The following news summaries are by Jeff Durbin. They are based mainly on information taken from The Asahi Evening News (AEN), The Daily Yomiuri (DY), and The Japan Times (JT).
The third driest autumn of the century in the Tone River watershed and increased water consumption have lowered reservoirs that supply Tokyo. Other dry areas of the country face possible water shortages. Snowmelt usually doesn't fill the Tone reservoirs until late March. Households nationally use more water than ten years ago, and in a 1994 government survey, 35 percent responded that they use "an abundant amount of water." (DY 1 Feb)
Japan Nuclear Fuel, the operator of the Rokkasho nuclear facility in Aomori Prefecture, will have to reduce plant capacity because of financial problems. Only one of two projected plutonium reprocessing systems, designed to be a major source of plutonium for Japan's nuclear reactors, will be built. The second component of the facility is a storage center for both low-level and high-level waste. As a result of the changes, Rokkasho will open several years later than the planned 2000. Originally priced at 840 billion yen, the Rokkasho facility will actually cost at least 2 trillion yen. In a January 30 news conference, Japan Nuclear Fuel cited the high cost of safety measures against earthquakes and plane crashes, as well as increased costs for building materials and labor. Japan Nuclear Fuel is a joint company formed by Japan's nine electric power companies. (AEN 23 Jan, JT 2 Feb)
The governor of Aomori Prefecture, Kimura Morio, told the Ministry of International Trade and Industry that the prefecture is willing to host an experimental nuclear reactor. The reactor is a joint project of Japan, the U.S., and members of the European Union. (DY 2 Feb)
The Transport Ministry will decide on a proposal by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to build an airport on Ani Island, 1000 km south of Tokyo. The Environment Agency argues that the project will damage important flora and fauna, including coral, and in January sent a letter of opposition to the Tokyo government. Tokyo, however, says almost one year passed between its airport announcement and receipt of the letter. The 30-island Ogasawara chain is under Tokyo jurisdiction, and according to the Metropolitan Government, island residents want an airport to replace the 29-hour ferry trip to Honshu. (JT 3 Feb)
The U.N.'s International Environmental Technology Center in Osaka has debuted a site on the World Wide Web. It provides assistance in environmentally sound technologies in order to help developing countries with their urban and water quality problems. The address is <http://www.unep.or.jp/>. The phone number of the Center is (06) 915-4580. (JT 3 Feb)
In Hiroshima, a 10-person international panel of radiation experts met for the first time. In July it will issue its assessment of radiation effects on atomic bomb survivors, based on research of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. (DY 6 Feb)
Beginning in April, water from Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan, will supply residents of Tokyo, Ibaraki, and Chiba prefectures. Formerly a saltwater-freshwater mix, the lake has been cut off from ocean tides entering the Tone River since the Hitachi locks shut in 1974. The locks were supposed to be closed only during flooding, and Iijima Hiroshi of the Citizens for the Improvement of Lake Kasumigaura claims, "It is obvious that the Construction Ministry closed the gates in order to make the lake a huge reservoir." Concrete embankments built between 1971 and 1994 have eliminated most of the lakeside aquatic vegetation. The lake level can now be raised or lowered by as much as 1.3 meters; since the average lake depth is only 4 meters, shore wetlands where birds and fish lay eggs may be left high and dry. The greatest discharges are slated for April and May, during breeding seasons. Already fish numbers are declining due to eutrophication (less oxygen in the water) and shrinking lakeshore habitat. Currently the lake supports 94 species of birds, 50 species of fish, and over 450 species of plants. Because the project was designed in 1968, before regulations were in place, there has never been an environmental impact study. The Construction Ministry says "we will regularly monitor the lake's environment." (DY 3/10 Feb)
More than 30 years after an arsenic mine in Takachiho was closed, samples from water originating at the mine show arsenic levels as high as 8 times the acceptable limit. Local authorities hope to seal the source of contamination. Farmers are still permitted to use the water, as there are no standards for arsenic in farm products. The Toroku mine opened in 1920 and produced arsenic acid for poison gas. It later compensated victims of chronic arsenic poisoning. Eighty people have died. (JT 14 Feb)
Kagoshima will spend 90 million yen to buy the 5.3 hectare, uninhabited Okikojima Island, in Kagoshima Bay just one kilometer south of Sakurajima volcano. The municipal government foresees using the island for camping and other outdoor activities. (JT 15 Feb)
Japan has run into opposition from South Korea and China over its plans to enforce a 200-mile exclusive economic zone surrounding its territory. Under the 1994 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations of the world must delineate their coastal waters with a 12-mile wide territorial boundary, and a 200-mile wide zone in which they shall have rights over the natural resources, both living and non-living. South Korea claims that a small island group (Takeshima to Japan, Tokdo to Korea) in the Sea of Japan is Korean, while Japan says it belongs to Japan. At stake is not the tiny islands themselves, but the fishing and other privileges within the economic zone surrounding them. Japan and China have a similar dispute over the Senkaku-Daioyu islands. Those islands lie closer to Japan, but China claims them under a provision of the U.N. Convention that allows a nation the right to its continental shelf. The dispute with Korea has escalated into a major political issue. (JT 15 Feb)
After tests in which wind power generated electricity for 12 yen per kilowatt hour, Okinawa Electric Power Co. may replace diesel generators on remote islands in the prefecture. The cost of diesel power is 40 yen per kilowatt hour. (JT 18 Feb)
Environment Minister Iwatare Sukio turned down an invitation to judge for himself the situation at the 7-month old Nagara River dam. A group opposed to the dam contends that the dam has already degraded water quality. The group, composed of environmental activists and Diet members, says that eutrophication has begun, a process which depletes the oxygen available in the water, and that an endangered fish species, "satsuki masu," is having trouble entering the river. The river is being monitored by a panel set up by the Construction Ministry. Minister Iwatare says he will first study the panel's report before acting. (JT 23/24 Feb)
Since December 8, when the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture leaked an estimated two to three tons of liquid sodium coolant, scientists and administrators from the national government and from Donen, the semi-governmental corporation that operates the plant, have been busy dealing with the repercussions.
