Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

For the first time, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) will include funding in its fiscal year 2013 annual budget to study the implications of disposing of spent nuclear fuel by burying it. The move is significant; up until now, the nuclear power industry has insisted that reprocessing spent fuel was the best way to deal with the highly radioactive waste. However, as the nation examines its relationship with nuclear power, approximately 70% of the population supports complete eradication of nuclear power by 2030, which would render spent fuel useless. The government is exploring burying the fuel even if it eventually decides to depend on 15% or 20-25% nuclear power by 2030. Originally, the nuclear industry planned to send all spent fuel to the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture as a key cog in the nuclear fuel cycle. However, efforts to reprocess the fuel there have been an abject failure, forcing Japan to store the fuel or send it to other countries for reprocessing.

Prosecutors from the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office have launched a criminal investigation into Shunsuke Kondo, Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEC), Tatsujiro Suzuki, JAEC Vice-Chair, and 25 other JAEC members in response to allegations that they leaked 364 pages of confidential documents to members of the nuclear power industry during secret closed-door “study sessions” last year. Prosecutors are charging that the move allowed the nuclear industry to significantly influence the nation’s nuclear power policy, including decisions about how to handle spent fuel. If found guilty, the officials would be in violation of Japan’s National Public Service Law.

Reactor #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture began commercial operations this week. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered its restart in July in spite of widespread public opposition and massive protests in the nation’s capital. Kansai Electric, which operates the Oi power plant, said it plans to run the reactor for 13 months, the legal limit in Japan before safety checks are required. At the same time, experts are warning that the plant may lie on an active fault and could be in danger of experiencing a massive earthquake. Kansai is examining seismic risk and will submit a report to the government by the end of this year.

In spite of the fact that a large percentage of victims from the Fukushima nuclear disaster have yet to be compensated by TEPCO, Japan has signed a memorandum of understanding with Viet Nam to provide support in developing a nuclear compensation system as it prepares to launch a new nuclear power plant in 2020.

TEPCO

Revelations about the days immediately following last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continue to surface, as reporters sift through over 150 hours of videotape from teleconferences conducted between TEPCO’s head office in Tokyo and the Fukushima plant’s emergency headquarters. Newly released footage shows that TEPCO executives were well aware of the possibility of nuclear meltdown—which eventually occurred in three of four damaged reactors there—although they failed to admit that fact for two months afterward. TEPCO has only released part of the videos, and much of the tape has had the audio portions removed, a move the utility claims is necessary to address “privacy concerns.” The Japan Publishers and Editors Association has condemned TEPCO, which is now under government control, and has called for public release of all available footage.

The videotapes also show that although TEPCO officials attempted to inform the public about an impending hydrogen explosion at reactor #3, they were ordered to remain silent by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The government regulatory agency finally warned the public about the explosion, which spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the environment, just two hours before it occurred and consequently melted down. Video footage shows one unidentified TEPCO executive saying, “We’ve been stopped by the government and are being made to wait before issuing any announcement to the press.” Another advised his colleagues, “NISA officials are blocking any release of information on the matter. The agency’s officials are saying the TEPCO should not be the entity to announce this.”  The agency later said the delay was caused by failure to get approval from a chief. NISA operates under the auspices of METI, which promotes nuclear power, a relationship that analysts have long criticized for its inherent conflicts of interest.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO announced this week yet another leak of radioactive water in reactor #4 at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as a fire in a storeroom. Utility officials said that the contaminated water contained 77,000 Bq/milliliter of radioactive cesium and measured one centimeter deep over 350 square meters. The fire originated in a storeroom pump where filtering equipment is stored, and was extinguished by employees. TEPCO claims that no radiation leaked into the environment during either incident.  However, the incidents show the ongoing precarious state of the Fukushima reactors, where three nuclear meltdowns occurred over 17 months ago.  (Source: NHK)

