(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

Shikoku Electric has submitted results of government-mandated stress tests at its Ikata plant to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), becoming the second power company in Japan to do so. The plant is located in Ehime Prefecture. Some experts have criticized the legitimacy of the stress tests as well as failure to take public opinion into account. The central government will make a final determination on whether to restart the reactor, which went offline last April for regular safety checks.

In the meantime, the government has delayed a decision on restarting Kansai Electric’s Oi plant, located in Fukui Prefecture, after experts questioned the inherent safety of the nation’s stress tests. Specifically, they said that phase two of the tests, which is more stringent than phase one and requires a computer simulation of an earthquake and tsunami, should be conducted before phase one. The latter phase assesses the seismic and tsunami force the plant was built to withstand, versus scientists’ estimate of the power of natural disasters in the area. One expert said that every reactor in the country should be shut down until it passes phase two of the tests. Others criticized failure to test readiness for fires, airline crashes, and terror attacks.

Kyushu Electric President Toshio Manabe is again insisting that Saga Governor Yasushi Furakawa was not involved in the company’s attempt to manipulate public opinion at a government sponsored symposium by ordering employees to send emails in favor of restarting nuclear reactors at the company’s Genkai power plant. A panel investigating the incident previously determined that the governor had asked Kyushu executives to arrange for their employees to send pro-nuclear emails.

Meanwhile, Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), announced that Japan will not allow Kyushu to restart the Genkai reactors, citing the email scandal and “in view of its current governance.”

Environment Minister Goshi Hosono apologized this week after an Environment Ministry official dumped radioactive soil in a field near his home. The soil had been delivered to the ministry by a resident requesting that it be disposed of. Hosono said he is considering disciplining the officials concerned, and admitted it should never have happened.

Japan’s Board of Audit said that new uses should be found for the laboratory associated with the now-idle Monju fast-breeder reactor in order to recoup some of the money spent in it. The laboratory, located in Ibaraki Prefecture, has cost 83 billion yen so far.  The Monju reactor, which is in Tsuruga, has been shut down since 1995, after a series of accidents and a subsequent attempt at cover-up. Between 1980 and 2011, the government spent 1.08 trillion yen on the reactor, which generated electricity for a total of one hour since it was first tested.

A government anti-terror panel met this week to draw up new measures to protect nuclear power plants in Japan. Among other measures, the panel is recommending that power sources and water pumps be enclosed, security be fortified, and stores of protective clothing and gear be increased. In addition, the group warned that some plants might be at risk for cyber attack.

Experts are continuing to question the effectiveness of an 18-meter high seawall being built near Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant. Critics complain that no coastal engineering specialists were involved in the design of the wall, the plant’s water intake pump is not adequately protected, and the height of the wall was decided based on internal company figures. Although Chubu says it consulted scholars and other experts, it has been hesitant to release their names. In addition, new data released by seismologists in October points to the possibility of a 15-20 meter tsunami striking the Shizuoko region, which would render the new seawall ineffective.

As election day approaches, mayoral candidates in the town of Okuma, close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, are debating the best way to move forward after the nuclear disaster. One candidate, Jin Kohata, believes that the entire town needs to be moved; the incumbent, Toshitsuna Watanabe, is calling for extensive decontamination of the area. Because Okuma is within the no-entry zone around the plant, town operations have been moved to Aizuwakamatsu for the time being. Elections will take place on November 20; 18 municipal assembly seats will also be filled.

Mitsubishi Heavy said that although its computer systems were recently hacked, no key data pertaining to nuclear plants was compromised.

TEPCO

NISA has released copies of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO)’s procedure manuals for Reactors 2 and 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The documents reconfirm that TEPCO failed to make adequate preparations to protect the plant, specifically, to protect against an extended loss of power. In addition, although TEPCO staff adhered to procedures after the earthquake, they failed to do so after the tsunami. Initially, TEPCO refused to submit unredacted copies of the documents to NISA, claiming intellectual property and terrorism concerns.

Japan has given $7.3 billion to TEPCO, in order to fund compensation due to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The government plans to transfer a total of $11.8 billion through next March, on the condition that the utility submits a new business plan. TEPCO has said it will eventually repay the money, but the company is in dire financial straits, with costs of decontamination, decommissioning, and compensation weighing heavily.

Local municipalities in Japan are increasingly demanding that TEPCO reimburse them for costs associated with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Expenses associated with the crisis continue to mount, including costs for decontamination and medical examinations. Although TEPCO has made arrangements to reimburse companies and other entities in the private sector, it has no current plans to reimburse local governments. So far, 18 cities and towns have requested reimbursement of almost 706 million yen.

