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

Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are about to face one of their biggest and most difficult challenges this month as work begins removing 1,500 nuclear fuel rods from a storage pool in the reactor #4 building. Tests are being conducted in preparation which will push back the starting date for two weeks - work was schedule to begin this Friday. Tests will include removing a fuel cask from the pool to another more stable pool 100 meters away. The fuel rods consist of 1,300 spent fuel rods and 200 unused ones and it is hoped the work will be complete by the end of 2014. Reactor #4 contained no fuel during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but its building was subsequently damaged by a hydrogen explosion and fires.

The operation to remove the fuel is seen as a highly dangerous one and many experts are urging an international effort. Nuclear and radiation experts from across the world have petitioned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint experts independent of both Fukushima's operator TEPCO and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to draw up a disaster plan. “It is urgently needed to set up an international task force to assist Japan by deploying all possible means to reduce the risks of the imminent first unloading of spent fuel from unit 4,” wrote ex-Ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama.

"The United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task," said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a visit to the Fukushima Daiichi plant last Friday. “We expect the relationship in the area of decommissioning between Tepco and our national laboratories to expand and deepen in the coming years,” he also said in a lecture in Japan. TEPCO President Naomi Hirose said he agreed to accept U.S. help. "We will work together to tackle many challenges toward decommissioning," he said.

However, it seems assistance from the US may come at price. During his Japan trip, Mr Moniz said the country will receive international assistance when it signs the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage treaty. Signing the treaty means that only operators of nuclear power plants are held liable for nuclear accidents and not companies that supply or build nuclear reactors. The treaty would prevent the companies that designed, supplied parts for, and built the Fukushima reactors from being sued for damages. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that legislation may be introduced as early as next year to ratify the treaty. Greenpeace described the treaty as a "cynical" tool to protect the nuclear industry.

With attention turning to the matter of the fuel rods in the reactor #4 building, the contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima plant has not gone away. It was announced that two IAEA experts will join monitoring of seawater off the coast of the Fukushima plant for two days. The experts are expected to test seawater samples and advise on dealing with contaminated water from the damaged Fukushima reactors. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has also called for the procedures used for dealing with the contaminated water leaking from the reactors to be reviewed. "[T]he current situation requires a review to be made. Now is the time to make a conclusion,” he said.

In other news, China has demanded at the United Nations that Japan gives "accurate" information on the continuing crisis at Fukushima. “We urge the Japanese side to spare no effort in minimizing the subsequent impact of the accident and provide timely, comprehensive and accurate information to the international community,” Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wang Min said during a debate on IAEA. South Korea's Deputy U.N. ambassador, Sul Kyung-hoon, also voiced concerns. The situation "continues to be a source of serious concern, especially to adjacent countries, because of the spillage of contaminated water into the sea," he said.

TEPCO

TEPCO began discussions this week with a view to creating an "in-house" division of the company with will be solely responsible for decommissioning the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It is thought the company is considering making such a move to counter proposals from a government panel that the company be broken up into separate entities to deal with decommissioning and power generation. The new "in-house" division would work exclusively at Fukushima and independent from the rest of TEPCO's nuclear power activities. It is also thought that if the company addresses the issue in this manner, the Nuclear Regulation Authority will look more favorably at TEPCO's application to restart reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture (see also Reactor Restarts below).

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Japan's government indicated this week that is preparing to make a major financial contribution to the decommissioning and decontamination work in and around the Fukushima Daiichi site. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga added that the previous government was to blame for expecting TEPCO to be able to carry the burden by itself. “The previous administration wrongly took a course of having TEPCO (deal with the accident) without the involvement of the government. It’s time to review the way,” he said.  The government plans to make at least one trillion yen available for decontamination efforts although TEPCO will still be expected to contribute three trillion yen. Financial plans have already been drawn up and at this stage the government is not expected to exempt TEPCO from those costs. So far, TEPCO has only paid back 6.7 billion yen of the 40 billion yen spent by the government on decontamination and is refusing to pay the balance.

