioactive element can be used in nuclear weapons, so its production is generally tightly restricted.

“The agreement forms part of the foundation of Japan’s nuclear power activities,” said Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, in comments to reporters Friday. “It’s important from the standpoint of the Japan-U.S. relationship.”

America began sharing its advanced atomic energy technology with other nations in the 1950s, aiming to promote its peaceful use. Washington remains hugely influential in setting ground rules for military applications of nuclear material, including with regard to reprocessing. Countries including South Korea have sought special arrangements like Japan’s.

The lack of fuss over the renewal of the agreement, which had been due to expire this coming July, has masked concerns expressed behind the scenes. A Japanese official visiting Washington in December was asked by a U.S. nuclear policymaker about Japan’s oversight of its plutonium stockpile.

Japan has amassed roughly 47 tons of plutonium stored inside and outside the country — enough for some 6,000 nuclear warheads. With the nation’s nuclear power plants gradually taken offline after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and progress on restarting them sluggish, Japan has been left with no real way to whittle down a pile drawing international scrutiny.

Washington ultimately did not ask to change the nuclear agreement, which after the expiration date can be terminated by either side with six months’ notice. Given the tense regional security situation, including North Korea’s missile advances, “Japan and the U.S. apparently didn’t want the world to see friction between them over nuclear power,” said a Japanese government insider in contact with Washington.

Tokyo’s relief at the lack of American demands is dampened by the awareness that the deal could be scrapped at any time. “It’s more unstable than before,” an industry ministry official acknowledged.

The best-case scenario for Japan would have been securing an agreement that set a new expiration date. But any such change would have had to go through the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers supporting nuclear nonproliferation might not have welcomed giving Japan — which already has no prospect of using up its existing supply — carte blanche to keep reprocessing. This risk is likely why Washington opted for automatic extension of the existing agreement.

The precursor to the current deal, signed in 1955, let Japan use American technology to kick-start its own atomic energy industry. A new agreement in 1968 permitted reprocessing of spent fuel with U.S. consent. A 1988 revision gave blanket permission for reprocessing for peaceful applications.

But the nuclear fuel cycle policy this enabled has stalled amid chronic problems at key facilities. The Japanese government decided in 2016 to scrap the Monju plutonium-fueled experimental fast breeder reactor. And a reprocessing facility in northern Japan that would be critical to producing plutonium fuel usable by conventional reactors has faced repeated delays that have pushed back the completion date from 1997 to 2021.

Reducing Japan’s plutonium stockpile will be vital to assuaging international concerns. Seko asserted that plutonium consumption will pick up again as the Nuclear Regulation Authority clears more reactors to restart.

But this may not work as well as Tokyo hopes. Just five reactors have met the stricter safety standards imposed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, and not all of these use plutonium.

The nuclear watchdog said Jan. 16 that it will devise new guidelines to better adhere to the government’s principle of not possessing plutonium without a specific purpose. Critics of Japan’s plutonium production will likely not be satisfied without a convincing, reality-based plan to deal with the issue. ”

by Kazunari Hanawa and Takashi Tsuji, Nikkei writing staff


Tokyo court orders Tepco to pay $10 million in damages over 2011 disaster — Reuters

” TOKYO (Reuters) – A Tokyo court on Wednesday ordered Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) to pay around 1.1 billion yen ($10 million) to a group of Fukushima residents, local media reported, nearly seven years after the company’s reactor meltdowns in northeastern Japan.

A group of 321 people residents from Minami-soma in Fukushima prefecture had sought around 11 billion yen in damages in a class action suit, according to the reports.

Minami-soma is a city about 30 km (19 miles) from Tepco’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where reactors melted down after being hit by a massive tsunami in March 2011. After the disaster, some areas near the plant became no-gone zones, forcing many residents to flee their homes.

A Tepco spokesman said a ruling was made by the Tokyo court today, but declined to comment further.

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

Last year, a district court in Fukushima ruled in the largest class action lawsuit brought over the 2011 nuclear disaster that the company and the Japanese government were liable for damages totaling about 500 million yen.

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

reporting by Minami Funakoshi; editing by Tom Hogue, Reuters


Challenges ahead for debris removal at Fukushima — NHK World

” This year will mark the 7th anniversary of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that occurred in March, 2011. The plant’s operator is hoping to eventually remove fuel debris from the damaged reactors.

Fuel debris is a mixture of melted nuclear fuel and broken reactor parts. Removing the debris is considered to be the biggest hurdle to the decommissioning of the reactors.

Last year, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, investigated the inside of the containment vessels of 3 reactors and confirmed, for the first time, the existence of lumps that are believed to be fuel debris in the No.3 reactor.

TEPCO plans to conduct a fresh probe of the No.2 reactor this month to confirm whether a mass on the floor under the reactor, observed last year, is actually fuel debris.

The government and TEPCO aim to begin removing debris in 2021. They are planning to determine which reactor to start with, and how to conduct the procedure, during fiscal 2019.

Workers will try this year to figure out which details need to be considered in order to make the decision.

Removing the debris requires thorough safety measures. For example, radioactive materials must be prevented from spreading and workers must be protected from exposure to radiation.

This autumn, the operator also plans to start removing spent nuclear fuel rods from the storage pool of the No.3 reactor building. ”

by NHK World


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


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