(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

Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s Finance Minister, was elected President of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). He is expected to be confirmed at Prime Minister later this week. Noda campaigned on re-establishing party unity, and said he will offer key positions to lawmakers supported by DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, even though Ozawa supported Noda’s main rival, Banri Kaieda, in the election. The new leadership may be announced as early as Tuesday.

Banri Kaieda, Industry Minister in charge of the nuclear crisis, said that nuclear power plants currently waiting to undergo stress tests might go back online before the end of the year. Kaieda ran against Noda in the DPJ election, but lost, and will resign along with the rest of the current Cabinet this week. Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission has said that the stress tests could take several months and has not given a firm date for restarting reactors.

The panel investigating the Fukushima crisis has decided that in the future, power companies will need to take steps to prevent nuclear accidents. Previously, acting on an assumption that large-scale nuclear disasters could not happen, the government allowed utilities to make their own decisions about whether to put such precautions into place.

TEPCO

Tokyo Elecltric Power (TEPCO) has negotiated with the Japanese government to lift the mandatory reduction in power imposed on large power users. For TEPCO coverage areas, the ban will be lifted on September 9, 11 days ahead of schedule. For some areas of Japan, it will be lifted on September 2, 2011. TEPCO says that maximum power usage is less than what was originally forecast this spring, when the government ruled that large power consumers reduce consumption by 15% over the summer months.

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) officials criticized TEPCO’s admission that it knew for years that a tsunami greater than 10km was possible near the Fukushima Daiichi plant, yet did nothing to upgrade the plant’s safety features. NISA asserts that when TEPCO finally informed NISA officials of the risk, those officials said that the company needed to “take measures to safeguard the plant’s equipment.” TEPCO contests that claim.

TEPCO will raise its rates by 10% as a result of the nuclear disaster, because it said that thermal power costs more than nuclear energy.

Power Company Scandals

Hokkaido Electric admitted this week that it had urged employees to influence public opinion in favor of using MOX fuel at the company’s Tomari plant. This is the third power company involved in scandals to manipulate popular approval for nuclear power. The company said it would investigate.

State of the Reactors/Cooling Efforts

TEPCO has found additional evidence that the hydrogen explosion in Reactor 4 was caused by steam and hydrogen that leaked through pipes from Reactor 3.

Evacuation

For the first time since the March disaster, residents from within 3 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi plant were allowed to return to their homes this week for approximately two hours to collect personal belongings. Those entering the zone were bused in after donning suits to protect them from high radiation, which continues to plague the area.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) is creating a new system for creating evacuation zones in the event of a nuclear disaster. Previously, evacuation zones were determined by the amount of radiation released, a process that can be time-consuming. The new plan says that evacuation will take place immediately, without waiting for data to be evaluated, and will be determined by the size and number of reactors involved.

Contamination (including human exposure)

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 released into the air as a result of the Fukushima crisis is equal to 168 Hiroshima bombs. So far, the Fukushima Daiichi plant has released 15,000 terabecquerels; the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima released 89 terabecquerels. Cesium-137 remains in the body for decades and causes cancer.

Equipment needed to detect radiation in food is in short supply in Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures, raising concerns among both producers and consumers that food supplies will not be adequately protected. Pressure is mounting as beef and rice farmers are competing to get their products tested. Fukushima Prefecture is scheduled to install six new detectors in September, six months after the disaster, in an effort to protect consumer safety “as soon as possible,” according to a prefecture official. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has criticized blanket testing of beef, saying the practice is contributing to the backlog of samples requiring testing.

The government has released a map showing several areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant that exceed IAEA emergency levels. In Okuma, radiation readings measured 29.46 million Becquerels per one square meter.

The Agricultural Ministry has released a map of radiation levels in Japanese farmland. Samples were taken from 580 areas in six prefectures; in nine spots, cesium exceeded 5,000Bq/kg. Areas in Fukushima and Namie measured over 20,000 Bq/kg. The Ministry will increase monitoring in these areas.

Greenpeace announced that in spite of efforts to decontaminate them, two day care centers and a high school 60 km away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant have radiation levels 70 times higher than international standards allow, and in some cases, exceed Japan’s own standards, which are more lax. Measurements were taken August 17-19, 2011. Fukushima City officials said the schools are safe and refused to delay their opening. In spite of that, many parents have removed their children from schools in the prefecture.

Radioactive ash has begun to accumulate in seven prefectures across Japan, as the government tries to decide what to do with it. Ash that measures 8,000 Bq/kg or less of cesium can be buried provided there are no houses nearby, but more radioactive ash must be temporarily stored until the Environment Ministry decides how to handle it. Ash in Fukushima Prefecture has measured over 93,000 Bq/kg.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has asked the Governor of Fukushima Prefecture to temporarily store highly radioactive soil and debris for an unspecified period of time, until the government determines how to dispose of it. Governor Sato was not pleased with the request.

Meanwhile, some residents of towns located near the Fukushima Daiichi plant are considering allowing them to be used to store nuclear waste, since they are now uninhabitable. The waste is so radioactive that standing near it for less than 20 seconds would prove fatal, and Japan is having a difficult time finding storage space for it.

Beef Crisis

Cattle shipments have resumed across Japan after a ban on shipments was lifted, and the government said that testing methods have been put into place. In Iwate and Tochigi Prefectures, any cows that were fed rice-straw will be tested. For farms that used other feed, one cow per farm will be tested every three months. In Fukushima, all cows from farms within 30 kilometers will be tested, as will those that were fed rice-straw. All other farms will send one cow to be tested every three months. Critics say that current testing methods are not strict enough, and raise concerns about radioactive hot spots. They point out that radiation is not distributed equally in concentric circles.

Rice Crisis

For the first time, low levels of cesium were detected in raw rice harvested in Fukushima Prefecture, 60 kilometers from the Daiichi plant. The rice measured 22 Bq/kg; the government limit allows 500 Bq/kg. Other early-harvested rice was radiation-free, and was shipped.

Other Nuclear News

The University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute said that the risk of a large-scale earthquake below Tokyo has risen considerably since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Since the March earthquake, pressure beneath tectonic plates has changed, which could cause a massive quake. Since then, the number of earthquakes measuring 3.0 or larger in magnitude has also risen dramatically.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced that France supports an international nuclear crisis center that would provide technical support for large-scale nuclear disasters, such as that which occurred in Fukushima. It also wants an international nuclear crisis training center and “convergence” on safety standards.

Kansai Electric announced that the July shutdown of its Oi Plant in Fukui Prefecture was caused by a scratched safety valve, which was used to release pressure for emergency cooling.

For the first time since the March earthquake and tsunami, workers entered the containment vessel of the Fukushima Daini (not to be confused with Daiichi) Reactor 4 this week to inspect for damage.