(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

Eight towns near the Fukushima Daiichi plant are petitioning the Japanese government to extend subsidies for hosting nuclear power plants, even if those plants are decommissioned. Since 1974, Japan has allocated significant taxpayer funds to communities that host plants in an effort to promote public acceptance of nuclear power. However, those subsidies end once plants are decommissioned, throwing the financial future of the towns that accept them into question. Leaders of the eight towns are requesting the “creation of a new grant system that would allow communities to follow the path of self-reliant development even after decommissioning.”

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has convened a panel of six nuclear energy experts to look at technical problems that led to the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The panel will continue to meet through March. At their first meeting, the group emphasized Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO)’s failure to provide adequate backup electrical power.

Residents of Shiga Prefecture plan to file an injunction against the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) in order to prevent it from restarting its Tsuruga Plant, located in Fukui Prefecture. The plaintiffs are concerned that a nuclear disaster would contaminate nearby Lake Biwa, the area’s main water source.

The seismic safety of the Higashadori nuclear power plant, located in Aomori Prefecture, is being called into question after researchers from the University of Tokyo released a study showing that the plant lies on a series of active fault lines. The plant is currently in shutdown status. Experts say that the discovery may question the earthquake readiness of other plants, as well.

TEPCO

NISA has released over 200 pages of TEPCO’s nuclear emergency manuals to the public. The agency originally requested the manuals in August, but TEPCO, citing intellectual property rights and concerns about terrorism, submitted such heavily redacted versions that only a few words were visible. After refusing this request and ordering the utility to resubmit unredacted copies, NISA released them with only the names of individuals blacked out. The manuals reveal that TEPCO made no provisions for power loss in the case of a natural emergency, because the company dismissed that as possibility.

Meanwhile, sources at TEPCO said that the company considered a plan in 2006 to link electrical supply lines between all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but eventually abandoned the plan because of cost issues and a belief that power sources would never be compromised. Experts now say that power loss directly contributed to nuclear meltdowns that occurred at the plant, and that the plan to link power lines could have lessened the impact of the disaster.

Yukio Edano, the head of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), has warned TEPCO that it must reduce costs by at least 2.5 trillion yen over the next ten years in order to receive government assistance with its overwhelming compensation payments to victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The President of TEPCO announced that although his company is petitioning Japan’s central government for assistance in paying trillions of yen in compensation, it will try to move forward without accepting government injections of capital. The utility is trying to remain under private operation, as opposed to becoming a government-controlled entity.

State of the Reactors

A robot being used to measure radiation, take photographs, and provide communication within the confines of the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been stranded on the third floor of Reactor 2 for several days. If technical experts cannot restore communications, TEPCO said that workers will retrieve it manually, in spite of high radiation levels. The robot is named Quince.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure and Food Testing)

Greenpeace Japan has petitioned the Japanese government to provide more accurate labeling of fish and other seafood, after testing 60 samples from supermarkets in Kanto and Tokoku. Although all samples measured lower than the government’s limit of 500 Bq/kg, Wakao Hanaoka, Greenpeace Japan’s Oceans Campaigner, criticized this standard, saying that even lower levels of cesium can be harmful to children and pregnant women. The radiation standard in other countries is far lower; in the Ukraine, for instance, the allowable cesium level for seafood is 150 Bq/kg. Greenpeace is working with the Japan Chain Stores Association to encourage its members to set their own limits, a move that will benefit both stores and consumers who are concerned about radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, a Japanese grocery retailer, Catalog House Ltd, has started using radiation detection units in its displays to show the cesium levels of fruits and vegetables. The company believes that the move will increase sales among consumers who are concerned about possible radiation contamination. The store is considering separating produce into two sections: “within Japanese standards” (measuring less than 500 Bq/kg) and “within Ukrainian standards” (measuring less than 40 Bq/kg for vegetables and 70 Bq/kg for fruits.)

The Science Ministry announced last week that it will strengthen methods of monitoring radiation in oceans and sea life. Ministry officials plan to test fish and seafood approximately once a week, depending on fishermen’s schedules, in addition to using more accurate measuring equipment to monitor seawater 30 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Japan’s Forestry Agency will test cedar pollen samples in the spring, after local residents expressed concern about possible spread of radiation through the pollen grains. Depending on wind speed and direction, pollen can travel over 200 km. Experts say that the amount of radiation carried by pollen is small.

Radioactive Hotspots

A highly radioactive hotspot, whose soil measured 276,000 Bq/kg of cesium, was detected this week in the community of Kashiwa, in Chiba Prefecture. The discovery was made by a citizen carrying a dosimeter while out on a walk in the area, which is used as a public square. Prefectural officials believe that the hotspot was the result of radioactive rain that fell soon after the March nuclear disaster, and leaked into the soil through a crack in a gutter, concentrating the radioactivity. Kashiwa is approximately 200 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, raising concerns that radioactivity may have spread much further than TEPCO and the government previously admitted.

Members of the Matsudo Assembly in Chiba Prefecture have discovered a radioactive hotspot measuring 7.0 microsieverts per hour. City officials would not reveal the location of the hotspot or how it was dealing with it in order to avoid “harmful rumors.”

In response to numerous complaints about radioactive hotspots in areas far from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s Science Ministry has established a telephone hotline so residents can report high radiation readings. Local governments will be responsible for decontaminating hotspots, but the central government will absorb the cost.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Municipal governments are continuing to struggle with how to temporarily store radioactive waste that is accumulating as a result of massive decontamination efforts.  A recent survey of 162 municipalities showed that 69% could not find waste storage locations because residents refused to grant approval. Concern about the effect that radiation fears will have on businesses and product sales is exacerbating the issue. Moreover, most local officials could not provide any estimates of how much the initiative would cost. Over half of the municipalities polled simply refused to host temporary waste sites. The Environment Ministry will provide a timetable for interim waste storage by the end of November.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono has admitted that the nation’s national forests will have to be used as interim storage sites for much of the radioactive waste. The Forest Ministry will initially allow radioactive rice straw and contaminated soil to be temporarily stored in forests, although radioactive sludge and ash may eventually be added to the list. The Ministry said that the nuclear waste will be stored in waterproof containers and, when appropriate, concrete vessels.

Scientists from the University of Yamanashi and Toho University say that they have discovered green algae that can absorb radioactive cesium and strontium. The researchers say that painting the algae on walls and then scraping it off can reduce cesium concentrations by 40%, and that of strontium by 80%. Experiments will be conducted in November to confirm its effectiveness. However, some experts caution that the algae will still form highly radioactive sludge that will need to be disposed of; as it ferments, it will produce even more concentrated radioactive gas.

Compensation

Fukushima Prefecture residents who voluntarily evacuated their homes are requesting compensation from the Japanese government and a designation that their homes are no longer safe to inhabit. Over 36,000 residents voluntarily fled from areas outside of the 20 km no-entry zone after the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns in March.

Other Nuclear News

Diplomats from Jordan announced that if the Diet does not ratify a pact allowing the export of nuclear technologies by year-end, a Japanese-French consortium will lose the opportunity to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant. Currently, Mitsubishi Heavy and French-owned Areva are competing against consortia from other countries to win the lucrative contract, valued at $4 billion.