(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

Japan will increase financing to its Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund to 5 trillion yen, up from 2 trillion. The money will pay for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as increased costs of operating Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO)’s thermal power plants. These funds are separate from 5 trillion yen already allocated to a victim compensation fund, bringing the amount of guaranteed government funding to 10 trillion yen.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has approved TEPCO’s three-year plan to continue cooling reactors and prevent hydrogen explosions, in spite of the fact that some panel members raised concerns about the uncertain condition of melted fuel. Others raised questions about durability of safety equipment. Experts predict that full decommissioning of Fukushima reactors will take at least 30 years.

Japan’s Parliamentary Secretary of the Environment, Satoshi Takayama, has advised local municipalities to monitor radiation levels of rubble coming from disaster stricken areas, rather than accepting central government assurances of safety, because “the state is not trusted”. The remarks have been met with considerable controversy.

The Upper House of Japan’s parliament has approved nuclear accords with Jordan, Russia, Vietnam, and South Korea, which will allow Japan to export nuclear technology and equipment. The decision comes in spite of popular opposition as the nation continues to struggle with the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

South Korea and Russia will conduct a joint survey of radiation levels in the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and areas of the Pacific Ocean. Japan was reportedly not included in the talks because of concerns about lack of transparency, after it released radioactive water into the sea last spring.

A citizens’ group called Minna de Kimeyo Genpatsu Kokumin Tohyo (“Let everyone participate in making decisions on nuclear power by referendum”) is gathering signatures in Tokyo and Osaka, in an effort to call for referendums on nuclear power with a goal of allowing residents, rather than power companies or the government, to decide the fate of nuclear energy. In order to do so, they will need to collect valid signatures of one-fiftieth of registered voters over the course of an 8-week period. The move has not been supported by some environmental groups, which believe that the nation should reduce dependence on nuclear energy entirely, and are concerned that too many referendums will confuse residents.

TEPCO

TEPCO has postponed its decision to release radioactive water into the sea, after receiving sharp criticism from Japan’s national federation of fisheries cooperatives. The fisheries feared that consumers would stop buying fish and seafood out of concern about radiation. In the meantime, the utility continues to struggle with increasing amounts of contaminated water in the Fukushima reactor buildings. Each day, between 400 and 500 tons of groundwater seeps through the basement walls of the reactors, where it mixes with highly radioactive water being used to cool fuel rods, and becomes contaminated. There is no concrete plan to deal with the ongoing issue. Currently, holding tanks contain approximately 100,000 tons of radioactive water, and are expected to reach capacity (160,000 tons) by March. TEPCO submitted a three-year management plan to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) this week, but made no mention of disposing the water in the ocean.

Japanese media sources are reporting that TEPCO is considering “temporarily” raising its power rates by 10% for a three-year period. In addition, the utility is pushing for the restart of seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in spring of 2013. Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) has previously said that he will not allow either move to go forward.

TEPCO is revising its cost-cutting measures by an additional 103 billion yen to help cover compensation costs for the victims of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. In addition, the utility may sell some of its facilities. The company hopes to cut overall costs by 2.65 trillion yen through 2020.

Masao Yoshida, the former head of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Yoshida was relieved of his duties at the plant earlier this month, after being admitted to the hospital for undisclosed medical issues. TEPCO said that Yoshida was exposed to a total of 70 millisieverts of radiation, lower than the government-allowed 100 millisieverts of accumulated radiation for nuclear workers during emergency situations. TEPCO consulted medical experts who, it said, do not believe that Yoshida’s cancer is a result of radiation he received at the Fukushima plant.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

A study by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Society, published in Environmental Science & Technology, shows that in April, levels of cesium-137 were 50 million times higher than those measured before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The paper contends that although ocean currents largely diluted concentrations of radiation, resulting in little threat to humans, but warns that the full effects on coastal ecosystems, particularly bottom-dwelling marine life, will remain unknown for decades. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. In July, although Japan had stopped intentionally releasing radioactive water into the sea, cesium levels remained 10,000 times higher than normal levels. One of the Woods Hole researchers, Ken Buessler, said this points to ongoing contamination from the Fukushima plant.

Written surveys completed by Fukushima Prefecture residents, detailing their activities in the months following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, estimate that more than half were exposed to radiation levels higher than the annual legal limit of one millisievert within just the first four months, and some received as much as 15 millisieverts during that period. The estimates did not include radiation found in nature or exposure from x-rays. The effects of low-level radiation remain unknown.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare said it will conduct quarterly monitoring of baby food and formula by checking random selections from store shelves. So far, officials have tested 63 types of baby food and 25 types of infant formula; no cesium has been detected. The move comes a week after food producer Meiji voluntarily recalled 400,000 cans of baby formula after an internal review revealed cesium measuring 30.8 Bq/kg. The current government limit of cesium in dairy products for infants is 200 Bq/kg. However, Meiji has said it will only sell baby formula containing no cesium.

Researchers at Fukushima University plan to attach radiation monitors to wild monkeys, in order to more accurately measure radiation levels in prefectural forests. The monitors contain GPS transmitters and can be released via remote control in order for scientists to locate and collect them.

Rice Crisis

The Mayor of Nihonmatsu, Keiichi Miho, is demanding that TEPCO and/or the Agriculture Ministry buy the city’s entire rice harvest, after high cesium levels led to a ban on rice shipments there. The city has called for every bag of rice to be checked, a process that would currently take 57 years because of a lack of testing equipment within the municipality. Meanwhile, Yuhei Sato, Fukushima’s Governor, has apologized for his October 12 declaration that this year’s rice harvest was safe and fell below the government limit for cesium. A prefectural official admitted that the tests, which checked only two samples of rice from each municipality, were “inadequate.”

Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal

The Environment Ministry announced that full decontamination of Fukushima Prefecture will be delayed until March, although it will decontaminate roads, water systems, and other infrastructure in January. Ministry officials blamed the delay on a need to obtain permission from residents to decontaminate their property, as well as a lack of storage sites for radioactive water and soil.

Ground Self-Defense Forces (GDSF) have begun to decontaminate municipal buildings in Namie, Tomioka, Naraha, and Iitate, all of which fall within the 20 km no-entry zone, where radiation levels remain high. The Forces hope to establish central bases from which private organizations can conduct decontamination work within the zone.

The Environment Ministry is expected to release decontamination guidelines this week to residents of the Tohuku and Kanto regions. The 164-page booklet will include information on how to measure, remove, deliver, and store radioactive materials.

Other Nuclear News

A fire broke out in a nuclear waste processing facility at its Tsuruga Plant yesterday. Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC), which operates the plant, said that no radioactive materials leaked to surrounding areas, and workers had the fire under control. The plant had been shut down for routine maintenance.

NISA said that 1.8 tons of radioactive water leaked inside Kyushu Electric’s Genkai plant, but no radiation escaped the facility. The cause of the leak has still not been determined. Kyushu officials detected a slight rise in radioactivity, but said that the increase is probably due to changes in weather rather than the leak.

The head of France’s Electricite de France SA (EDF), Henri Proglio, said that the company will increase security at its 19 power plants around the country. The move comes after nine Greenpeace activists scaled the dome of a reactor at the utility’s Nogent-sur-Seine plant, and two more hid within its Cruas plant, in an effort to show the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorist attack. Proglio said that EDF will “learn lessons and reinforce its anti-intrusion systems to ensure [breaking in is] more difficult in the future.”