(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
Nuclear Minister Goshi Hosono said that Japan will consider scrapping the Monju fast-breeder reactor, which was considered a key part of the Japanese nuclear power plan but which has been plagued by problems since it first reached criticality in 1994. So far, the Monju reactor has cost over one trillion yen ($13 billion), and government officials are calling for a budgetary review of the project.
Japan plans to expand the authority of its new nuclear regulatory agency to include oversight of radiation-related health concerns. Responsibilities will include long-term health monitoring and research, as well as management of epidemiological studies.
A government panel evaluating Japan’s nuclear energy program has released a draft report, recommending that a third-party entity be created to monitor nuclear regulation in Japan. Membership of the committee would be subject to approval by parliament and would operate separately from the new nuclear regulatory agency.
Efforts to find housing for the nation’s newly envisioned nuclear regulatory entity have been stymied by lack of space and high costs. The Environment Ministry has stipulated that the location be near the office of the Prime Minister and be earthquake resistant. Ministry officials fear that further delays could impede operations of the new agency.
Kansai Electric has released estimates that safety efforts designed to protect nuclear power plants in Fukui Prefecture from natural disasters will cost the utility approximately 200 billion yen. Original estimates were calculated at only 70 billion yen.
This week, lawyers for Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) argued that “radioactive materials (such as cesium) that scattered and fell from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant belong to individual landowners there, not TEPCO.” The utility was trying to defend itself in court proceedings after owners of a golf course near the crippled plant charged that they could not continue operations because of safety risks to employees. In November, grass samples on the course measured 235,000 Bq/kg of cesium; radioactive strontium was measured at 98 Bq/kg. The court rejected TEPCO’s claim, but said that cleanup should be the responsibility of local municipalities, not the utility. Lawyers are appealing the decision, but experts say that if the ruling stands, local governments may be bankrupted by decontamination costs.
A pool of companies who provide liability insurance for nuclear power plants in Japan say that they will not renew the Fukushima Daiichi contract when it expires on January 15, citing excessive risks. Japan’s Atomic Energy Damage Compensation Law requires insurance for “operation [of nuclear reactors] and other related activities.” Since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has determined that removing damaged fuel rods from the crippled plant would fall under that classification, lack of insurance could impede efforts to decommission the plant. The compensation law allows for setting aside 120 billion yen in lieu of insurance; however, TEPCO’s financial status is in peril because of compensation claims, decontamination costs, and other expenses, and the company may not be able to secure funds in time.
TEPCO has admitted that in spite of a 2008 in-house study that revealed the possibility of a 10.2-meter tsunami, company officials said the risk was “unrealistic” and failed to prepare the facility for flooding. Previous studies only predicted a 5.7-meter tsunami. Sources at TEPCO said that if officials had heeded the revised warnings, they could have better prepared for the events in March, according to reports by The Mainichi Daily News.
Masao Yoshida, the head of the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the nuclear disaster occurred in March, has been hospitalized for an undisclosed illness and is stepping down from his position at TEPCO. The utility would not reveal the cause of his illness or his radiation exposure levels, citing patient privacy. Takeshi Takahashi, who currently works at TEPCO headquarters, will replace him.
TEPCO has received 120 billion yen from a government nuclear insurance program, which will be used to compensate victims of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. These funds are in addition to a 588.7 billion yen injection of funds from a different government entity.
TEPCO predicts that even with all of its reactors offline, the country should not experience rolling blackouts or power shortages next summer.
Power Company Corruption and Scandals
Saga Prefecture government officials have admitted that they were aware that executives from Kyushu Electric Power Company asked their employees to express support for a pluthermal power project at the company’s Genkai plant in 2005.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)
Japan’s Science Ministry said that radioactive cesium from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster fell on every prefecture in the nation, including Okinawa, which is 1,700 km from the plant. Because the samples included cesium-134, which has a half-life of only two years, the ministry is relatively certain that the fallout came from Fukushima; previously, cesium-134 had rarely been detected. Combined measurements of cesium-134 and -137 varied depending on prefecture, with the highest coming from parts of Ibaracki Prefecture, where samples measured 40,801 Bq/m2.
Researchers from Kyoto University and the University of Tsukuba have released a study, commissioned by Japan’s Science Ministry, showing that cesium levels at the mouth of the Abukumagawa River measure approximately 50 billion becquerels per day. Scientists are concerned that continuing decontamination efforts, as well as tilling of rice paddies, may exacerbate the problem, and have called for immediate monitoring.
A study by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology said that radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has now reached the international dateline, 4,000 kilometers from the site of TEPCO’s power plant. Radiation readings measured between 10 and 100 times higher than before the accident. Although those levels do not exceed Japanese radiation levels for human consumption for drinking water, researchers said that seafood should be monitored.
TEPCO said that it will measure samples of seawater up to 10 kilometres from the shore of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, using a remote-controlled boat. Sampling will begin in late November.
Cesium-contaminated rice has been found at five additional farms in the Onami District of Fukushima, bringing the total to six. Prefectural officials said they tested 864 bags of rice from Onami; of these, 131 bags exceeded the government limit of 500 Bq/kg of cesium; a total of 4,752 bags will be checked. The highest sample measured 1,270 Bq/kg, but the government said that no contaminated rice has been sold to consumers. Officials previously declared that all rice from Fukushima Prefecture was safe.
Decontamination Efforts and Waste Disposal
Scientists from a broad range of disciplines have formed an academic society to study methods of radiation decontamination. Researchers hope to advise local authorities struggling to deal with widespread contamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
TEPCO has released a revised version of its compensation form after receiving widespread complaints from victims of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, who said that the original form, which was 60 pages in length, was complicated and too arduous to complete. The new “simplified” form has been reduced to 34 pages but still contains 1,005 sections requiring completion. In other news, TEPCO said that it will compensate evacuees for emotional distress, awarding 100,000 yen for each month after September 1.
Other Nuclear News
Nuclear protesters, including some from Greenpeace, delayed the delivery of nuclear fuel this week, which had been processed in France and was en route to Gorleben, Germany, for storage. The transport took a record-breaking 126 hours after protesters scuffled with police at several points along the route.