(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

A government panel tasked with reducing costs has recommended that the Monju fast-breeder reactor should be reviewed, questioning the wisdom of continuing to pour money into what is, by many accounts, a failed project. So far, over one trillion yen ($13 billion) has been spent on it. The panel’s recommendations are not binding, but distrust of nuclear power in Japan is building, and the Energy and Environment Council is expected to take them under consideration later this year. The Monju reactor has been a keystone of the Japanese nuclear power program; its suspension would land a significant blow to the nation’s nuclear strategy.

In response to a scandal involving an Environment Ministry official who dumped radioactive soil in a field near his home, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono (who also oversees the Environment Ministry) said he would forgo his annual salary in an effort to regain the trust of the Japanese people. Hosono is paid approximately $20,000 (1.5 million yen) each month. As a member of parliament, he will continue to receive 1.3 million yen monthly. In addition, vice-ministers at the Environment Ministry will be penalized 20% of their salary for two months.

Ten elections took place this week in Fukushima Prefecture, in spite of the fact that many residents have yet to return to their homes. The elections were originally scheduled for seven months before, when they were postponed due to natural and nuclear disasters. Incumbent Toshitsuna Watanabe was reelected mayor of Okuma, after campaigning to rebuild the town. His challenger had promised to relocate the Okuma and all of its residents. Nuclear issues played a large role in all of the electoral contests. Voter turnout was 47.51%, a record low.

Kyushu Electric Power Company announced it will delay the restart of Reactor 2 at its Sendai plant. Originally, the company planned to restart the reactor in late November.

State of the Reactors

Although Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the government say that the Fukushima Daiichi plant will achieve cold shutdown status by the end of the year, experts continue to question the validity of that assumption in light of the fact that the utility is unable to measure the temperature of melted fuel in the reactors, or even to pinpoint its exact location. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is soliciting opinions of experts on the issue; however, politicians will ultimately determine whether or not the plant is in cold shutdown, not nuclear experts. The timetable for the so-called roadmap to shut down the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors has been revised seven times in the last eight months.

Power Company Corruption and Scandals

Documents unearthed by a third-party panel revealed that a Hokkaido Electric Power Company executive emailed company employees in 2008, asking them to submit anonymous messages of support for a pluthermal power project at the utility’s Tomari  Reactor 3. The email quoted Satoru Morai, then-chief of the Hokkaido Nuclear Power Safety Section. As a result of the scandal, Hokkaido Power has frozen work on the pluthermal project.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

New maps from the Science Ministry show that over 30,000 square kilometers of Japan (8% of the country’s landmass, covering 13 prefectures) have been contaminated with radioactive cesium. Each square meter measured more than 10,000 Bq/kg of cesium-134 and -137. Officials believe that four main plumes of radiation, which fell to the ground via rain and snow, contributed to the contamination, affecting 13 of 18 prefectures tested. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. The Science Ministry plans to map four more prefectures (Aomori, Ishikawa, Fukui, and Aichi) by the end of the year.

Rice Crisis

Last week’s discovery of radioactive rice from Fukushima Prefecture’s Onami District is raising concerns about Japan’s testing methods and food safety. Samples of pre-harvest rice from Onami measured only 136 Bq/kg, prompting the prefectural government to subject rice from that area to less scrutiny. However, once the rice was harvested, it was found to measure 630 Bq/kg, exceeding the legal limit of 500 Bq/kg. An official from the Agriculture Ministry said, “It is impossible to achieve 100% [radiation] detection since what we do is sampling.” Some experts have called for rice across the prefecture to be tested. In the meantime, officials say that all rice in Onami will be retested, a plan that may take many months to enact, if it’s even possible: eight months after the disaster, the country still does not have enough testing equipment.

Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal

Eight months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan finally began efforts to decontaminate areas near the crippled plant. Twelve municipalities have been chosen for a pilot decontamination program; full-scale efforts will begin in January. Officials plan to measure radiation levels at 400 locations 10 meters apart, in order to develop a detailed action plan. So far, radiation levels have measured between 10 and 17 microSievert/h, with one hotspot measured more than 30 uSv/h (the maximum reading on the testing device.) Many local governments are still trying to determine where radioactive waste will be stored once decontamination efforts begin in earnest.

The Environment Ministry has appointed Hidehiko Nishiyama to head an Environment Ministry team tasked with overseeing decontamination efforts in Fukushima Prefecture. Previously, Nishiyama was NISA’s spokesman in the days following the March nuclear disaster, but was forced to step down after a scandal involving an extramarital affair with a staffer.

In an effort to deal with fast-increasing amounts of highly radioactive water, TEPCO is building storage tanks to hold the water, and in the process, chopping down thousands of trees in a forest that was once home to numerous native bird species. Currently, 90,000 tons of contaminated water is being stored in the tanks, which are at 80% of their capacity. TEPCO originally said it would decontaminate all radioactive water by the end of this year, but experts now say that is unlikely.