The Nuclear Regulation Authority presented a draft outline Monday of new safety measures to prevent or minimize the consequences of severe atomic plant crises.
Among other features, the NRA said utilities will be required to build a special safety facility housing a secondary control room for reactor operations to protect reactors against natural disasters and acts of terrorism, such as the intentional crashing of an aircraft into a nuclear plant.
The new safety standards are expected to come into force in July, replacing the current ones, which the triple-meltdown disaster that erupted in March 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 plant proved were insufficient.
In the darkest moments of last year’s nuclear accident, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public, an independent investigation into the accident disclosed on Monday.
The investigation by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a new private policy organization, offers one of the most vivid accounts yet of how Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. A team of 30 university professors, lawyers and journalists spent more than six months on the inquiry into Japan’s response to the triple meltdown at the plant, which followed a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that shut down the plant’s cooling systems.
The team interviewed more than 300 people, including top nuclear regulators and government officials, as well as the prime minister during the crisis, Naoto Kan. They were granted extraordinary access, in part because of a strong public demand for greater accountability and because the organization’s founder, Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, is one of Japan’s most respected public intellectuals.
Operators at Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-ravaged Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant ushered journalists clad in protective clothing through the plant on Monday, just weeks ahead of the first anniversary of the March 11 disasters.
Reporters from about 30 Japanese and foreign media organizations entered the wrecked facility by bus and were allowed to leave the vehicle once. All carried respiration masks and radiation detectors, as they heard the plant’s director apologize to nearby residents forced to flee their homes last year to avoid radiation contamination.
“We’re deeply sorry about (the) great inconvenience we caused with the accident. It will soon have been a year since the occurrence and when I look back, the worst part of it was that we couldn’t evacuate the local residents from their hometowns and the whole country the fear of radiation.”
Japan’s nuclear safety chief said Wednesday the country’s regulations are flawed, outdated and below global standards, and he apologized for their failure when a tsunami crippled one plant last year.
Haruki Madarame admitted Japanese safety requirements such as for tsunami and power losses were too loose and many officials have looked the other way and tried to avoid changes.
“I must admit that the nuclear safety guidelines that we have issued until now have various flaws,” he said. “We’ve even said that we don’t need to consider risks for massive tsunamis and lengthy power outages.”
As 500 workers in hazmat suits and respirator masks fanned out to decontaminate this village 20 miles from the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, their confusion was apparent.
Dig five centimeters or 10 centimeters deep here?” a site supervisor asked his colleagues, pointing to a patch of radioactive topsoil to be removed. He then gestured across the village square toward the community center. “Isn’t that going to be demolished? Shall we decontaminate it or not?”
A day laborer wiping down windows at an abandoned school nearby shrugged at the work crew’s haphazard approach. “We are all amateurs,” he said. “Nobody really knows how to clean up radiation.”
In the confusion following the earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex last March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was standing by to help.
But a trove of e-mails posted on the NRC’s Web site shows an agency struggling to figure out how to respond and how to deal with the American public while cutting through what one official called “the fog of information” coming out of Japan.
“THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” said an e-mail from the NRC operations center early on March 11, hours after the quake. “This may get really ugly in the next few days,” said one NRC official later in the day after a report that Tokyo Electric Power Co. was venting gas from a containment building.
A total of 573 deaths in Japan have been certified as “disaster-related” by 13 municipalities affected by the crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.
This number could rise because certification for 29 people remains pending while further checks are conducted.
The 13 municipalities are three cities _ Minami-Soma, Tamura and Iwaki _ eight towns and villages in Futaba County _Namie, Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, Naraha, Hirono, Katsurao and Kawauchi _ and Kawamata and Iitate, all in Fukushima Prefecture.
These municipalities are in the no-entry, emergency evacuation preparation or expanded evacuation zones around the nuclear plant, which suffered meltdowns soon after the March 11 disaster.
Tokyo Electric Power Company TEPCO released the first pictures of the interior of the number 2 reactor containment vessel at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The images, taken on Jan. 19 using an industrial endoscope working on the same principle as those used for medical examinations, showed no apparent damage to piping. But it did show paintwork peeling, probably caused by the extreme temperature and humidity inside the vessel.
The images were blurred, partly as a result of the high humidity inside the vessel, and were also affected by visual noise, which may be due to the high level of radiation inside the vessel.
Japan says it will soon require atomic reactors to be shut down after 40 years of use to improve safety following the nuclear crisis set off by last years tsunami.
Concern about aging reactors has been growing because the three units at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan that went into meltdown following the tsunami in March were built starting in 1967. Among other reactors at least 40 years old are those at the Tsuruga and Mihama plants in central Japan, which were built starting in 1970.
Many more of the 54 reactors in Japan will reach the 40-year mark in the near future, though some were built only a few years ago.
Japan’s prime minister pledged Wednesday in his traditional new year’s press conference to bring “rebirth” to the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said authorities would work to decontaminate the region from radioactive fallout, while ensuring compensation and health checks for those affected by the disaster.
( Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press ) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda smiles during his first news conference of the year at his official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012.
“These three pillars will bring the rebirth of Fukushima,” he said. Noda gave no timeframe, and government officials have said it may be years or even decades before many of the 100,000 residents displaced by the disaster can return.