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

TEPCO

In a complete turnaround from previous statements, including a comprehensive report released in June in which it denied all blame, TEPCO is now admitting that the Fukushima nuclear disaster could have been avoided if it had prepared for tsunamis it was well aware could possibly occur, held more effective safety drills, diversified power sources, adhered to international standards, and was better organized. Utility officials made the admission while meeting last week with its Nuclear Reform Special Taskforce, a panel of external advisors (appointed by TEPCO) assigned to reform the company’s management and safety practices. A statement released by the utility said, “When looking back on the accident, the problem was that preparations were not made in advance. Could necessary measures have been taken with previous tsunami evaluations? It was possible to take action.” TEPCO openly admitted that it refrained from better protecting the plant because it was worried that doing so “would exacerbate…public anxiety and add momentum to anti-nuclear movements” as well as open itself up to increased liability.

The five-person panel is led by Dale Klein, former Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Agency, and includes Barbara Judge, formerly Atomic Energy Chair in Great Britain, and Kenichi Omae, a Japanese management consultant. In an interview with Reuters, Klein said that TEPCO needs to embrace a culture of reform, as other industries in Japan have, and move beyond the so-called “nuclear village” mentality. “We had some open and frank discussions with our committee and with TEPCO management. Japan has demonstrated excellence in manufacturing. In that process, any worker can stop the process if he feels there is a defect. TEPCO needs to do the same thing with their nuclear safety culture,” he said, adding, “There is a tendency among companies and individuals where there first is a problem of denial. So you try to justify your actions to either cover up or save face. Fukushima Daiichi cannot be covered up.” Klein admitted to being shocked at the magnitude of the damage at the plant, noting, “When you look at the site, it is very depressing. The damage is stunning. The amount of forces that were released.”

Some analysts have accused TEPCO of appointing the panel and finally accepting responsibility for the disaster only as a means of winning public confidence in order to restart its other reactors. The utility has denied those charges.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Yukio Edano, head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said this week that the government will work to strengthen its ability to make the final determination regarding whether or not new nuclear plants should be constructed. Japan recently announced a new policy, the so-called Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment, which said that the nation will eradicate nuclear power by 2039, and no new reactors will be built. However, a loophole in the policy allows operators of three reactors currently under construction to continue building. If those reactors go online and are allowed to run for the government-sanctioned 40 years, they would operate for a decade or more past 2039.

Currently, the newly-created Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), an independent entity that replaced the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), legally makes the decision on whether proposed construction projects can move forward. NISA was long criticized for conflicts of interest in its decision-making processes, because it fell under the purview of METI, which was created to promote nuclear power. Edano said, “I believe that even under the current legal framework, the government can prevent construction of an unwanted reactor. Nevertheless, we should consider revising laws and ministerial regulations.” However, he did not clarify what would happen if the Noda administration were to be replaced by a new, pro-nuclear government, which might choose to instead promote nuclear power.

Nine power companies reported this week that they do not expect electricity shortages this winter, in spite of the fact that 48 out of 50 nuclear reactors are offline and are not expected to restart until at least next year, if ever. The utilities were meeting with a government panel on power demand and supply. The admission raises questions about whether or not nuclear power is even necessary in Japan, given the profound risks of operating nuclear reactors in a country prone to massive earthquakes and tsunamis.

A new survey by Japan’s Board of Audit reveals that although 99% of 1,742 municipalities across the nation have connected to the country’s emergency alert system, known as J-Alert, more than 40% are incapable of actually automatically broadcasting emergency alerts in case of a crisis, including a nuclear disaster. Local governments are responsible for operating the system. In 569 cities and towns, J-Alert will not automatically engage, either because the town has no wireless system and cannot afford to upgrade, the system it does have has not been digitized, or it’s been turned off because residents have complained about too many false alerts and nighttime sirens. In the remaining municipalities, J-Alert is automatically activated via satellite once a disaster begins to unfold. The Board of Audit has submitted a report to the Diet, emphasizing the importance of an emergency alert system in a country susceptible to massive earthquakes and tsunamis.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO invited reporters from major media outlets in Japan to tour the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant this week, for the first time since May. Busses drove past the four destroyed reactors, revealing rubble and debris on the road, as well as an abandoned overturned vehicle there. The damaged steel frame of reactor #3, severely damaged after a hydrogen explosion there in the days following the meltdowns, has begun to rust and corrode. Dosimeters showed that radiation levels inside the enclosed bus measured at 1,000 microsieverts per hour as it passed reactor #4. According to the World Nuclear Association, average background radiation levels are just 2.4 microsieverts in an entire year. Near reactors #1 and #2, radiation levels inside the bus were 800 microsieverts per hour. One reporter from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that he was exposed to 54 microsieverts during the course of the five and a half hour tour.

TEPCO officials said this week that workers successfully gathered water samples from the primary containment vessel in reactor #1 at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The containment vessel surrounds a pressure vessel, where experts believe that nuclear fuel melted through the floor. That fuel is presumably now in the containment vessel, although they still have not been able to determine its exact location. The water was highly radioactive, containing 54 million Bq/liter.

In addition, workers inserted a small camera into the containment vessel, but said that its limited range of movement prevented them from seeing very much beyond the chamber’s floor. They said that they were unable to see significant damage, but did note peeling coating on the walls and fragments of that coating several centimeters in diameter on the vessel’s floor.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

For the first time in more than 30 months, Japan has resumed making shipments of beef to the United States. Shipments were initially halted in 2010 in response to an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease; the suspension was then continued as a result of concerns about radiation contamination. The nuclear disaster has had disastrous effects on the farming industry in Fukushima Prefecture. More than 19 months after the crisis first began, beef prices are between 20% and 30% lower than they were before the nuclear meltdowns occurred.

Researchers from Kanagawa Prefecture’s Azabu University have discovered that dogs from Fukushima Prefecture are exhibiting signs of long-term psychological trauma as a result of last year’s earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster, which led to chaos and the eventual evacuation or death of almost all humans in the region. Scientists compared dogs rescued from Fukushima with ownerless dogs living in an animal shelter in Kanagawa. The Fukushima dogs showed higher levels of cortisol in their urine, a sign of stress, and had more difficulty developing attachments to their new caretakers and responding to training. Kazutaka Mogi, an Associate Professor at Azabu University, noted, “The disaster abruptly disrupted the dogs’ ties with humans and placed them in a chaotic social environment. That deepened the dogs’ psychological damage.” The study was published in this month’s issue of Great Britain’s Scientific Reports.