(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

Newly elected DPJ President Yoshihiko Noda was named Prime Minister by the Japanese Diet this week. Noda is expected to announce his new cabinet on Friday. In keeping with his promise to unify the party, Noda has promised to seek permission from the Chair of the DPJ’s Policy Research Committee, Saeji Maehara, before making major decisions.
 
In a departure from former Prime Minster Naoto Kan, Noda has said that idled nuclear plants will likely have to be restarted, assuming that they pass stress tests, but admitted that no new plants are likely to be built in Japan. As former Finance Minister, he is expected to wrestle between concerns about nuclear safety and a desire to avoid power shortages in order to maintain a stable economy. Noda has also shown interest in solar and wind power.

A new government study shows that the cost of nuclear power is at least 30% higher than 2004 estimates, which have been used over the past seven years. If compensation and cleanup costs from the Fukushima disaster are factored in, the cost increases to 50% over the previous estimates. The study is expected to elicit a lot of debate over the overall value of nuclear power.

Kyushu Electric shut down the number 2 reactor at its Sendai plant for scheduled maintenance, bringing the percentage of closed reactors in Japan to 80%. 42 of 54 reactors across the country are now shut down. Because of local concern about safety issues, it is unclear when or if they will be restarted.

TEPCO

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has announced plans to build an 800 meter-long underground steel barrier, which will prevent contamination of groundwater from leaking facilities at the plant. The barrier will be between 600 and 700 meters deep, and have a life span of approximately 30 years. Construction will begin in October and be completed within two years.

Geological evidence suggests that there are five active faults near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In addition, there are nine faults near nuclear plants in Ibaraki Prefecture. The Japanese government has urged utilities to examine faults near plants to determine risk of large earthquakes. TEPCO said it will continue to investigate.

State of the Reactors/Cooling Efforts

TEPCO unveiled preliminary plans to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi reactors this week, but admitted that they do not yet know how to deal with the damaged containment vessels. Company officials hope to follow the Three Mile Island model, which involved filling the containment vessels with water to help block radiation, and then removing the fuel. However, the Fukushima vessels are damaged and will need to be repaired before the process begins, in order to prevent leakage of highly contaminated water. Radiation levels inside and near the vessels are extremely high. Some experts have said the process could take a decade to complete, and will involve the use of robots and other technology not yet invented.

Power Company Scandals

A panel investigating corruption among nuclear power companies has confirmed that Japanese central government officials tried to influence public opinion of nuclear power, by encouraging utility employees to attend public meetings and express support for the issue.

Contamination (including human exposure)

Japan has released a map of soil radiation levels within a 100km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. 34 separate locations measured levels of radioactive cesium-137 that exceeded the evacuation standards used at Chernobyl. The highest levels were measured in Okuma, where caesium was measured at 15.45 million Bq/kg. The half-life of cesium-137 is 30 years.

The Health Ministry of Japan announced that it will lower the radiation limit for workers at TEPCO’s Daiichi plant to 100 millisieverts per year, down from the temporary 250 millisievert limit established after the nuclear disaster in March.

Three workers were exposed to beta radiation this week after being showered with contaminated water after a valve leaked. Last week, three other workers were exposed to radiation while working on a faulty pipe.

TEPCO says three workers who received high doses of radiation while working on a pipe last week ignored dosimeter alarms. Afterward, the men did not immediately report the incident to their supervisors because they were not aware they had exceeded allowable limits. The company admitted that their radiation control manager was not present at the time the incident occurred.

Japan’s Environment Ministry will open a new branch office in Fukushima to focus on disposal of radioactive debris, after a law was passed making the government responsible for such tasks. Approximately 100 people will staff the office.

Schools in Tokyo are banning the use of sandboxes at school playgrounds, or requiring the sand be replaced, after parents expressed concern about radiation exposure. Tokyo is 200 kilometers from the site of the March disaster, but radiation levels in some sandboxes have exceeded those set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

Japan’s Environment Ministry told local municipalities that radioactive ash should be mixed with concrete and stored in waterproof sites. TEPCO will shoulder the costs for the process. The government is under increasing pressure to find permanent storage solutions for radioactive waste.

The Canadian government announced it will test salmon for radiation exposure, expressing concern that salmon from the country’s west coast often migrate to Japanese waters before returning to Canada.

Beef Crisis
 
Fukushima Prefecture officials estimate that 1,000 head of cattle are now running wild throughout the 20 kilometer evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant. Meanwhile, all of the chickens and pigs in the area have starved to death, because farmers were forced to abandon them.

Rice Crisis

Researchers are testing a new decontamination process on rice paddies in Iitate Village. After using a solidifying substance to harden the top 3 cm of soil, it is broken up and vacuumed. Data is being analyzed to determine radioactivity in the remaining soil.
 
Evacuation

Residents from the town of Okuma, which lies within a 3 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, were allowed to briefly return to their homes this week to gather belongings. Last week, residents of nearby Futuba made a similar trip.

Compensation

TEPCO has announced new standards for compensating victims of the March nuclear disaster, covering the period between March 11 and August 31, 2011. Damages (in US dollars) include $65 per evacuation trip, $104 per night lodging, $1,300 per month for emotional distress, medical reimbursement for injuries and illness caused by evacuation and relocation, and reimbursement for loss of income. Fishermen, farmers, and other business owners will also be compensated for loss of business as a result of both damage and fear of contamination. The reimbursement process will start September 12; TEPCO has increased staffing levels to deal with expected deluge of compensation applications.

Meanwhile, the former president of Hitotsubashi University, Takehiko Sugiyama, will lead a government agency created to assist TEPCO with the compensation process.

Farmers from 11 prefectures met with the president of TEPCO to demand compensation for losses from the Fukushima disaster. Damages now total over $750 million, and farmers have complained that the payments, which are doled out every three months, are too infrequent.