East Asia Theater
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).
Japanese industry minister Yukio Edano on Jan. 20 promised the mayor of a city where gravel apparently contaminated in the Fukushima nuclear disaster was used for building material that he will instruct Tokyo Electric Power Co. to pay compensation for related damage. Radioactive gravel is believed to be responsible for high radiation readings in a new apartment complex in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture. The contamination was first discovered when dosimeter readings of children in the city revealed that a high school student had been exposed to 1.62 millisieverts in a span of three months—well above the government's annual 1 millisievert safety limit. Investigations traced the radiation back to the student’s three-story apartment building, where officials detected radioactive cesium inside the concrete. The gravel used in the cement came from a quarry in Namie, a town within the 12-mile evacuation zone instated in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last March. Investigators found that some 5,200 metric tons of gravel from Namie was likely shipped to over 200 companies, making its way into apartment buildings, schools, bridges, and possibly temporary homes for Fukushima evacuees. A dozen families live in the tainted Nihonmatsu apartment complex, which was built six months ago. (Kyodo, Jan. 20; ABC News, Jan. 16; Mainichi Daily News Jan. 6)
The Chinese government's new white paper outlining its plans for the next five years in space mentions not only launching new orbiting laboratories, and manned mission to dock with its current orbiting lab, the Tiangong-1—but also actually placing a human being on the Moon, although it does not give a projected date for this goal. China has already successfully launched two lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010. For its next phase, China plans to put rovers on the Moon to collect samples by 2016. A new launch center is under construction in Hainan, and upgrades are underway at the three existing launch sites in Jiuquan (Gansu province), Xichang (Sichuan) and Taiyuan (Shanxi). The white paper also outlines ambitions for 24-hour continuous, high-resolution surveillance of the Earth—which if realized, would put China on a level with the United States in this field. The white paper emphasizes that the People's Republic "opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space." (Sapa-AFP, Jan. 7; Forbes, Dec. 30; Xinhua, NYT, Dec. 29)
North Korea's leadership is moving efficiently to portray Kim Jong-un, chosen heir of his late father, as the country's unchallenged ruler, with state TV repeatedly broadcasting images of senior military leaders pledging fealty to the son. The military is on alert amid a choreographed spectacle of thousands of mourners filling the cold streets of Pyongyang. The border with China—North Korea's only real link to the outside world—has been sealed. While the order for the military alert was officially issued by Kim Jong-un, it is expected that the top generals will actually rule as a sort of regency in the transition period. (Kim Jong-il himself, selected as Kim Il-sung's successor in the 1970s, did not officially assume power until three years after the death of his father in 1994. Kim Jong-il's leadership saw the most difficult times in North Korea since the Korean War, with a great famine known in the North as the "arduous march" claiming perhaps 2 million lives in the mid-1990s.) Some observers point to Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek as a "technocrat" who will wield real power in the transition—and perhaps seek to open the country. Inevitably drawing a comparison to Deng Xiaoping, it is pointed out he was purged in 2004 only to be restored to the ruling elite 18 months later—and to become the key figure in the de facto caretaker government after Kim Jong-il first suffered a serious stroke in August 2008. (NYT, NYT, WSJ, Dec. 21; National Post, Dec. 20; Korea Policy Institute, Dec. 19)
Even as villagers at Wukan in China's Guangdong province announced an agreement to negotiate with authorities and began dismantling their barricades after a 10-day stand-off on Dec. 20, clashes were reported between security forces and thousands of protesting residents at Haimen, an industrial city about 100 kilometers up the coast in Shantou prefecture. The protests were sparked by plans to build a coal-burning power plant in an area where numerous factories have already polluted local waters and harmed the fishing economy. Protesters reportedly surrounded a government building and blocked an expressway before police used tear-gas and batons to clear them. Online accounts of the incident said hundreds were savagely beaten, and that two people were killed. Authorities denied any deaths in the incident. (FT, Reuters, McClatchy, Dec. 21; AGI, Dec. 20)
Security forces have since Dec. 11 blocked roads leading to the village of Wukan, in China's Guangdong province, after residents chased out police. Residents have gathered in the center of the village, the scene of a peasant protest movement over a land grab by local officials. They are demanding negotiations with the central government to resolve the dispute. Chinese authorities have again resorted to pre-emptive electronic action, blocking Internet searches for "Wukan." Users of micro-blogging site Sina Weibo say searches for "Wukan" returns a message reading: "According to relevant law, regulations and policies, search results for Wukan cannot be displayed."
In a frightening development that has received appallingly little coverage in English, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) released the results of a study Nov. 30 finding that melted fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor has nearly reached the bottom steel wall under the concrete at the base of the containment structure. TEPCO estimates the fuel rods have already melted through the concrete base of the reactor container by up to 65 centimeters. If the melt-through continues another 37 centimeters, it will reach the steel wall. If it melts through that, it will be released into the soil, and likely the groundwater.
Waves of wildcat strikes continue to spread across China's industrial heartland. More than 200 workers at a Singapore-owned electronics plant in Shanghai remained on strike for a third day Dec. 2 to protest a management plan for mass layoffs and a plant relocation. Blue-jacketed workers, chanting slogans and holding banners demanding management accountability, blocked the entrance to the factory owned by Hi-P International, whose customers include Apple and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. (Reuters, Dec. 2)