(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

Speaking before the nation in his annual New Year’s Day address, Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, promised to bring “rebirth” to Fukushima in the aftermath of last year’s nuclear disaster. Noda pledged to decontaminate the area surrounding the crippled plant, as well as guarantee compensation payments and health examinations for victims. Noda did not, however, provide a timeline for his promises.

Japan is considering creating a public entity to manage electrical power supplies, in an effort to reduce monopolies and stabilize power supplies. The new entity would be responsible for transmitting and distributing power across regional lines, similar to a system employed by the United States. Officials hope to avoid power shortages even in the case of a natural or man-made disaster. A similar plan was proposed last decade, but the move was opposed by utilities.

Documents obtained by The Japan Times reveal that the Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, Shunsuke Kondo, prepared a 20-page worst-case scenario in the days following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The report, which was prepared at the request of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, examined the possibility of mandatory evacuation of residents as far away as 170 km from the plant, and voluntary evacuation of residents within 250 km, including Tokyo, home to approximately 35 million people.

Hiroyuki Fukano, the head of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), said he would work to regain public trust in the agency after a December 26 government report revealed numerous issues and problems with its response to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In April, the government plans to merge NISA with the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to form a new nuclear regulatory agency.

Japan and Ukraine have agreed to share information learned as a result of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, respectively. Both countries plan to cooperate regarding studying decontamination of farmland and health risks of radiation, as well as jointly dispatching experts to each country. Japan said it will increase staff at its embassy in Ukraine, including radiation experts and interpreters.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono hopes to eventually establish Fukushima Prefecture as a world-renowned center of nuclear safety. Hosono envisions an institute that will promote nuclear safety and treatment of radiation disease. In addition, the institute will focus on creating robots that can assist with decommissioning the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Over 130 municipalities in Japan are working to establish evacuation plans and secure emergency shelters in response to the government’s decision to expand the proposed evacuation area around nuclear plants from 10 to 30 km.

State of the Reactors

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) reported that the water level in the so-called “skimmer surge tank,” which is adjacent to the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4, began to drop by 8-9 cm per hour following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake on New Year’s Day. Normally, radioactive water flows from the spent fuel pools to the skimmer surge tank, where the particles are filtered and the water is cooled before it is returned to the fuel pools. Officials believe that the strong quake resulted in either leaking pipes or water flowing in the wrong direction. TEPCO is continuing to investigate.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

The number of those applying for licenses for the spring hunting season in Fukushima Prefecture has plunged, raising concerns that wild boar and other animals will overpopulate, causing decimation of crops in the area. Officials blame the drop in hunting license applications on a lack of guns, many of which were abandoned during evacuations or lost during the tsunami, as well as fears of radiation contamination in birds and animals. The number of applications for hunting licenses in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures has also declined.

Rice Crisis

Officials in Fukushima Prefecture announced that they will test all rice harvested next fall, to prevent a repeat of this year, when excessive levels of cesium were discovered in Fukushima-produced rice, even after the governor declared all rice in the prefecture radiation free. Once examined, each bag of rice will bear a barcode, allowing consumers to access test results online. Equipment to conduct the testing is expected to cost the prefecture approximately two billion yen.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Japan’s Environment Ministry has established a nuclear contamination office in Fukushima City, which will provide oversight of decontamination and nuclear waste disposal in the area around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the March disaster. The office, which will eventually employ 210 staff, was created in response to a new nuclear decontamination law, which went into effect on January 1.

Mayors from areas surrounding the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant met with Yuhei Sato, Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, this week to ask for guidance in storing highly radioactive waste. Sato plans to create a forum for municipalities to share expertise with one another. Some mayors are protesting the central government’s decision to temporarily store waste in Futaba County; others say they are resigned to the fact.

Kashiwa government officials have halted operation of a municipal incinerator because they have run out of space to store highly radioactive ash. Currently, the facility is storing approximately 200 tons of ash; an additional 30 tons is still sitting in the incinerator. By law, incinerated ash containing more than 8,000 Bq/kg of cesium cannot be buried in landfills.

In a New Year’s Day address, Futaba City Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa expressed opposition to storing radioactive waste in Futaba County. At the end of December, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono announced that Futaba County would be the temporary storage site for nuclear waste from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. However, Idogawa said that if the highly radioactive waste is deposited there, evacuees will not be able to return to their homes. Futaba County is home to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and is designated a no-entry area.

Compensation

Almost 10 months after the nuclear disaster, TEPCO has processed less than half of the first round compensation applications it has received. As of December 31, 2011, 70,000 applicants had submitted forms; only 34,000 had been accepted. TEPCO has promised to assign an additional thousand staff by March to improve the payment process.

Other Nuclear News

In response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, French nuclear safety regulator ASN has released a 524-page report on the state of nuclear reactors in France. The report says that government-controlled power provider Electricité de France SA (EDF) needs to make significant upgrades “as soon as possible” to its 58 reactors in order to protect them from potential natural disasters. Costs for the upgrades are estimated at 10 billion euros ($13.5 billion); previously planned upgrades to extend the life of the nation’s reactors from 40 to 60 years are now expected to cost as much as 50 billion euros. Modifications include building flood-proof diesel pumps to cool reactors, creating bunkered control rooms, and establishing an emergency task force that can respond to nuclear disasters within 24 hours. Andre Claude Lacoste, the Chairman of ASN, said, “We are not asking the operator to make these investments. We are telling them to do so.” French Energy Minister Eric Besson plans to meet with EDF and reactor maker AREVA, as well as CEA, the government-funded technological research organization, on January 9 to discuss implementation of ASN’s recommendations. Seventy-five percent of France’s energy comes from nuclear power, more than that of any other country. Experts say that the cost of nuclear power in France will almost certainly rise as a result of the required upgrades.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that Dominion Power’s North Anna Plant in Virginia shut down again this week after a steam line, which was connected to a reactor turbine via a valve, began leaking. The plant was previously shut down between August and November of 2011, after a magnitude 5.8 earthquake took both reactors at the plant offline. NRC officials said they do not believe the leak was connected to the earthquake, and that no radiation escaped from the plant.