Japan to be nuclear-free by April

Japan's last nuclear power plant will close in April as reactors are shut for safety checks. Chugoku Electric Power Co. (CEPCO) shut the No. 2 reactor at its Shimane nuclear station Jan. 25, leaving only 6.4% of Japan’s 48,960 megawatts of nuclear capacity on-line. The No. 5 unit at Kashiwazaki Kariwa station, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) was idled on Jan. 25. The remaining three reactors there are due to go off-line for regular checks during the next three months. The No. 5 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture was also suspended for scheduled checkups, leaving only one out of a total of 17 reactors run by TEPCO in service. All 17 reactors will go offline by the end of March. Among Japan's 54 commercial reactors, only two others are currently in operation—the No. 3 reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido, the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama plant in Fukui prefecture (Chūbu region).

Meanwhile, the mayor of Hakodate on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, Toshiki Kudo, called on the Industry Ministry and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to indefinitely freeze a project to build a nuclear plant in the town of Oma in Aomori prefecture, just across the Strait of Tsugaru on the northern tip of Honshu. (Bloomberg, Jan. 26; Kyodo, Jan. 25)

TEPCO plans to spend about 1 trillion yen in the first 10 years of the decades-long process toward scrapping the crippled reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, according to an estimate drawn up by the utility and the state-backed Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, created to bail out the industry following the disaster. (Kyodo, Jan. 27)

See our last posts on Japan and the nuclear threat.

Bird life takes hit in Fukushima disaster: study

Take your "safe nuclear power" and shove it, techno-geeks. No really, we mean that. From The Independent, Feb. 3:

Bird numbers plummet around stricken Fukushima plant
Researchers working around Japan's disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant say bird populations there have begun to dwindle, in what may be a chilling harbinger of the impact of radioactive fallout on local life.

In the first major study of the impact of the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, the researchers, from Japan, the US and Denmark, said their analysis of 14 species of bird common to Fukushima and Chernobyl, the Ukrainian city which suffered a similar nuclear meltdown, showed the effect on abundance is worse in the Japanese disaster zone.

The study, published next week in the journal Environmental Pollution, suggests that its findings demonstrate "an immediate negative consequence of radiation for birds during the main breeding season [of] March [to] July".

Japan: thousands march against nuclear power

Thousands marched in Tokyo Feb. 11, demanding that Japan's idled nuclear reactors stay shut. Protesters gathered at the city's Yoyogi Park for a rally, where speakers included Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe. The banner above the stage read, "Goodbye to nuclear power, call for 10 million people to act." (AP, March 11)

Tokyo evacuation broached during Fukushima disaster

A chilling report from the New York Times, Feb. 27:

Nuclear Crisis Set Off Fears Over Tokyo, Report Says
TOKYO — 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, offered 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 massive earthquake and tsunami last March 11 that shut down the plant’s cooling systems.

The team conducted interviews with 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 Asahi Shimbun, is one of Japan’s most respected public intellectuals.

An advanced copy of the report describes how Japan’s response was hindered at times by a debilitating breakdown in trust between the major actors: Mr. Kan; the Tokyo headquarters of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco; and the manager at the stricken plant. The conflicts produced confused flows of sometimes contradictory information in the early days of the crisis, the report said.

It described frantic phone calls by the manager, Masao Yoshida, to top officials in the Kan government arguing that he could get the plant under control if he could keep his staff in place, while at the same time ignoring orders from Tepco’s headquarters not to use sea water to cool the overheating reactors. By contrast, Mr. Funabashi said in an interview, Tepco's president, Masataka Shimizu, was making competing calls to the prime minister’s office saying the company should evacuate all of its staff, a step that could have been catastrophic.

The 400-page report, due to be released later this week, also described a darkening mood at the prime minister’s residence as a series of hydrogen explosions rocked the plant on March 14 and 15. It said Mr. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would allow the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns.

The report quoted the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that this "demonic chain reaction" of plant meltdowns could have resulted in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south.

"We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai," Mr. Edano was quoted as saying, naming two other nuclear plants. "If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself."

The edge is always closer than it looks...

Fukushima operator seeks $12 billion bail-out

From Reuters, March 29:

Tokyo Electric Power Co has asked the government for an injection of 1 trillion yen ($12 billion) in what would be Japan's biggest public bailout outside the banking sector, as it struggles with the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The utility, widely known as Tepco, said on Thursday it had also sought 845.9 billion yen from a government-backed bailout body to help compensate victims of the tsunami-triggered accident - the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years. Without the bailout, which must be approved by Trade Minister Yukio Edano, Tepco—which supplies electricity to 45 million people in and around Tokyo—could face insolvency, which in turn would mean massive losses for its lenders and bondholders.

Is it possible to imagine a disaster of such magnitude from solar power? Tell us again how nuclear power is viable, you hubristic geeks...

Japan shuts last nuclear reactor

And keep 'em shut. From the Washington Post, May 4:

Japan's last reactor to shut down, leaving country nuclear-free for first time since 1966
Japan will power down its last operating nuclear reactor this weekend, finalizing the country's sudden turn away from a once-preferred energy source and leaving it nuclear-free for the first time since 1966.

On Saturday, at the Tomari atomic power plant in Hokkaido, engineers will begin work to shut down the No. 3 reactor, which is due for its regular maintenance checkup. By Sunday, the unit will officially come offline, the plant operator said.

The break from nuclear power is less a matter of policy than political paralysis. Japan's central government has recommitted to nuclear power in the wake of last year’s triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, but those authorities have not convinced host communities and provincial governors that nuclear power is necessary—or that a