Within the plant, the first step was to remove the sodium, which even after the initial leak continued to react with the air (AEN 14 Dec). Then work commenced to strengthen all pipes and thermometer assemblies (DY 28 Jan). At the same time, engineers continued searching for the small piece of steel from a thermometer casing that had broken in the accident (DY 30 Jan). On February 7, plant workers started to remove the section of pipe where the leak probably occurred. The pipe was sealed off to prevent any sodium inside from reacting with the air (JT 8 Feb). Two days later, engineers removed both the broken-off thermometer casing and the sensor itself, which had been bent back at a 45-degree angle due to the force of the leaking sodium (DY 10 Feb).
At the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute in Ibaraki Prefecture, investigators from the Nuclear Safety Commission examined the thermometer assembly and concluded that it cracked because of metal fatigue brought on by high-frequency vibrations (JT 16 Feb).
At about the same time, on February 15, Donen attempted a re-enactment of the accident, using a deliberately broken temperature sensor positioned in the same way as in the actual accident. Sodium leaked through the sensor, and caught fire when it reached the outside air. After the test, an engineer, referring to Monju, said, "We should have stopped the operation of the reactor sooner" (JT 17 Feb).
Finally, on February 19, the Science and Technology Agency confirmed that the temperature sensor had broken due to metal fatigue. Scientists speculated that the flow of sodium caused the sensor and its casing to oscillate at the same rate, thus increasing the strain on the metal (DY 21 Feb).
Meanwhile, outside the realm of nuclear engineering, the Monju shutdown made waves. The Fukui District Court, along with plaintiffs and defendants, visited the reactor to gather information for a lawsuit filed by a citizens' group that is trying to close down Monju (DY 26 Jan). In addition, four Donen executives may face criminal charges for falsely reporting the circumstances of the sodium leak, including tampering with video records. Public prosecutors in Fukui must decide whether to take up the case (DY 22/24 Feb).
As for assessing blame, a task force of the Science and Technology Agency said the reactor should have been shut down immediately after a fire alarm and detector indicated that a leak had taken place. Instead, operators waited over an hour. The task force also concluded that operators had not received enough emergency training (JT 11 Feb).
The Monju accident has raised doubts about the direction Japan's nuclear program will take. For now, governors from Fukui, Niigata, and Fukushima Prefectures have objected to using plutonium-burning light-water reactors, and consequently the plutonium which was to have been produced by Monju may have no market (AEN 24 Jan).
Hatahata fish, a popular and formerly-abundant foodsource in the Sea of Japan, have recovered only slightly after Akita Prefecture removed a 3-year fishing ban last fall. The prefecture estimated that in Akita's coastal waters there are now 140 tons of the fish, double the amount of 1992. In previous decades, however, annual catches exceeded 10,000 tons. The local government says the decline is part of a natural population cycle; it is now raising hatahata in hatcheries. Others say that the decline is caused by artificial coastlines and industry. In several locations, coastal development coincides with shrinking hatahata populations. The fish prefers seaweed-rich shallow breeding waters. Less than 50 percent of Akita's shoreline is natural. (JT 25 Feb)
Tree-cutting along Hokkaido's Yurappu River has threatened Japan's last salmon-spawning river, and fishery officials are responding by planting alders and willows on its banks. The 28-kilometer long, free-flowing Yurappu empties into Uchiura Bay in western Hokkaido. The river is also home to over 150 bird species and 33 species of fish. The trees are crucial for controlling erosion and water temperature, and supporting the insect populations that the salmon depend on. (AEN 26 Feb)
Conservation groups will ask Itabashi Ward in Tokyo to protect an area on the bank of the Arakawa River which is slated for development. The Construction Ministry, with various neighboring wards and cities, plans to build baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and a greenbelt there. Since the land was cleared two years ago in advance of construction, wild grasses and reeds have sprung up and attracted more than 50 species of birds, including several raptor species. An estimated seven short-eared owls (komimizuku, Asio flammeus) have wintered there this year, which is highly unusual for Tokyo. The conservationists will call for a government-sponsored conference to reconsider construction plans. (DY 26 Feb)
Shiga Prefecture has proposed two bylaws that could take effect this summer, but the prefectural assembly must first vote to enact them. One would give the public a voice if it objects to a public works project for environmental reasons. A committee of experts would examine the project and advise the governor. No such system currently exists in Japan. The other bylaw would tighten a previous one by requiring companies that discharge more than 10 tons of waste per day to meet stricter standards. If passed, this would be the strongest regulation in Japan. (DY 27 Feb)
Donen, the semi-governmental corporation that runs the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, has outlined mistakes it made following the December 8 accident and shutdown. Donen said Monju operators showed poor judgement, and manuals were confusing. It admitted wrong in altering videotapes, and will set up a panel to suggest reforms (JT 29 Feb). According to officials in Fukui Prefecture, operators at Monju were not trained to deal with the type of accident that occurred. They were prepared for the equivalent of "a high-speed car crash," said one official, but not for "accidents that occur at low speeds." Thus, the reactor was not shut down until more than one hour had elapsed, and the air conditioning system stayed on for three hours, which caused sodium compounds to leak over a large area. Operators observed temperature fluctuations in the sodium coolant between 200 and 600 degrees, but had no safety guidelines to help them respond (AEN 29 Feb).