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

Work to remove over 1,500 nuclear fuel assemblies from a storage pool from the Fukushima Daiichi's reactor #4 building began this week. The plant's operator TEPCO announced that the first day's work had been "safety completed". According to TEPCO, workers took just under three and a half hours to lower the container for the assemblies into the storage pool and load four fuel assemblies into it. Once there are 22 assemblies inside the container (or cask) it will be moved to another common fuel storage pool and the assemblies unloaded. The cask must remain watertight - if the assemblies are exposed to air which may allow them to emit radiation into the atmosphere. The reactor #4 building has been covered by a steel-framed structure which it is hoped will contain any radioactive emissions. Loading the 22 assemblies will take a week. "This is an important moment. It is one big step towards decommissioning the reactor," said TEPCO spokesman, Yoshimi Hitosugi. A hand-picked team of 36 workers is conducting the transfer.

Voices from both sides of the nuclear debate have expressed concerns about the procedure. "The process involves a very large risk potential. In a sense, it is more risky than the radioactive water crisis," Shunichi Tanaka, chief of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), has said. He has also observed that "small scars may get bigger" in any damaged assemblies. "We are concerned that TEPCO may not be capable of conducting this risky operation safely, and that there are significant risks involved in this operation. TEPCO's inability to solve the problems with leaking tanks that store contaminated water and the continued flow of contaminated water from the site to the ocean adds to our concerns about its ability to handle this dangerous operation to remove spent fuel. If TEPCO makes mistakes again and can't handle this task, workers could be exposed to excessive levels of radiation and in a worst-case scenario there could be a massive new release of radiation to the atmosphere," said Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan's nuclear campaigner.

There are 1,533 fuel assemblies in the reactor #4 pool, 202 of which are unused and the rest containing spent fuel. Each assembly measure 4.5 meters and contains between 60 and 80 fuel rods containing uranium fuel pellets. Emptying the entire pool, which is 18 meters above ground level, is expected to take a year although there is still no word on how TEPCO plans to deal with the three damaged fuel assemblies in the pool which cannot be removed using the system the company has put in place. It remains to be seen if any other fuel assemblies have been damaged either before or because of the March 2011 disaster.

In other news, a former TEPCO engineer has expressed doubt on the company's narrative of what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.TEPCO insists that it was the tsunami that caused the disaster not the earthquake but Toshio Kimura disputes this. Analyzing data released by TEPCO, Mr Kimura has a prepared a report saying that damage to reactor cooling systems took place before the massive tsunami hit the plant. However, so far TEPCO has refused to release all the data. “While I was with Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), a question was raised internally as to whether or not the measuring pipe installed at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the diameter of which is about the same as that of a human thumb, can withstand an earthquake. But TEPCO has yet to make clear whether or not the March 2011 earthquake damaged that pipe,” said Mr Kimura.

TEPCO

TEPCO announced several measures this week in further attempts to turn around its parlous financial state. The company announced that it would expect to file a pretax profit of around 100 billion yen in the financial year to March 2015 if it is permitted to restart two currently idle reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture by next July. It also said it expected an 80 billion yen loss if permission is refused. In response to TEPCO's projection, the company#s banks announced further funding of 500 billion yen. Last week,Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) announced it is commencing safety screening procedures at the two reactors. NRA Chairman has said, however, that there are many problems at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors.

Secondly, TEPCO has said that it is looking to cut 1,000 staff by Autumn 2014 in an attempt to cut costs and improve efficiency. The cuts will be made by offering voluntary redundancy and early retirement packages to workers. The move is part of a restructuring plan which the company hopes will stem calls for the company to be forced into bankruptcy or broken up. Some TEPCO executives have reportedly expressed doubts about the plan, however. “We are going ahead with compensation matters and power generation with the minimum number of workers so now is not the right time to be reducing the work force,” said one.

Other Nuclear News in Japan

Fukushima City Mayor Takanori Seto was defeated in the mayoral electoral election there this weekHe was beaten Kaoru Kobayashi, a former environment ministry official and political newcomer. Mr Koboyashi received more than double the votes of Mr Seto, with 72,441 votes to 32,851. Mr Seto's defeat is being put down to voter frustration of radioactive decontamination efforts in Fukushima. “I could not see what the mayor was doing at all,” said one voter My Koboyashi declared his victory "was the result of the people’s deeply seated hope to change the current situation", adding, "I will solve problems head-on in response to calls to change stagnant Fukushima to a city with bright hopes. Let's change Fukushima for our children and grandchildren.'' Mr Seto's defeat is the latest in a series for incumbent city mayors across Fukushima prefecture. The mayors of Koriyama, Iwaki and Tomioka were all also ousted this year.

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Findings of a survey released this week by Japan's National Institute for Environmental Studies has found that 20% of people are avoiding buying produce from areas they consider contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima disaster. The findings come as farmers in Fukushima attempt to reassure consumers with the scanning of their rice for radiation. There are 173 scanning facilities through Fukushima prefecture which rejects any shipment of rice whose radioactivity exceeds the national safety limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram. The facilities scanned 270,000 bags of rice last year and "99.9 percent of the rice scanned (last year) was at or below 25 becquerels (per kilogram)," said Hiroaki Tsujimoto, an official of the city's agricultural policy department. Seventy-one bags exceeded the safety limit.

Radioactive Waste Disposal

It has emerged this week that the Japan Atomic Power Co may once again postpone the decommissioning of its Tokai nuclear power plant because there is still no storage facility for the nuclear waste. Work that was supposed to begin in 2011 was postponed until 2014 and looks set to be delayed even further. The plant, closed in 1998, is expected to create 27,800 tons of nuclear waste, 1,600 tons of which must be buried underground at a depth between 50 and 100 meters. The decommissioning plan drawn up in 2006 expected work to begin in 2011 and take six years at a cost of 88.5 billion yen ($883 million). Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority is yet to draw up safety standards for nuclear disposal sites.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

Just two year and a half years after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the temporary housing erected for evacuees has begun to deteriorate. Fukushima's prefectural government has said it will check all 17,000 units as requests for repairs to housing units have reached 300 a month. Residents complain of crumbling floors and walls, and with winter on the way some are concerned about cold entering through gaps in walls of subsiding units. Doors and windows in some units no longer close properly. One resident, Jusei Saito, said he suspected the problems were caused because the housing had been built on wooden rather than concrete foundations. The temporary units are home to 29,500 people.