(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
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) members who oppose the use of nuclear power say that they are being shut out of the political process. Two committees established by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan to examine the impact of the Fukushima disaster and explore power supply issues have been abolished by the Noda administration, and replaced with a committee with a pro-nuclear slant. The chair of the DPJ, Seiji Maehara, is said to be pushing a return to nuclear power. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda that he would try to restart idled reactors by next summer; Maehara wants them restarted by December of this year, in spite of public reluctance and concerns about safety.
As part of its review of the nation’s energy policies, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission is studying the growing cost of nuclear power. For the first time, it will include the costs of compensation, decontamination, and decommissioning reactors in case of nuclear accidents in its estimate. In addition, the panel will add the cost of recycling and disposing of spent fuel and other nuclear waste. A report containing the findings will be released in March.
Industry Minister Yukio Edano announced that Japan will investigate power companies’ current energy pricing systems. TEPCO is under fire for charging more than necessary for electricity.
Tatsuya Murakami, the mayor of Tokai Village, met this week with Nuclear Minister Goshi Hosono to request that the Tokai Daini plant be decommissioned. The plant, which is over 30 years old, has been offline since the March earthquake struck. Murakami pointed out that over a million people live within 30 kilometers of the plant, and said he will not consent to restarting the reactor.
After considerable pressure, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has begun to distribute a revised guidebook for victims of the Fukushima disaster who are eligible for compensation. The new booklet is four pages long, compared to the original guidebook, which was 160 pages long. The company also removed a controversial clause stipulating that applicants could not make additional claims once the form was submitted. However, residents are complaining that the application form itself is still 60 pages long and is so complicated many do not understand it. New claim forms will need to be filed every three months. Of the 60,000 people who have received the form, only 7,600 (12.5%) have returned it. Out of that group, TEPCO had sent compensation checks to only six households as of October 7.
For the first time since the March meltdowns, TEPCO conducted safety drills at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The drill supposed a magnitude 8.0 earthquake that damaged onsite water injection equipment; crews connected piping to a fire truck and used it to pump seawater. TEPCO said that water services could be restored within 3 hours, and that the plant is safe.
State of the Reactors
TEPCO says new tests show that radiation levels in Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have fallen below government limits for nuclear workers.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)
High levels of radiation were reported in the Setagaya neighborhood of Tokyo. Officials originally thought it was caused by the Fukushima disaster, but eventually discovered highly radioactive glass bottles beneath an unoccupied home. Officials, who could not explain how the bottles got there, removed them in a lead box and are doing additional testing.
Residents in Yokohama City who hired an independent laboratory to test soil samples from the roof of their apartment building are reporting high levels of strontium-90. The lab reported 195 Bq/kg. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 30 years and can accumulate in bones, causing cancer. City officials have ordered additional testing of the soil nearby. Yokohama City is 250 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Problems are emerging following Japan’s decision to monitor the thyroid health of children. The only examination center is far from many families, and in an area with higher radiation levels. Many parents are afraid to bring their children there. Residents have requested that the examinations take place in local schools, but a shortage of doctors, nurses, and testing equipment is exacerbating the problem.
Residents who live within mountainous regions in Fukushima Prefecture experience fresh contamination each time it rains, and are concerned that the government’s efforts to decontaminate will not be effective. Fukushima City decontaminated two districts this summer; afterward, radiation tests actually showed higher rates of contamination in seven different locations. Some residents express worry that the central government will not pay for repeated decontamination. Over 70% of the prefecture is mountainous.
Fukushima Prefecture has declared all rice safe for shipment. The prefecture set up 1,700 testing sites, and said that all samples tested less than 500 Bq/kg.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
The Japanese government has confirmed that it will pay decontamination costs for all areas where radiation levels measure higher than one millisievert per year. Previously, the government said it would only decontaminate areas higher than 5 millisieverts, a move that was met with considerable criticism from residents. The goal is to cut radiation by 50% by August 2013, and by 60% in areas frequented by children, including parks and schools. Local governments are responsible for decontaminating areas lower than 20 millisieverts (with financial help from the central government.)
Japan now estimates that 13,000 square kilometers will require decontamination —more than seven times the original estimate of 1,800 kilometers. Updated costs for the process have not yet been released, but are expected to be great.
The Environment Ministry will officially declare that any radioactive waste measuring less than 8,000 Bq/kg can be treated like any other waste. Highly contaminated waste measuring more than 8,000 Bq/kg will be processed the central government. As of August, 42 waste-processing facilities had discovered waste higher than the government limit.)
Radioactive soil from the so-called ‘no-go zone’ within a 20 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant will not be removed from the area until March 2014 — two and half years from now.
Date City, located 60 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has opened a decontamination center to assist residents. Experts will provide technical assistance, provide safety information, and conduct radiation readings. In addition, residents will be able to borrow decontamination equipment.
For the first time in over seven months, students returned to three newly decontaminated elementary schools and one preschool within the newly reopened evacuation advisory zone. The schools are located approximately 30 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Enrollment has dropped considerably, since many families have moved from the area.
Power Company Corruption
In yet another example of corrupt relationships between utility companies and politicians, records show that nuclear power executives have tried to buy influence from members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) since the 1990s. Nine power companies, including TEPCO, paid for lavish meals and trips, provided paid permanent staff, and in some cases, regularly handed over envelopes containing as much as three million yen. The lawmakers targeted were those who focused on nuclear and energy issues, and often, the politicians themselves approached power company executives with requests. TEPCO says the practice has stopped since the Fukushima crisis, although one political aid reportedly told a TEPCO employee, ‘After several years, we will make requests of you again.’