(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

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is preparing to grant approval of stress tests conducted on reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui prefecture, but has not yet set a date to do so. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) must then sign off on the process. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) head Yukio Edano, and Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono will make the final decision about whether to restart the reactors. However, it’s not clear when that will take place; although not required by law, local authorities have traditionally granted approval in restarting nuclear reactors in their municipalities. Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa has said he will not grant approval until the government creates new safety guidelines for nuclear reactors.

Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies said that nuclear power operators will install vents in pressurized water reactors, for use in case of nuclear emergencies. Because venting allows radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere, the vents will be equipped with filters to reduce contamination levels.

Critics are expressing concern over plans to temporarily house Japan’s new Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) which is expected to be created in April, in the same building as that of METI and NISA. NISA, which regulates nuclear power, has come under fire for being part of METI, which promotes it. The new agency was supposed to be housed in a new building, but officials are struggling to find a 6,000 square meter location that is earthquake resistant, near the Prime Minister’s office, and located on lower floors of a building. They hope to move to a permanent location by this summer.
Records show that the Vice-Speaker of the town assembly in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, who lobbied hard for the restart of the reactors at the Takahama nuclear power plant, is the owner of a metal processing company that received at least 700 million yen in nuclear-related contracts. Akio Awano, the assemblyman, insists that the money and his contracts have not influenced his opinion. The Takahama plant is operated by Kansai Electric.
A survey by NHK, Japan’s public news television station, shows that over 70% of municipalities in Japan are reluctant to restart the nation’s nuclear power reactors. Respondents expressed concerns about safety, a desire to determine the cause of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and lessons learned, and a need to develop new government safety regulations.
Hiroshi Tasaka, a special advisor to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is warning that the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is far from over. Tasaka, who is a nuclear engineer and is now a professor at Tama University, notes, “I would say [it] just opened a Pandora’s Box” of problems within the nuclear industry. In particular, Tasaka raised concerns about spent fuel pools, which are less securely contained than nuclear reactors, and are reaching storage limits.
E-mail correspondence from last March, released by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), reveals frustration with a “fog of information” from the Japanese government, as well as internal disagreement on how the unfolding disaster should have been handled. Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the emails show “the level of uncertainty and confusion…and indicates that even US experts had major divisions about what was going on and how to best mitigate the crisis.” The correspondence also exposed concerns about how the public would react to the NRC’s decision to extend the license of the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, which was scheduled for March 16. Worried about appearances, the Commission eventually delayed that announcement until March 21.

A group working to call for a vote against nuclear power in Tokyo says it has collected enough signatures to request a referendum there. The group, which calls itself “Let Everyone Participate in a Referendum on Making Decisions About Nuclear Power,” has gathered 216,063 signatures so far, but hopes to collect at least 300,000 by the end of this week. Assuming that at least 214,236 signatures—which equals one fiftieth of eligible voters in Tokyo—are deemed valid, a petition for a vote on the use of nuclear power will be presented to Governor Shintaro Ishihara.

Meanwhile, a group led by Nobel laureate and novelist Kenzaburo Oe plans to hold rallies around Japan over the next month in an effort to gather 10 million signatures supporting the abolition of all nuclear power in Japan.

Reactor Status

Temperatures in reactor #2 has stabilized at 66.8ºC, down from a high of 73.3ºC. That temperature is still over 20 degrees hotter than it was last week, when temperatures measured 45ºC on January 27. TEPCO has increased water flow into the reactor by 3 tons per hour in an effort to keep the fuel cool. At NISA’s urging, the utility injected boric acid to prevent criticality, which is the point at which self-sustaining nuclear reaction occurs. Almost a year after the disaster, radiation levels near the reactor remain so high that workers have been unable to examine them, and have no idea about the location or condition of the melted fuel within.
Workers at TEPCO are using a remote-controlled underwater camera to examine the spent fuel pool at reactor #4. The work is preparation for removing the fuel, a process the utility hopes to begin in March 2014. There are 1,535 spent fuel rods in the pool.

Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)

Researchers are warning that a recent drop in atmospheric radioactivity near the Fukushima Daiichi plant was caused by heavy snowfall in Japan, and will probably rise again once the snow melts. They believe that the snow is temporarily blocking the radiation on the ground.
Japan’s central government is asking farmers in Fukushima Prefecture to refrain from planting rice in areas where cesium levels in last year’s harvest exceeded 100 Bq/kg. Farmers are expressing frustration, and in some cases, despair, over the fact that the nuclear disaster has threatened their livelihood.

Scientists from the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute have discovered radioactive cesium measuring as high as 19,000 Bq/kg in earthworms collected from Kawauchi Village, located 30 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Researchers are concerned that because so many species eat worms, radioactivity could affect the food chain. The Institute said it will continue to monitor cesium levels in the worms.

Ornithologists counting bird populations near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster have noticed a precipitous decline, even greater than that which occurred after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina and co-author of the study, said he believes that the birds may be “especially sensitive to radioactive contaminants.”

Other Nuclear News

In a victory for anti-nuclear activists, the Czech Republic’s Industry and Trade Minister, Martin Kuba, announced that only two new nuclear reactors will be built at the country’s Temelin power plant, rather than 18 as first planned. Kuba said that the original plan was “not realistic from an economic perspective.”