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

State of the Fukushima Reactors

The international community continues to increase pressure on Japan to allow multinational experts to assist with decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Last month, Yukio Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), urged, “The safe decommissioning should be undertaken not just by Japan, but should draw on wisdom of the most advanced technologies from about the world.” The decommissioning process is complex and fraught with technical difficulties, but analysts say that Japan has thus far effectively shunned offers of help from other countries in an effort to keep lucrative contracts within its own borders. Mycle Schneider, a nuclear policy expert based in Paris, notes, “There are some bilateral cooperation activities that are heavily biased by the specific interests of the assisting states. But nothing, absolutely nothing, is visible that would resemble a concerted international effort to solve the unprecedented problems at the Fukushima site.”

Schneider points out that spent fuel pools at the plant remain precarious and dangerous, and leaking, highly radioactive water from efforts to keep molten fuel cool is a significant concern. “It’s meant to be a closed system. But it’s obvious that significant quantities of water must have evaporated or are leaking from the basement to other areas, including the sea. These basements were never constructed to hold radioactive water. And corrosion of the steel reinforcement in concrete walls, especially of the spent fuel pools, remains another area of concern. Cracks in the concrete could lead to corrosion, to significant breaks of the walls, and to ever-increasing levels of water leakage.”

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted this week that his country needs to significantly improve efforts to protect its nuclear reactors from terrorist attacks. Currently, Japan’s security measures for reactors are considerably more lax than those required by international standards; until just recently, security agents protecting nuclear power plants were hired by private firms rather than police departments, and were not even armed. Only one facility, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Fukui Prefecture, is equipped to withstand a missile attack. Following the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States urged Japan to increase its security efforts at nuclear facilities, but in another twist on the so-called nuclear safety myth, utilities and government officials insisted that the risk to its plants was small.

A survey of 149 municipal leaders conducted by public news network NHK shows that 40% of local governments will fail to meet this month’s deadline to submit evacuation and disaster preparedness plans to the central government. Local officials have complained that the NRA’s delay in finalizing requirements, which were not released until late last month, prevented them from being able to meet the deadline. All 13 municipalities in Fukui Prefecture, which hosts the only two operating reactors in the country, will fail to submit their emergency plans on time.

Based on a recent poll conducted by TEPCO revealing that almost half of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are working within illegal arrangements, Japan’s central government will review the way that workers are hired at the plant, and may tighten regulations regarding their employment. In order to protect workers’ safety and ensure that they are not being exposed to illegal amounts of radiation, Japan requires the company that hires and pays workers to also supervise them, allowing for better monitoring of radiation exposure. Analysts say that the government’s proposed efforts may meet with resistance from the nuclear industry. More regulation could uncover additional workers who have already received the maximum allowable radiation dose, leading to a shortage of staff and delays in decommissioning, in a field that is already dangerous and does not pay well. In addition, personnel costs for nuclear contracting firms are likely to increase if laws preventing them from using employment agencies are enforced, raising the overall cost of nuclear power.

The Japan Meteorological Agency released data this week showing that since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami and led to a triple nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, the country has experienced 9,577 noticeable aftershocks. Almost three thousand of those occurred in just the first month after the major quake occurred. As recently as December 2012, one aftershock registered 7.2 in magnitude. The report highlights the fact that Japan’s nuclear reactors, particularly those at the crippled Fukushima plant, are still at risk of being damaged by large earthquakes.

TEPCO

TEPCO said this week that a three person third-party panel it appointed to determine whether one of its officials intentionally lied to a Diet panel has found no intentional wrongdoing on the part of the utility. Diet member Mitsuhiko Tanaka met with TEPCO official Toshimitsu Tamai in order to arrange a tour of reactor #1 at the Fukushima plant, in an attempt to determine whether the reactor sustained earthquake damage. Such a discovery could have a huge affect on reactors nationwide, in a country riddled with seismic fault lines. TEPCO contends that all damage to the reactors was caused by the ensuing tsunami, not the earthquake.

During the meeting, Tamai dissuaded the investigation, saying that a cover erected over the reactor building emitted no light, and that navigating within the reactor building would be highly hazardous because the interior was “pitch black.” “Would it not be better to drop it?” Tamai asked, adding, “I’d like you to make a decision today.” The conversation was recorded and has been obtained by the Asahi Shimbun, which broke the story. In fact, the reactor cover admitted some daylight and was equipped with mercury bulbs equivalent to the headlights on 40 automobiles. Backup lights were also available. The utility continues to insist that Tamai received no pressure from above to dissuade the Diet investigation, and the entire incident was simply a “misunderstanding.” The TEPCO-appointed third-party panel, which only interviewed TEPCO staff and insiders, supports that claim. However, Tanaka (who was at the meeting and made the complaint but was never interviewed by the external panel) dismissed the findings. “I am not interested in a token investigation that only cited arguments in TEPCO’s favor. I hope the Diet will take up the matter at an early date.”

Attorneys announced that 1,650 victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster are suing TEPCO and the Japanese government in four coordinated lawsuits that were filed on Monday, the second anniversary of the triple meltdowns that occurred at the Daiichi plant. The plaintiffs are seeking 5.3 billion yen ($55.2 million) in collective damages. This is the first time that the government has been named in such a suit; lawyers charge that it failed in its efforts to oversee and regulate the nuclear power industry, and in fact, promoted nuclear power. Additional similar suits are expected to follow.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced that it plans to establish a centralized radiation-monitoring center in case of another nuclear disaster. The off-site center will coordinate radiation monitoring, analysis, and reporting of data from power plant operators and local municipalities, and advise residents regarding evacuation and food safety. The decision comes in response to the Fukushima disaster, in which accurate radiation data was not disseminated to the public in a timely manner, leading some residents to evacuate to areas more contaminated than those that they were leaving.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare said this week that the average annual dose of radioactive cesium in food from Fukushima Prefecture has decreased over the last year by 66%, based on analysis of meal samples. Last year, the estimated annual dose measured .0193 millisieverts, but it has decreased to .0063. The government advises residents to avoid exposure exceeding 1 millisievert per year. However, a survey of 5,000 respondents conducted by The Consumer Affairs Agency shows that almost a third of residents in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures, in addition to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, are still concerned about ingesting radiation through food. The findings demonstrate the immense impact the Fukushima nuclear disaster has had on the psychological health of residents as well as the local food industry, which has suffered significant financial losses as people shun food grown and prepared in Fukushima.

Japan is backing down from an earlier decision to conduct genetic research on young couples from Fukushima Prefecture who were exposed to radiation after the nuclear disaster, as well as their newborn children. The study was designed to determine whether radiation exposure could lead to genetic changes, including damage to DNA, in offspring. However, some experts charged that the study methods were riddled with technical problems and are compounded by ethical issues. An Environment Ministry statement read, “We will examine the problems with the proposed testing program and decide on our next course of action.”