Editor's Note: John Boyd is an IEEE Spectrum contributor reporting from Kawasaki, Japan. This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.
At a news conference held last Thursday morning, Banri Kaieda, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), said he would fire three top government bureaucrats over the ongoing Fukushima nuclear plant crisis. He followed this unprecedented triple firing by saying he himself intended to resign when the time was appropriate. The firing announcements come as METI’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA, is facing accusations it asked power companies under its supervision to help manipulate public opinion to favor proposed but controversial nuclear energy policies.
The three outgoing officials are Nobuaki Terasaka, director general of NISA; Kazuo Matsunaga, vice-minister of METI; and Tetsuhiro Hosono, director general of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.
Kaieda said he’d been considering dismissing the three men “for about a month to make a completely fresh change.” He added that once replacements for the sacked trio are in place (something expected in days), and after a new structure to oversee the nuclear industry has been presented, then he would resign.
A draft of this restructuring plan has been prepared by Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of dealing with the nuclear crisis, and is now under discussion. Essentially, it calls for removing NISA from METI and consolidating it with the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to form an extra-ministerial bureau under the Ministry of the Environment. At present the NSC comes under the authority of the Cabinet Office and has the role of drawing up the regulatory guidelines for NISA and the industry and then ensuring they are followed.
But as some industry observers are pointing out, merely combing the two agencies will not be sufficient to bring about real change. “The effectiveness of the new integrated body will depend on what ‘rights’ it will have, as well as its independence, openness and clearness (of objectives),” says Akio Yamamoto, a professor of energy engineering at Nagoya University. “So integration does not mean the completion of the regulatory improvement—it is just the beginning.”
Stress about stress tests
In an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun on a separate concern, METI’s Kaieda said that if aging reactors failed the government’s stress tests soon to be introduced, then they could expect to be shut down. “If stress tests reveal the reactors have deteriorated because of aging, the reactors should be decommissioned. This will spur a process of elimination (of reactors deemed potentially dangerous) eventually leading to fewer reactors,” he told the newspaper.
These stress tests will be carried out in two stages. The first stage will be used to verify if reactors currently idled for maintenance can safely resume operations. Two-thirds of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are currently out of commission, either for inspection purposes or because of earthquake-related troubles or other problems. The second stage of testing, which will be applied to all the reactors, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
This increasingly tough stance toward the nuclear industry by some in the government was underlined by Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a speech he gave at the Hiroshima atomic-bomb memorial ceremony on 6 August, when he said, “I deeply regret believing in the security myth of nuclear power and will carry out a thorough verification of the cause of this incident and implement fundamental countermeasures to ensure safety. At the same time, Japan will reduce its level of reliance on nuclear power generation with the aim of becoming a society that is not dependent on nuclear power.”
Radioactive hot spots
Meanwhile, the battle goes on to gain control of the crippled Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant, with the latest obstacle being the discovery of two radiation hot spots on the site. Last week Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) reported that a worker found record-high levels of more than 10 000 millisieverts of radiation per hour—a likely lethal amount for humans—around a pipe connecting the containment vessels of the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors to the main exhaust stack used for ventilating the reactor buildings and turbine buildings under normal conditions, or in emergencies employed to vent the reactors.
This figure is about 2.5 times as high as the previously highest recorded figure found inside the No. 1 reactor building. The radiation hot spot was detected by a worker some distance away, using a camera that detects gamma rays. TEPCO said the pipe was used to vent air containing radioactive materials from the damaged No. 1 reactor on 12 March. Since the discovery, a second hot spot has been detected in the same vicinity with a measurement of 3 700 millisieverts.
A TEPCO official said that normally there is no need for workers to be in the area, but as a precaution, the company has put up signs warning workers to stay clear and it has halted the flow of air in the pipe.