(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest news from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will hold its presidential election on August 29, assuming that Prime Minister Naoto Kan resigns by then. Kan has said he will step down once the Diet passes two bills dealing with government bonds and renewable energy, respectively.
A poll, conducted by Japan's Mainichi Daily News, shows that 74% of Japanese people favour a gradual reduction of nuclear energy. Eleven percent favoured an immediate departure from nuclear power. The issue is expected to have an impact on the upcoming DPJ presidential election.
Japan's Cabinet approved a five-year plan outlining the nation's science strategy through 2016; conspicuously, references to nuclear power were removed from an earlier draft. Instead, it stressed the need to develop renewable sources of power.
The chief of Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) admitted this week that the agency was deprived of expert advice immediately following the Fukushima disaster because communication and transportation hurdles prevented it from contacting all but a few of its safety advisors.
Hokkaido Power Company will shut down its Number 2 Tomari reactor on August 26 for routine maintenance. With the shutdown, only 13 of Japan's 54 reactors (26%) will be in operation. The reactor will be shut down for approximately three months. Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) will also shut down one of its reactors in Niiagata Prefecture later this month. An additional 14 reactors are due for annual checks through next spring. If none of the reactors are restarted, all 54 reactors will be down.
Meanwhile, technical difficulties with Japan's thermal power plants have put a strain on the nation's power supply.
Data from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy shows that since 1966, municipalities in Japan have received over 2.6 trillion yen in subsidies from the nuclear power industry. Many governments do not release information on nuclear donations, making the probable overall sum much higher. Subsidies are used to pay for infrastructure, education, and public facilities among other things, and many towns are highly dependent on the revenue. Some have raised concern that if nuclear power is eradicated, local governments will be heavily impacted.
The area within a 3 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant will probably be uninhabitable for decades, according to government sources, and the evacuation ban will not be lifted in that region. Residents will still be allowed to briefly return to their homes this week, but then may never return. Prime Minister Naoto Kan is expected to visit Fukushima this weekend to meet with local authorities and to apologize to them.
State of the Reactors/Cooling Efforts
TEPCO announced that all thermometers in the Number 1 reactor showed that the temperature had dropped below 100ºC. In order to fully achieve cold shutdown status, the company still needs to show it can maintain stable conditions in an emergency. Meanwhile, reactors Number 2 and 3 remain above 100ºC.
A magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures this week; although a tsunami alert was issued, it was later lifted. TEPCO said there was no apparent damage to the plant.
Contamination (including human exposure)
Japan's Science Ministry published a cumulative radiation map showing that one town 3 kilometers southwest of the plant measured 278 mSv of cumulative radiation in just the past five months. The normal annual exposure rate is 1 mSv. The cumulative annual rate is expected to reach more than 500 mSv in some areas. The town of Namie, which is outside of the 20 km evacuation zone, measured 115 mSv since March. The annual exposure rate for Namie is estimated to reach 229 mSv.
Four times the legal level of radioactive caesium was detected this week in a boar captured in Miyagi Prefecture. This marks the first time that a wild bird or animal showed excessive levels of radiation in Miyagi. Local authorities are advising residents to avoid eating wild animals and birds.
More radioactive cows were discovered in Fukushima Prefecture, bringing the count for this week up to 12. Most of the cows came from a farm approximately 10 kilometers from the Daiichi plant, although one was from the so-called outer ring zone, which is 20-30 kilometers away. These cows had not been fed tainted straw. Because of the discovery, Japan reversed its decision to lift the ban on beef shipments.
Fukushima officials expressed concern that the reputation of their food products will suffer further damage, and urged the government to lift the ban.
For the first time since the nuclear crisis began, radioactive caesium was discovered in rice from Hokota City, but the levels were below legal limits and officials say the rice poses no risk to humans. More tests will be conducted after the rice is harvested.
Meanwhile, researchers are studying rice to determine which strains are most resistant to absorbing radioactive caesium from contaminated soil.
Other Nuclear News
Japanese telecommunications company Softbank is setting up a renewable energy fund and has named Tomas Kaberger, former head of the Swedish Energy Agency, as its chair. The entity will enlist researchers from around the world to advise Japan on energy policy.
A pact between Japan and Jordan, which would eventually result in nuclear technology exports, is expected to pass the Diet by the end of the month. If the pact is approved, it will mark the first time that Japan has exported nuclear technology since the March 11 disaster.