Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will reportedly convene an extraordinary three-day Diet session on December 26 in order to appoint the country’s new Prime Minister. Current polls show the LDP, which is pro-nuclear, in the lead.

Meanwhile, a new survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun of the 12 political parties running in the upcoming Lower House of Parliament elections on Sunday, December 16, asked about the parties’ views on worker safety at the nation’s nuclear power plants. Four of the parties [the Tomorrow Party of Japan (TPJ), New Komeito, Your Party, and the Social Democratic Party] said that the government, rather than subcontractors, should regulate worker radiation exposure. Both of the most powerful parties, the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), indicated that they were wary of vastly changing the current employment arrangements. Nuclear power is expected to play a large role in the elections.

Officials from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) are admitting yet more errors in radiation-spread projections that were released in October. Within hours of releasing the estimates, the agency said that the data contained errors, and officials have had to make numerous apologies since. The most recent admission affects data concerning projected spread of radiation from the Genkai, Sendai, and Tomari nuclear plants. Municipal officials across the nation have been asked to compile evacuation and emergency response plans based on the data provided.

The NRA has confirmed that it will order evacuations of residents living between 5 and 30 km from a reactor within several hours after a nuclear disaster occurs, or if radiation levels reach 500 microsieverts per hour. That standard is stricter than that used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is 1,000 microsieverts per hour. Residents within 5 km will be instructed to evacuate immediately.

Japan is preparing to sign a pact with Belarus that will reportedly allow experts from both countries to exchange information regarding health effects from radiation exposure and to conduct surveys in each country. Belarus was severely affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Japan signed a similar agreement with Ukraine earlier this year. (Source: NHK)

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO sent a robot into the highly radioactive basement of reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, in an effort to discover the source of ongoing leaks of contaminated water. The building is too radioactive for humans to enter. The utility believes that the leaks stem from cracks in vent pipes connecting the suppression chamber to the containment vessel. However, they were unable to determine the cause of the problem. Radioactive coolant water is continuing to leak, complicating efforts to eventually decommission the reactor.

TEPCO

The President of TEPCO, Naomi Hirose, admitted this week that the company needs to address and fix a situation in which hundreds of workers were hired through illegal hiring practices. Workers were often paid by companies other than those that hired them. In addition, many complained they received no written contracts, as required by law, and were not informed of radiation dangers of working at the plant. Similarly, a scandal was uncovered in which the president of a subcontracting company forced four workers to shield their dosimeters with lead boxes so that their radiation exposure would appear lower than it actually was. Hirose said that the issue is one that extends across the nuclear industry, and is complicated by a shortage of workers willing to take on such dangerous tasks. He implied that cooperation across the industry and perhaps even government regulation might be required to change practices. “It’s a difficult task we cannot do on our own. It will take heavy-duty work. It involves history and business ties and could even hurt the industry,” he noted.

TEPCO has admitted that two nuclear fuel rods encased in a 60-rod fuel assembly came into contact with one another at a spent fuel pool for reactor #5 at the utility’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. TEPCO said that the incident, which could have resulted in a serous nuclear accident, caused no damage. The assembly burned within the reactor between 1995 and 2000.

Reactor Safety at Nuclear Plants Across Japan

Last week, Chairman of the NRA, Shunichi Tanaka, announced that reactors at Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC)’s Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture will probably not be allowed to restart, because of an active fault that runs directly below one of the reactors. That fault could move in conjunction with another active fault just 200 meters away, Urasoka, if an earthquake were to occur. Approximately 160 fault lines cross the Tsuruga plant’s compound.

An NRA- appointed panel of five seismic experts, led by NRA Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, made the assessment after performing trench surveys during a two-day trip to the Tsuruga plant earlier this month. “You could call it an active fault. It likely represents simultaneous movement induced by the motion of the Urasoka fault. There is no way we can implement safety assessments [that are required] for the resumption of the plant under the current conditions,” said Tanaka.

On Wednesday, the panel formally presented their findings to the NRA commissioners, including Tanaka. The NRA said it plans to review the process used by the seismic team before making a final decision about whether or not the plant is safe to restart. Tanaka said, “I want a detailed report to be compiled swiftly on the process of the discussion, and then the Nuclear Regulation Authority will consider its decision.”

JAPC sent an open letter to the NRA protesting the announcement and listed 10 questions, including a request for a scientific explanation for the agency’s decision. The letter was hand-delivered by JAPC Vice President Hiroshi Masuda to NRA Deputy Director-General Tetsuo Nayuki. The NRA has promised to respond. In the meantime, JAPC said it will conduct its own studies of the area, and stressed that it has not decided whether or not it will permanently shut down the reactors. Japanese law forbids operation of nuclear reactors that are built on active faults. However, the legal power of the NRA to force decommissioning of the plants may be murky. The Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law says that the government can take measures necessary to prevent a nuclear disaster when there is “imminent danger.” In July 2013, new laws will take effect, allowing the NRA to judge whether or not existing reactors are safe to operate.

In response to the news about Tsuruga’s potential decommissioning, stocks for Kansai Electric dropped by 9.7%, and shares for other utilities fell as investors expressed uncertainty about the future of nuclear power in light of the NRA’s announcement. Reiji Ogino, an analyst with Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley in Tokyo noted, “The assessment raises the risk [that the NRA will come to a similar conclusion for other atomic generators.]” The Tsuruga reactors have operated for less than 30 years, and closure of the plant would be a crushing financial blow that could bankrupt JAPC. Nikkei reported that the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) may allow JAPC to merge with another utility or may provide government financial assistance in order to keep the company from going under.

Similar seismic studies have already been conducted at Kansai’s Ohi plant, also in Fukui Prefecture, although the regulatory agency has not yet made a determination about the plant’s seismic safety. And, the NRA began surveys of two crush zones at Tohoku Electric’s Higashidori plant in Aomori Prefecture this week.

A Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) working group announced this week that it will elaborate on details about research conducted at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture sometime this summer, but said they expect the research to include new ways to produce more fuel than the reactor consumes. MEXT plans to conduct a test run of the reactor in 2013 or later. The reactor has been plagued with major technical problems, scandals, and cover-ups since it first began operating in 1994, which have continued through this year.