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

A government panel studying TEPCO’s ongoing water woes at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has ordered the utility to reduce the amount of groundwater flowing into the crippled reactors there, and has suggested that officials consider freezing the surrounding ground in order to prevent groundwater from entering the reactors. Each day, approximately 400 tons of groundwater seeps into the reactor buildings, mixing with radioactive water and becoming contaminated. The company has been pumping the water out and storing it in tanks located on the compound, but it’s running out of room. Experts caution that creating such a frozen wall has never been done for more than a couple of years. TEPCO’s engineers have expressed concern that if groundwater levels drop too low, radioactive water in the reactors’ basements could flow outward through holes in the damaged structure. In addition, they said that constantly circulating coolant underground would be very costly. The panel has proposed an eight-year deadline for reducing groundwater inflow entirely, but admitted that the Fukushima water issue presents “an unprecedented challenge in the world.” In addition, they instructed TEPCO to build more water storage tanks.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) plans to conduct its own probe into whether or not the Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered damage from a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, before a subsequent tsunami struck the reactors there. TEPCO has long insisted that all damage at the plant was caused solely by the tsunami, but a Diet-sponsored investigation into the disaster shed serious doubt on that claim. Although some of the Diet panelists asked to enter the fourth floor of reactor #1 during their investigation, in order to look for damage, TEPCO lied and said that the building could not be entered because it was inadequately lit. In fact, it was not. If quake damage is discovered, it could have crushing effects on the nuclear industry across Japan, where earthquakes are exceedingly common. Now, experts from the NRA team will explore the fourth floor to look for earthquake, but high radiation levels will prevent them for remaining there for more than 10 minutes. The team’s findings will be discussed in June.

Although several Japanese nuclear power operators are gung-ho to restart reactors once the NRA unveils new safety regulations on July 18, their efforts may be thwarted by a shortage of staff at the NRA and opposition from local municipalities. NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka reiterated this week that his staff will only be able to assess three reactors at a time, and each assessment will take approximately six months. Already, four utilities have said that they plan to apply to bring a collective eight reactors online as soon as possible. However, some local government officials are expressing concern about the health and safety of residents and have hinted that they may not grant consent for the restarts.

The NRA has formally ordered the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) to halt efforts to place the Monju fast-breeder reactor online again, which means that the company will not be able to restart it in March 2014, as expected. JAEA is under fire for failing to perform safety checks on nearly 10,000 pieces of equipment, some of it critical for safe operation of the reactor. In addition, last week, a radiation accident occurred at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC), which is operated in Ibaraki Prefecture by JAEA in conjunction with the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization. Thirty-four researchers working at the facility were exposed to radiation after an equipment malfunction. Subsequently, a supervisor turned on a ventilation fan, further spreading the radiation. The agency has acknowledged that it failed to install filters on the ventilation equipment. Originally, JAEA said that the number of those exposed was only four, and then upped that number to 33. Yesterday they announced that yet another researcher had been exposed. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka said, “It is regrettable that people lacked preparedness for the use of radiation.”

Now, JAEA officials have admitted that radiation from the accident spread as far west as one kilometer from the lab, including in residential areas. Radiation levels 90 meters from the building where the incident occurred measure .29 microsieverts per hour, but officials insist that nearby residents are safe. The NRA has ordered JAEA to review its safety and security procedures, including creating a new system that ensures all equipment is adequately monitored and inspected and the reactor itself appropriately maintained.

Further complicating Monju’s prospects, the NRA also plans to conduct geological surveys there to assess whether a fault line running beneath the reactor is active, beginning in June. Seismic experts have expressed concern that a fault located 500 meters from the Monju reactor could move in conjunction with the one beneath it. JAEA has been conducting its own assessment and will present it to NRA officials within the next month, although so far the agency insists that the fault is not active. In addition, in response to the J-PARC incident, the NRA plans to inspect accelerators across Japan to assess their safety standards.

Since the Monju reactor first achieved criticality in 1994, it has been plagued with problems and scandal, operating at full capacity for a total of just one hour. Construction and maintenance have so far cost 1 trillion yen. The Monju reactor was supposed to play a critical role in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, in which plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is used to power reactors.

Following its declaration that a fault line running beneath Japan Atomic Power Company’s (JAPC) Tsuruga reactor #2 in Fukui Prefecture is active, effectively rendering the plant inoperable, the NRA has ordered JAPC to determine what would happen to 1,700 spent fuel rods being stored in spent fuel pools at the Tsuruga facility if water levels decreased because of power loss or earthquakes. The company’s report, along with a contingency plan for water loss, is due in July. JAPC continues to insist that the fault running beneath the Tsuruga plant is inactive.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

For the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold more than two years ago, a local municipality has filed a compensation claim on behalf of its residents. This week, officials from Namie filed a claim with Japan’s Nuclear Damage Claim Dispute Resolution Center for more than 11,000 residents—more than half of the town’s population—charging that the current amount of compensation that TEPCO pays—100,000 yen ($980) per month—is too low and does not adequately cover psychological suffering incurred by residents who were forced to abandon their homes. The municipality, which is covering all legal costs, has filed for three and a half times that amount (350,000 yen per month) for each resident. Tamotsu Baba, Mayor of Namie, said, “I want [TEPCO and the government] to realize the direct distress suffered by residents who had to evacuate with only the clothes on their backs, as well as their dissatisfaction, worry, and chagrin at having lost everything.”

As expected, the Upper House of Japan’s Parliament has unanimously voted to extend the amount of time that victims can file suit against TEPCO for damages related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Previously, victims had three years to sue for damages; now, they will have one additional month.

KEPCO announced this week that for the second time, it will delay reporting on whether or not a fault running beneath its Mihama plant, which is home to three reactors, is active. The utility was originally slated to submit a geological survey to the NRA in February, but then said it would delay until May. Now, officials say that they do not yet have enough data and will not release their report until the end of July. The postponement means that KEPCO will not be able to apply for the reactor’s restart when the NRA unveils new safety regulations on July 18.

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Scientists from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) report that sediment samples collected in July 2011, from 7,553 meters below the ocean’s surface in the Japan Trench, contained .02 Bq/g of radioactive cesium-134. The discovery is significant in that it shows how far the cesium traveled via ocean currents in just four month’s time. The study will be published in Scientific Reports, a British journal.