Worker Safety

Safety and well being of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues to be scrutinized after recent revelations that TEPCO’s failure to monitor workers’ radiation exposure may be more widespread than previously thought. Experts warn that compliance may be difficult. TEPCO conducts inspections at the main gate, a practice that doesn’t preclude workers worried about exceeding legal exposure limits from hiding their dosimeters onsite. Subcontractors, who often have short-term contracts, are not guaranteed other, less dangerous work, and are in danger of losing their jobs if they exceed annual exposure limits. Many cannot afford to lose their livelihoods. Workers admit that detecting the dosimeters, which are worn close to the body and beneath protective gear, is very difficult. “I cannot tell the difference between a dosimeter, a pack of cigarettes, or a mobile phone,” said one worker who conducts dosimeter checks onsite. In addition, TEPCO allows supervisors to pick up dosimeters for their entire crew, rather than distributing them individually, thereby making regulation more difficult. TEPCO told NISA that it will conduct spot checks of workers onsite, although gave no details regarding how often the checks would take place or whether they would also apply to contract and subcontract workers. The utility will also provide protective suits with clear panels that make dosimeters easier to detect.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and conducted by Jun Shigemura at the National Defense Medical College and Takeshi Tanigawa at Ehime University shows that 46% of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant experienced high levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their work to bring the damaged reactors under control. Much of the trauma occurred as a result of stigma of working for TEPCO, once considered a prestigious job. Experts say that many people direct high levels of resentment toward TEPCO at the workers, some of whom have even been physically assaulted or had their homes vandalized. Eighty-five percent of the plant’s 1,760 workers responded to the survey. Researchers said that workers may suffer from alcoholism and depression and should seek professional counseling.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

A new study of adults and children in the town of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture says that radiation exposure levels are lower than those received by victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. However, experts point out that the study only looked at internal radiation levels and failed to measure external ones. Stuart Gilmour of the University of Tokyo, a coauthor of the study, noted, “External exposure could be as much as or more than our measured internal exposure, but it is difficult to quantify because it can vary greatly even in small areas.” In addition, the study examined radioactive cesium contamination, but ignored exposure to radioactive iodine, which has been shown to cause thyroid cancer. Children are especially susceptible, and often, thyroid cancer does not emerge for many years. The study was conducted six months after the meltdowns occurred, when measurable evidence of iodine may have left the body.

New research published in the journal Nature showing irreversible genetic mutations in butterflies in Japan as a result of radiation exposure from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including dented eyes, deformed legs and antennae, stunted wings, and shortened lifespans, is raising concerns that not enough is known about the long term effects of radiation on humans. Scientists say that more studies are needed. Lead author Joji Otaki, of the University of the Ryukyus, noted, “Our findings suggest that the contaminants are causing ecological damage. I do not know its implications to humans.” The report itself cautions, "No case of acute health problems has been reported so far; however, assessment of the long-term effect of radiation requires ongoing monitoring of exposure and the health conditions of the affected communities.” Tim Mousseau, a nuclear expert from the University of South Carolina, said about the study, “Scientists have long known that radiation can be hazardous to human and animal health. Studies of this sort at Fukushima and Chernobyl provide invaluable information concerning just how hazardous radioactive contaminants could be for human populations living in these areas in the future. Butterflies as a group are important bio-indicators for the effects of environmental stressors like radioactive contaminants.”

Takayuki Takahashi, a professor from the University of Fukushima, plans to create a radiation map of the forests of Fukushima Prefecture by attaching dosimeters and GPS units to the necks of wild monkeys who roam the forests. The GPS units will later be detached electronically and collected by researchers. Over 70% of forests in Fukushima are contaminated by radioactive material. Takahashi eventually hopes to expand his study using wild boars and dogs.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Japan’s Environment Ministry is conducting a decontamination verification project with 22 companies who submitted proposals to decontaminate an estimated 150 million to 280 million cubic meters of radioactive soil in Fukushima Prefecture. The government is trying to reduce contamination levels in eleven municipalities to 20 millisieverts per year or less, while simultaneously reducing the massive amounts of waste of which it will need to dispose.