State of the Reactors

TEPCO and the government announced that they expect to achieve cold shutdown of the cripple Fukushima Daiichi plant by the end of the year. Temperatures of the reactors are below 100ºC, and radiation spewing from the plant is lower than it was when the disaster occurred. Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said he believes that fuel that has melted through pressure vessels has also cooled, in spite of the fact that equipment to monitor temperature in that part of the reactor was damaged in the tsunami, and radiation levels remain too high to install new equipment.

TEPCO is continuing to struggle with increasing amounts of highly radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Every day, between 200-500 tons of groundwater is seeping through cracks in the walls of the reactor buildings, mixing with the water already being pumped in to keep the fuel cool. TEPCO has not been able to determine where the leaks are occurring, nor has it been able to stop them. The utility estimates the buildings contain more than 77,000 tons of radioactive water. Efforts to process the contaminated water are creating highly radioactive sludge, which continues to build up.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

For the first time, contaminated rice exceeding the government limits for cesium was found in the Onami District, in spite of the fact that on October 12, the Governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, made assurances that all rice from the prefecture was safe to consume. Although Japan had considered special monitoring for the Onami District because of high radiation levels, they decided against it in September. The discovery has prompted a government ban on rice shipments from that area. The rice measured 630 Bq/kg; the government limit is 500 Bq/kg. One farmer lamented, "[I'm disappointed that cesium] was detected after the safety declaration was issued. We'll no longer be able to gain consumers' trust no matter how many times tests are conducted.” A prefectural agriculture official said, “I’m so surprised.”

A study in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Journal has found that radiation levels in northeastern Japan are high enough to make farming dangerous, which is likely to affect food products, in spite of the fact that initial studies had predicted that harvests would be below legal limits of radiation. The new data, which took samples from 46 of 47 regions in Japan and used them to run weather simulations, is calling those assumptions of safety into question. Researchers from the US Universities Space Research Association found that land near the plant exceeded limits for arable land by eight times; in other areas, samples were just below the limit, but experts caution that because of variability in cesium distribution, limits might be exceeded. Another study published in the PNAS journal showed similar results.

The Environment Ministry reports that radiation levels in downstream areas of rivers in Fukushima prefecture are increasing. For example, upstream cesium levels of the Niida River measured 3.200 Bq/kg in September, while samples from downstream measured 13,000 Bq/kg—triple what had been measured in May. Experts say that radiation levels in rivers should be carefully monitored. 

A study by the Meteorological Research Institute in Ibaraki Prefecture says that 65% of cesium-131 from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster fell into and contaminated the sea, after traveling around the globe within the first few weeks of the March disaster.

Fukushima Prefecture officials say that the response rate for children’s thyroid examinations in Namie and Iitate was 77%, far higher than the 30% response normally seen for standard health checkups. Examinations are now being conducted in other areas of the prefecture, and doctors are traveling to families in order to spare them long trips to the examination center. Children in Fukushima Prefecture will undergo checkups every two years until the age of 20, and then every five years thereafter.

The Japanese Team in Charge of the Lives of Disaster Victims said this week that 80% to 97% of cesium lies within the top two centimeters of soil, according to a survey it conducted in Tomioka and Namie between July and September.

Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is recommending that Japan find permanent sites for radioactive waste resulting from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Radioactive ash and sludge is continuing to accumulate at waste treatment centers in Yokohama, where city officials still have no plan for storing or disposing of the contaminated waste. Each day, an additional 20 tons of ash and sludge are added to the current 5,500 tons of ash already piling up. Officials say that if the treatment centers overflow, sewage systems will be affected and subsequently, water drainage from residents’ homes will be impeded.

Date municipal workers have begun decontaminating radioactive homes, but have encountered numerous problems. Between October 26 and November 14, 26 homes were decontaminated; however, when they were retested, radiation levels had dropped in only four. Date officials plan to ask the central government to underwrite the cost of decontamination.

Mitsubishi Heavy is in the process of building a temporary facility to store radioactive sludge at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The sludge is a byproduct of processing contaminated water, which is used to cool the damaged reactors at the plant.

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will begin decontaminating the no-entry zone within 20 km of the Fukushima Daiichi plant beginning in December.

Other Nuclear News

The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) has released a 500-page report saying that France needs to immediately improve safety at all of its nuclear plants. The report cites inadequate water reserves for cooling, pipes unable to withstand earthquakes, and in many cases, lack of independent diesel generators, among other things. France is per capita the largest user of nuclear power in the world, with 58 reactors. Jacques Repussard, the head of IRSN, did not have an estimate of how much the safety upgrades would cost.