(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

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan is continuing to speak out against nuclear power, charging that the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was caused by inadequate regulation, poor design, and bad communication, rather than the earthquake or tsunami. In a lengthy interview with Reuters, Kan said that the Daiichi plant should never have been built so close to the coast, where it was at risk for a tsunami. “We should have taken more adequate safety steps, and we failed to do so. It was a big mistake and I must admit that [the nuclear crisis] was due to human error.”  He now believes that nuclear power must be eradicated and replaced with renewable energy sources, saying, “While many technological measure can be taken to secure safety at nuclear power plants, such measures on their own cannot cover great risks.”

Kansai Electric Power Company will suspend operations at reactor #3 at its Takahama Plant in Fukui Prefecture for routine inspections today. The move leaves just two of 54 nuclear reactors in operation nationwide. In spite of repeated warnings by the nuclear power industry of widespread blackouts, Japan has experienced neither blackouts nor power loss.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko met with the Japanese Ambassador to Belarus, Chikahito Harada, this week in order to offer continued information about the 1986 Chernobyl crisis in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

A public relations association established to promote the concept of nuclear power safety in Fukushima Prefecture has announced it will cease operations as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. “We decided that we would be unable to obtain support for activities that publicize [nuclear] safety,” admitted Toshitsuna Watanabe, the head of the association. Since last March, staff members have been unable to access the association’s offices, which are located in the no-entry zone, because that area has been deemed unsafe for humans.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will jointly host a conference with Japan on nuclear plant safety next December, in Fukushima Prefecture. Over 40 international nuclear ministers will be invited to attend.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency ( NISA) reported that the Monju fast-breeder reactor, which is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), encountered more problems this week, when a sodium detector malfunctioned. Once hailed as a pillar of the Japanese nuclear cycle, Monju has been plagued with problems since construction began. Earlier this year, the government announced that it would cut research and development spending by 25% and overall spending by 70% in 2012, which would effectively freeze its long-term use. The decision was a blow to nuclear power production in Japan.

TEPCO

Business leaders around Japan are protesting TEPCO’s proposed 17% rate hike for corporations, scheduled to take effect in April. The utility has been cagey about how it derived the increase, as well as revealing which cost-cutting efforts it has taken. Last summer, a government panel pointed out that TEPCO’s personnel costs are considerably higher than those of other fields. In addition, a government investigation earlier this year revealed that the company had been overcharging customers for more than a decade, a move that netted approximately $8.2 billion. Because TEPCO essentially holds a monopoly in the region, many businesses have few other options for purchasing power.

Reactor Status

Members of the media were granted access to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant for only the second time since the nuclear crisis occurred last March. The tour revealed continuing widespread damage and exceedingly high levels of radiation, almost a year after the crisis began. The plant’s chief apologized for the disaster and repeated breakdowns at the plant, where there have been repeated leaks of radioactive water. Radiation levels inside the bus carrying the journalists reached 1,500 microsieverts per hour as it approached reactor #3.

Researchers from Chiba University announced that two new remote-controlled robots are en route to the Fukushima Daiichi plant and will be sent into the crippled reactors by the end of the month. They will be used to measure radiation levels and record video of conditions within the reactors. The robots, named Quince II and Quince III, are updated versions of the original Quince robot, which met a tragic demise when it was stranded in reactor #2 after cables became tangled. Quince II and II are equipped with blades to cut cables if necessary.

Contamination (Includes Economic Impact and Human Exposure)

Questionnaires completed by 9,750 residents of Namie, Iitate, and Kawamata, all located near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, reveal that over 40% of residents absorbed radiation doses that exceeded international radiation standards (one millisievert per year) within just four months after the nuclear disaster last March. Seventy-one were exposed to more than 10 millisieverts over the course of those four months, and two women received 23 millisieverts during that period. Only 52% of residents from those municipalities and 21% of residents from Fukushima Prefecture have submitted responses so far, but the prefecture eventually plans to survey all two million residents. An additional 720 people, the majority of whom are former workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, completed questionnaires; the highest level of exposure acquired during the four-month period in this group was 47.2 millisieverts.

Officials in Fukushima Prefecture are reporting that school enrollment levels for students in six municipalities have plummeted, raising concerns about the viability of plans to repopulate cities and towns that were evacuated after the nuclear disaster. Parents say that concerns about exposing their children to radiation are preventing them from returning to their homes.

Decontamination

A survey of 43 prefectural governments in Japan conducted by The Mainichi Daily News found that only 10 are willing to accept rubble from the tsunami and earthquake, as a result of residents’ concerns about radiation, as well as a deep distrust of promises made by the central government. Representatives from Nagano Prefecture said, “It’s questionable whether the national government’s standards can guarantee safety.” Meanwhile, residents in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, are petitioning against a plan to bury possibly radioactive debris in their city, complaining that the Governor there agreed to accept the debris without consulting constituents.

Compensation

The Center for Dispute Resolution for Compensating Damages from the Nuclear Power Plant Incident announced new criteria this week in an effort to assist victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, who are trying to negotiate with TEPCO. So far, although 948 people have filed claims with the Center, only five disputes have been settled. TEPCO has delayed paying compensation when the value of property cannot be determined, or the date for residents to return is unclear—but radiation levels remain too high for assessments to be conducted, and although the government has said that in some areas, residents may not be able to return for decades, they have not set a firm date. The Center has strongly criticized TEPCO’s reluctance to compensate victims, noting, “TEPCO has not shown an attitude of trying to positively proceed with dispute resolution procedures. TEPCO is far more reluctant regarding the procedures than we expected.”

Other Nuclear News

Nuclear critics in the United States are warning of the dangers of the Mark I reactor, the same model that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The US currently has 23 Mark I reactors in use, including at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Experts have long warned that the reactors, whose design puts them at risk for “overpressurization,” cannot withstand real-world disasters.