(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
In an interview with The Mainichi Daily News, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he is considering approving operation of nuclear plants that are currently under construction. Noda said, ‘I’ll make a final decision on each of them while considering the opinions of local communities.’ Until now, Japan has had a custom that local municipalities have the final say in whether or not nuclear plants could operate within a community. Noda’s statement is a reversal of his previous assertion that building new nuclear power plants would be ‘unlikely.’
Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) has released a draft plan recommending that evacuation zones around nuclear disasters be extended to a 30 kilometer radius, which would bring Japan in line with international standards. The current Japanese evacuation standard is 10 kilometers. In addition, the commission says that residents living within 5 kilometers should be evacuated immediately after any nuclear accident, as a precautionary measure. Those within 50 kilometers are being advised to take potassium iodide tablets to protect against thyroid cancer.
In an unusual move, the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly approved a resolution to decommission 10 reactors within the Prefecture, all operated by TEPCO. The utility has decided to shut down heavily damaged reactors 1-4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but has not made a decision on reactors 5 and 6 there. The remaining four reactors are located at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant. The move is politically significant; it is the first time a prefectural assembly in Japan has voted on decommissioning nuclear reactors.
In a rejection of nuclear power, four municipalities out of 44 have refused nuclear subsidies awarded to towns that host nuclear plants. The program has been in place since 1974 and provides money for infrastructure and community enhancement. The rejection of the subsidies, which are often significant, is an unusual political statement.
Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said that Japan must become a leader in nuclear power safety. Edano was speaking at the International Energy Agency (IEA) ministerial meeting in Paris this week. At that same meeting, the IEA agreed to promote low-carbon sources of energy, including nuclear power.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will visit Prime Minister Noda this week, to discuss nuclear energy issues in preparation for the upcoming G-20 Summit, which will convene in Cannes next month.
Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has petitioned the Japanese government for 1 trillion yen to cover compensation costs for this year as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Those costs would eventually be passed on to the Japanese taxpayers.
Bernard Bigot, the Chief of the French Atomic Energy Commission, said that if TEPCO had pumped seawater into the reactors immediately after losing power in the March earthquake, the hydrogen explosions and subsequent nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant could have been avoided. Bigot was speaking in Tokyo.
State of the Reactors
Over three tons of highly radioactive water leaked from a water treatment unit at the Fukushima Daiichi plant this week. It was the second largest leak since the nuclear disaster occurred in March. TEPCO said that the water has been recovered and that no radiation leaked outside the facility. The company is investigating the cause and exact location of the leak.
Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)
Tests show that two young boys in Fukushima Prefecture were exposed to internal radiation as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The children are between four and seven years old. Experts said that the lifetime dose each received equals approximately 3 millisieverts. A total of 4,463 residents were tested for radiation exposure between June 27 and the end of September.
High radiation levels measuring 3.99 microsieverts per hour were discovered at a Tokyo elementary school located over 200 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. By contrast, radiation levels in Fukushima City measured 1 microsievert per hour on the same day. Levels at the school were almost 20 times greater than the legal limit.
Two Tokyo environmental organizations have discovered radioactive hot spots in the city’s Katsushika and Edogawa Wards, raising further concerns that the government has not identified all contaminated locations. Levels in Katsushika reached 5.47 microsieverts per hour; levels in Edogawa measured 6.7 microsieverts per hour.
In response to the recent discovery of numerous radioactive hotspots in heavily populated Tokyo and other locations, the Education Ministry will release guidelines on locating and decontaminating hotspots. The government will also provide equipment. Citizen groups have discovered many of the hotspots.
Tea leaves produced in Tokyo and Saitama have measured between 550 and 2,063 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. Local officials are advising farmers to dispose of contaminated crops.
Japan’s Education Ministry has produced detailed radiation maps showing cesium levels in air and soil by both municipality and district. The maps are available online here.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) is now using unmanned drone helicopters to monitor radiation levels in forests and other areas where access is difficult.
Decontamination and Waste Disposal
Farmers in Fukushima, Miyagi, and six other prefectures are increasingly frustrated that the government has not disposed of or provided storage options for 7,200 tons of radioactive rice straw. Some municipalities had planned to temporarily store the contaminated straw at local facilities, but residents expressed reluctance. In the meantime, farmers are concerned they will have no place to store this year’s crop of rice straw; in addition, some worry that cattle may accidentally consume the contaminated straw, causing another beef crisis and concerns about the safety of the food supply.
Fukushima City began the process of decontaminating all homes and public areas this week, starting with the Onami District. City officials hope to complete the work by the end of 2012. Prime Minister Noda visited the area for 20 minutes to observe the process, and promised that his administration will try to remove the radioactive waste that has leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Only three companies are currently planning to return to the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where evacuation advisories within the 20-30 kilometer radius of the plant were recently lifted. Those that have decided not to return blame their decisions on a lack of customers and workers, since so many people moved away from the area; decontamination issues; and concerns that consumers will avoid locally-made products due to radiation fears. One town official said, ‘Lifting the advisory before radioactive decontamination has been done is an example of doing things in the wrong order. Temporary storage places for waste haven’t even been decided.’ Without industry, the area will be difficult to repopulate.
Power Company Corruption
After being lambasted by METI minister Yukio Edano, Kyushu Electric said that it would reconsider the punishment meted out to high-ranking executives who were involved in a scandal in which the company tried to falsely influence public opinion in restarting its nuclear reactors. Initially, the company said that those executives would receive a 30% reduction in salary for three months. In addition, Kyushu will revise its report to the ministry. The original version did not clarify the role Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa played in the incident.
Other Nuclear News
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will implement seven safety recommendations made by an NRC task force studying the Fukushima disaster. Chairman Gregory Jaczko said that within five years, safety standards at nuclear plants in the US should be more robust.