This was accompanied by the news this week that 23% of public money set aside for reconstruction efforts in Fukushima Prefecture has been spent on other projects not related to the disaster. This 23% equals 1.45 trillion yen the Board of Audit of Japan has found. Out of 1,401 projects examined, 326 were found to have misused funding. One project included renovating the National Stadium in Tokyo. None of the misuse of funds breaks any law, however, as the projects were approved by the government's recovery policy.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

The secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has called this week for his party to publicly admit that some of those evacuated in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster may never go home. "The time will definitely come that someone must say 'they cannot live in this area but they would be compensated'," Shigeru Ishiba said in a speech. This follows last week's news that the government is considering plans to prioritize decontaminating areas surrounding the damaged Fukushima reactors where residents will be able to return to soonest. Mr Ishaba also suggested that radiation safety levels be reviewed. “Someday, we have to decide what to do with decontamination standards. Otherwise, Fukushima will never make headway on reconstruction," he said. Mr Ishaba's remarks were followed by a statement from industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi. "Of those who are unable to go home soon, a high percentage, of course, have yet to decide or have already decided not to return. Bearing this in mind, we hope to provide a number of options," he told a press conference. These moves contradict Prime Minister Abe's promise last year that: "The fight against the nuclear accident will not end until local residents return home." Around 160,000 people are currently displaced by the disaster.

Other Nuclear News in Japan

Japan's controversial Monju fast breeder reactor was in the news again this week after the Nuclear Regulator Authority (NRA) criticized safety and security at the plant. It was found that the plant's owner, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, had installed fences around restricted areas lower than required, failed to update safety procedures, did not properly deal with identification of visitors to sensitive areas, and did not check equipment responsible for protecting nuclear materials. “Nuclear security has been a global issue in recent years. It is hard to understand why they let it happen at a facility where a large amount of plutonium is handled,” said NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka. “This is by all means serious. But I am especially troubled by the fact that this happened at the most important facility in terms of non-proliferation,” added NRA commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa. The Monju reactor, originally designed to be a central part of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, is currently in a state of limbo after the NRA’s criticized a “lax safety culture” there. Construction on the plant was begun in 1986, almost 30 years ago, but because of numerous safety issues, cover-ups, and technical issues. It has only operated for a total of 250 days, and produced electricity for one single hour. It’s widely considered a failure. So far, the project has cost Japan more than 1 trillion yen.

The controversy surrounding Japanese lawmaker Taro Yamamoto also continued this week. Mr Yamamoto, who stands as an independent, attracted criticism last week after handing a letter expressing concerns about conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to Emperor Akihito at a garden party. This was seen by many as breaking the country's taboo that sets the Emperor above the activities of government. Mr Yamamoto appeared before the Members of the House of Councillors steering committee which will decide whether to punish him. He has denied he intends to resign. The Imperial Household Agency, the government agency that "takes charge of the state matters concerning the Imperial House" criticized Mr Yamamato, calling his actions "inappropriate". “If I had intended to use (the emperor) for political purposes, I would have disclosed the contents of the letter, but I haven't," he said. Emperor Akihito has not read the letter.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi this week defended his call for Japan to go nuclear power-free. He denied accusations that he was "irresponsible". "People's views change," he said in a speech. He also expressed doubts about Japan ever building a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste. "If a strong leader emerges, can he or she achieve the construction of a site that can be used for 100,000 years by ignoring opposition of local residents? It would be optimistic and irresponsible to think that it is possible," he said. Mr Koizumi also called for greater use of renewable energy sources. "Instead of using a vast amount of money on such matters, it would be better to spend (money) on developing many kinds of energy sources that make use of nature," he said.          

The government is discussing plans to set up a network of "nuclear disaster hub hospitals" in order to be better prepared in the even of another nuclear accident. The hospitals will be selected from those currently within a 30-kilometre radius of a nuclear power plant and will operate under national standards drawn up by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). More than 100 groups of doctors and nurses will also be established to help people affected by radiation. The new system will come after the current system was seen to have failed in the days after the Fukushima disaster began. Of the six hospitals designated to help with decontamination and appropriate medical treatments, only one had a dedicated department for such matters.

Away, from nuclear power issues, Japan opened its largest solar power plant this week. The Kagoshima Nanatsujima Mega Solar Plant in the south west of the country will generate enough electricity to power 22,000 homes. "We would like to contribute to new development and improvement for human societies through a new type of energy production from Kagoshima, the place where many courageous samurai challenged the ancient political and social regime in the 1860s to reform the country," said the plant's president Nobuo Kitamura.

Reactor Restarts

Japan should restart and maintain a number of nuclear reactors if it is to stay industrially competitive, said Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) this week. “Adequate attention, of course, needs to be paid to ensuring safety, but the risks of keeping reactors offline should be considered as well,” he said.

His statement was followed by news from TEPCO that it expects reactors at its idle Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant to be restarted next July. The company asked for safety inspections to be conducted on reactors 6 and 7 in September. It also hopes to present plans to restart reactors 1 and 5. However, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority has linked any safety approval of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors to TEPCO's progress in dealing with the ongoing crisis at Fukushima.