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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said this week that it discovered a third set of errors in radiation dispersion prediction maps it released on October 24, this time affecting two more plants: Genkai Power in Saga Prefecture and Sendai Power in Kagoshima Prefecture. The announcement follows one last week, in which NRA officials admitted errors affecting six power plants after they were pointed out by Hokuriku Electric Power Company. The news has elicited anger and concern from municipal officials, who are required to submit complex emergency response and evacuation plans by March 2013. Saga Prefecture Governor Yasushi Furukawa complained, “The NRA is not living up to our major expectations.” This week’s errors were a result of incorrect wind direction data provided by Kyushu Electric Power Company, but the NRA admitted that it should have double-checked the data. NRA Deputy-Secretary General Hideka Morimoto noted, “We apologize for having to correct the maps once more. There are ways to conduct more rigorous verifications, including data crosschecks. I think we have to create a system to reconfirm the credibility of data.”

Yesterday, Senior Vice Minister of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Isao Matsumiya, strongly encouraged the NRA to allow resumption of idled nuclear power plants across the country. “I am begging the Nuclear Regulation Authority to enable the restart of the suspended reactors nationwide as soon as possible,” he said. Matsumiya was speaking to officials from Hokkaido Prefecture. Analysts point out that his comments, which contradict more cautious words by his boss, METI head Yukio Edano, could be construed as designed to pressure the NRA, which is legally supposed to operate independently and determine reactor safety without government influence.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

A task force assigned by METI resumed talks this week in an effort to redefine the nation’s energy policy over the next several decades. By the end of this year, they hope to establish a timetable outlining that goal. Last month, Japan said that it would abandon nuclear power by 2039, but some officials are now balking, saying that the policy is confusing. Panelists will discuss how to incorporate more renewable energy, separate power generation and transmission, and allow residents to choose their own power supplier.

TEPCO

TEPCO is once again petitioning Japan’s central government for financial assistance to cover the cost of compensating victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and decommissioning the crippled reactors there, a process which is expected to take as long as 40 years. The company released a new fiscal year operating plan this week, including plans to establish a 4,000-person office in Fukushima Prefecture to more effectively compensate victims. TEPCO now expects costs to balloon to 10 trillion yen ($124.55 billion)—a vast increase over the $12.4 billion in taxpayer funds already allocated. Costs of cleanup alone could double. Masashi Goto, an expert on nuclear power plants, questioned TEPCO’s original funding request, and noted that the costs may eventually be even greater. “It also appeared that TEPCO underestimated the cost involved at first, probably because it would be criticized by the public for admitting to the immense scale of the catastrophe,” he said.

TEPCO admitted to Japan’s public news service, NHK, this week that it significantly over-reported the number of workers available to decommission the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, raising questions about whether or not it will be able to finish the job within an estimated 40-year timeframe. Earlier, the utility said that approximately 11,700 workers would be required to work on the project just this year, and said that they had 24,000 available, guaranteeing no manpower shortage. However, utility officials have registered only 8,000. They admitted that 24,000 is the number of employees who have worked at the plant since the disaster began to unfold in March 2011, but 16,000 of those have already quit. Even when new workers are located and hired, they will need to be trained. (Source: NHK)

Safety Conditions at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant

Local officials in Fukui and surrounding prefectures are upset that a team of seismic experts assigned by the NRA to determine whether or not the so-called “F-6 crush zone” beneath Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant is an active fault line have decided to postpone their decision, citing a need for further evidence and more field surveys. In Japan, it is illegal to operate a nuclear reactor that lies over an active fault. In spite of the uncertainty and residents’ concern about their own safety, the government continues to allow the plant to operate. Hiroshi Sakuramoto, who is in charge of safety in Fukui Prefecture, said, “It’s critical to carry out the investigation and render a decision that everyone can understand, one based on objective data and scientific proof, but that’s not what we have. The members should not have these kinds of vague discussions.” If the fault line is determined to be active, the plant will legally be required to shut down.

In addition, Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a professor at Tokyo University and member of the team, said that in fact, movement in the area, which occurred approximately 125,000 years ago, was not caused by a landslide, as some contend, but was caused by an active fault. Although Kansai Electric said that the fault was not active, Watanabe believes they misidentified its location. “The active fault we confirmed is the real F-6,” he said, adding, “I thought this panel’s mission is to decide, with a sense of speed, whether there is no danger in terms of active faults, given that the Oi plant is actually operating.” Current government guidelines for nuclear plants define an active fault as one that has moved within the last 120,000 to 130,000 years. However, Japan’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion defines an active fault as one in which movement has occurred within the last several hundred thousand years. There is reportedly talk among NRA commissioners about changing that standard to 400,000 years.  

Contamination (Including Human Exposure)

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the prestigious United States Institutes of Health (NIH), has published a new study on the relationship between the effects of low-level radiation and leukemia. The study, which looked at 110,645 Ukrainian workers who were engaged in decontamination at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster between 1986 and 2006 showed “a significant linear dose-response.” The authors concluded that “exposure to low doses and low dose-rates of radiation from post-Chernobyl cleanup work was associated with a significant increase in risk of leukemia.” The findings could eventually impact compensation and pending court cases in Japan, where many residents and workers alike have been exposed to low-level radiation.

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) said it will spend an additional 150 million yen ($1.8 million) to repair 675 malfunctioning radiation monitors, after tests by local residents, municipal governments, and Greenpeace showed that they are underestimating radiation. Officials blamed the chronically low readings, which are regularly posted on the Ministry website, on metal battery boxes, which block radiation, located next to the units. MEXT estimated that the readings were 10% lower than they should be, but studies conducted by Greenpeace late last month showed that some units misrepresented readings by as much as 600%.

New tests of breast milk samples submitted by nursing mothers from Fukushima Prefecture show that no detectable levels of radiation (less than 2 Bq/kg) have been found. Officials tested breast milk from 378 women, but noted that they received fewer samples than expected, and are encouraging others to take the test, which is free and available to anyone whose home is registered within Fukushima Prefecture, whether or not they are currently living there.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

In an effort to encourage nuclear crisis evacuees to return to their homes, prefectural officials said this week that they will end subsidies for those evacuees staying in private homes outside the prefecture, after receiving a request from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare to do so. There are currently 59,031 people spread across Japan who are still displaced from their homes in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The move has sparked concern from residents and evacuee support groups alike who point out that radiation levels remain high in many areas. Miki Nakamura, from a support organization in Yamagata Prefecture, said, “Even now, there are inquiries about evacuating to Yamagata Prefecture. The effects of radiation are continuing, so a policy that allows evacuation at any time is needed.”

A new survey conducted by Japan’s Reconstruction Agency shows that just 11% of residents evacuated from Okuma, home of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant, plan to return if the government declares it safe to do so. Of 3,424 households that responded, 45.6% say they plan to never return, and an additional 42 percent say they are uncertain about whether they will ever go home again. More than 80% cited radiation concerns as the reason for their decision. Other impediments include ongoing worries about the safety of the Fukushima plant and earthquake damage to homes. However, the question may, in fact, be moot: 95% of the residents’ homes lie in areas so contaminated that they may be uninhabitable for decades to come.