(This post is by Christine McCann)
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
Reports surfaced this week that Japan will inject one trillion yen into Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), effectively placing it under government control. In exchange, the government would replace TEPCO’s board of directors and possibly split the utility into a compensation entity. However, Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) is denying those reports.
A government panel reviewing Japan’s energy policy is reportedly split over whether the country should reduce its reliance on nuclear power. However, a draft report says that the committee will recommend reducing reliance on nuclear energy, while increasing conservation programs, renewable energy, and fossil fuels.
Government-appointed experts investigating the Fukushima nuclear disaster are expected to publish an interim report saying that TEPCO could have made preparations to prevent the loss of power that resulted from the March tsunami, thereby possibly preventing the nuclear meltdowns at the reactors.
The National Police Agency has released its 2011 report on domestic and overseas security in Japan, and warns that safety regulations concerning the nation’s nuclear plants need to be revised to reflect the danger of terrorist attacks, as well as natural disasters. The Agency advised that police officers across the country, not just those stationed near nuclear plants, should have “basic knowledge” about radiation.
Japan’s Diet has officially appointed a 10-person expert panel tasked with investigating the cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The panel, comprised of experts in a variety of disciplines, will open meetings to the public and has power to summon witnesses and demand documents from both the government and utilities. It is expected to present a report in June.
The Lower House of Japan’s Parliament has approved nuclear accords with Jordan, Russia, Vietnam, and South Korea; the Upper House is expected to approve them on Friday. The agreements will allow Japan to sell nuclear technology and equipment, a move that has met with criticism by the Japanese public.
TEPCO announced that it might sell some of its thermal power plants in order to cover compensation payments to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
TEPCO is considering releasing radioactive water into the sea, a move sharply criticized by environmentalists and the Japanese fishery industry, which fears that consumers will shun seafood from contaminated waters. Tanks collecting radioactive water at the reactors are expected to reach capacity in March; currently, 100,000 tons of water are being stored. In addition, between 400 and 500 tons of water per day seep into the basements of the reactors. The utility said it will reduce the level of radiation in the water before releasing it, but did not specify specific levels, nor did it provide a timeline or the amount of water it will release.
Swiss-based Ace Insurance has agreed to cover the Fukushima Daiichi plant, after a Japanese pool of 23 insurers refused to renew the plant’s policy. The premium will cost 20 billion yen, ten times its current rate.
TEPCO has revised details about radioactive water that leaked from a water-processing unit at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The utility originally said that 45 tons of contaminated water leaked into the building that houses the decontamination facility, but then revised that estimate to 15 tons. Officials say that approximately 300 liters of that water leaked from the building to a cracked gutter, and 150 liters subsequently flowed into the Pacific Ocean. However, some independent experts estimate that twice that amount reached the ocean.TEPCO said the water that reached the ocean contained approximately 26 billion becquerels of strontium, which accumulates in bones and has been linked to cancer and leukemia. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ordered TEPCO to install leak detectors to prevent another occurrence.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
Japanese food producer Meiji says that it will recall and replace for free 400,000 cans of baby formula, after an internal inspection found samples containing 30.8 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. Currently, the government limit for cesium in milk products for infants is 200 Bq/kg; however, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is considering lowering that limit for baby food. In the meantime, Meiji is voluntarily setting its own limit of no detectable cesium and will increase monitoring of its products from once a month to every day. Results will be available on the company website. It will also monitor aerial radiation levels near its production facilities. The company believes that the formula, which was manufactured last March, was exposed to Fukushima-related cesium when its factory was ventilated to dry the powdered milk.
Meiji’s efforts at better monitoring have prompted a similar response from other manufacturers of powdered milk. Morinaga Milk will increase the frequency of its monitoring, and Megmilk Snow is testing milk products produced since March that are currently in inventory.
More contaminated rice exceeding the government limit of 500 Bq/kg has been found in Fukushima Prefecture. Rice containing 780 Bq/kg of cesium was discovered in Nihonmatsu, although none has been sold, according to officials. The announcement comes on the heels of similar reports from the Watari and Onami districts, and from Fukushima City. Prefectural officials previously insisted that all rice was below government limits for cesium. This week, the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, apologized for inadequate testing.
Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal
Greenpeace has released a study showing that decontamination efforts in Onami and Watari are inadequate and are endangering residents, especially pregnant women and children. Many of the workers hired by municipal governments are unskilled and are improperly disposing of radioactive soil and other waste, and hotspots are still widespread nine months after the disaster. Greenpeace is renewing its call to evacuate pregnant women and children from highly radioactive areas.
In an effort to improve consumer confidence in its agricultural products, Fukushima Prefecture will attempt to remove all detectable cesium from farmland and forests, although officials did not provide a timeline for doing so. In spite of the fact that Japanese law allows rice, beef, and vegetables to be sold if they contain 500 Bq/kg or less of cesium, Fukushima officials believe that consumers will not purchase cesium-tainted foods. The Prefecture will remove up to 30 cm of soil from contaminated areas, as well as tree bark, branches, and grass where necessary.
Japan’s Cabinet has approved a decision to allow 900 Ground Self-Defense Forces (GDSF) to decontaminate government buildings near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The project is expected to take two weeks.
The Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation, which falls under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), has released updated guidelines on compensation for victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Those who voluntarily evacuated the area around the Fukushima plant, as well as those who stayed behind, will receive a lump sum of 80,000 yen. Pregnant women and children younger than 18 who evacuated or stayed in the voluntary evacuation zone will receive 400,000 yen. The decision could affect to up to a million people living in municipalities within 50 kilometers of the plant, even if their actual homes fall outside of that zone. However, many victims expressed dismay at the amount of compensation, which they say does not cover the cost of their expenses. Originally, the panel had said that those in voluntary evacuation zones would receive no compensation, a decision that was met with widespread criticism. The new guidelines are expected to cost an additional 200 billion yen.
Other Nuclear News
Kansai Electric has manually shut down Reactor 2 at its Mihama plant, after a radioactive water leak threatened to exceed the capacity of a holding tank. The leak originated in a pressure vessel valve, and has been going on since early November. Kansai said that no radiation has escaped from the plant, and NISA has been notified of the incident. Eighty-five percent of Japan’s reactors are now off-line.
A group of 300 plaintiffs have filed suit against Shikoku Electric, in order to suspend operations at the utility’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture. The plaintiffs say that risk of mudslides and earthquakes is too great.
Gregory Jaczko, the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that the Commission’s study of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is so time-consuming that it may result in a delay in processing applications for license renewals and industry requests to produce more power.