(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

Saying it will be difficult to ‘restrict exposure’ in some areas, Japan may temporarily raise the allowable annual radiation limit from one millisievert per year to 20 millisieverts. Once decontamination processes are complete, the limit will be lowered again. The decision is expected to generate both controversy and resistance.

Nobuaki Koga, the President of Rengo, Japan’s largest labor union, was re-elected to a two-year term. In his keynote speech at the group’s annual meeting, Koga urged Rengo to reconsider its energy policy with an eye on promoting renewable forms and energy and moving away from nuclear power. Previously, the group had embraced a pro-nuclear stance. In the interim, Koga is advocating for short-term restarts of nuclear power plants, assuming power companies can garner public support to do so.

A survey by Japan’s Board of Audit shows that $860 million, earmarked for nuclear site reserve funds, sits idle while the future of Japan’s energy program remains in flux. The money is part of a 40 year-old program that designates grant money for development of roads, social welfare programs, and other infrastructure near new nuclear plants. Fourteen new reactors are scheduled to be built in Japan; however, because of public concern since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, construction has begun on only three. The Board of Audit will decide what to do with the money once Japan clarifies its energy policy.

At the request of the Japanese government, power companies around the country will build seawalls to try to protect nuclear plants from tsunamis. The process at each plant is expected to take between six months and three years. Construction has already begun at the Hokuriku plant in Ishikawa Prefecture. The Hokuriku wall will be 4 meters high (11 meters above sea level) and 700 meters in length.

TEPCO

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) finally submitted full, unredacted copies of three accident manuals to Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), after numerous requests. However, the company has requested that no more than 50% of the manuals be released to the public, citing intellectual property concerns. Two of the manuals are only a few pages long. In the case of the so-called serious accident manual, TEPCO says that 90% of the document must remain confidential, because of ‘terrorism concerns.’ NISA said it would consider the request; the documents will be released by the end of this month.

Records reveal that TEPCO spent more than JY50 million a year on tickets to political fundraising events over the course of several years, in spite of a promise made in 1974 to abstain from political donations. One year, expenditures topped JY100 million. A former TEPCO executive admitted that in each instance, donations were intentionally kept below JY200,000, the amount at which politicians are required to report donors. The executive added that the amount donated depended on that politician’s influence in nuclear issues. ‘We evaluated politicians, considering whether they were elected from prefectures that host TEPCO facilities or how much they are supportive of…the electric power industry.’

NISA has ordered TEPCO to prepare written safety protocols as it decommissions the Fukushima Daiichi reactors over the next three years. Requested guidelines will cover radiation management, including hotspots; prevention of hydrogen explosions; nuclear waste management; and worker safety.

At the invitation of the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has sent a team of experts to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The team will provide technical assistance with radiation management and decontamination needs at the plant.

A report released by the panel evaluating TEPCO’s financial health said that if reactors remain offline, electricity rates remain the same, and banks do not continue to extend loans to TEPCO, it could see a JY8.6 trillion deficit over the next 10 years. Some experts believe that the company will soon fall under government control. If the company declares bankruptcy, victims may not receive compensation payments.

NISA has released a safety plan for the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, once cold shutdown status is achieved. The 57-point plan covers several areas, including managing and reducing radiation leaks, continuing to reduce fuel temperature, and preventing both hydrogen explosions and recriticality. NISA has expressed concern that the temporary equipment TEPCO is currently using to manage the disaster might not hold up to another earthquake, threatening not only the goal of a cold shutdown but another nuclear crisis. The plan highlights the need to backup cooling methods and at least two alternative power sources.

Contamination (Including Human Exposure)

Blood and urine tests have revealed thyroid problems in 10 of 130 children from Fukushima Prefecture. The children ranged from infant to 16 years of age. Children are highly susceptible to radiation causing cancers, including thyroid cancer.

High levels of radioactive cesium have been discovered in Fukushima City, 60 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Cesium levels in soil measured as high as 370,000 Bq/kg, three times the legal limit, and similar to levels that triggered mandatory evacuation at Chernobyl. Residents are asking the government to designate the area as a hot spot. That move would allow those who voluntarily evacuate to receive government funding and compensation. Although some areas of the city have already been decontaminated, those efforts have not been effective.

Starting this month, radiation will be measured at 500 elementary schools. Data will be updated every 10 minutes and posted on the internet, in an effort to allay parents’ concerns about radiation danger. Eventually, kindergartens and high schools will also be included in the program.

Japan will monitor radiation levels in five towns where evacuation advisories were recently lifted. Radiation will be measured on roads and hills, as well as rivers, springs, and wells, and data will be made public.

Officials in Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture will soon reopen five schools, now that an evacuation advisory has been lifted. Students will be allowed to play outdoors for a maximum of two hours a day, but must wear masks as well as long sleeves and pants to reduce exposure to ongoing radiation. Children are particularly susceptible to the cancer-inducing effects of radiation.

Miyagi Prefecture will begin monitoring radiation at 44 locations in the prefecture by March 2012. Data will be released to the public.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries will measure radiation levels at 400 locations in forests in Fukushima. Forests comprise 70% of the prefecture. Experts will map radiation levels one meter above the ground and measure soil contamination levels 5 cm below the surface. The map will be released in February. The ministry plans to decontaminate forests 20 meters from populated areas by removing radioactive soil and leaves. However, other forested land will remain contaminated, in part because removing soil from all areas would produce too much nuclear waste.

Experts say that Japan’s decision to extend decontamination efforts to all areas measuring more than 1 millisievert of radiation will raise the overall cost of decontamination by an indeterminate amount. The total area requiring decontamination is still unknown. The cost of the original plan, which would have limited decontamination to areas measuring 5 millisieverts, was estimated at JY1.4 trillion.

Incineration at a waste disposal facility in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, was halted this week after cesium levels in ash were measured at 70,800 Bq/kg. The legal limit for ash that can be buried is 8,000 Bq/kg. The city has not said when or if the facility will be re-opened. 

Fukushima Prefecture has begun decontamination training sessions for engineers, painters, and volunteers. The sessions focus on decontamination methods, worker safety, and use of dosimeters.

Power Company Scandals

The Ministry of Economy, Technology, and Industry (METI) will punish six officials accused of manipulating the outcome of town hall meetings designed to determine public opinion nuclear power.

Other Nuclear News

Reactor 4 at Kyushu Electric’s Genkai plant shut down on Tuesday because of a failure in cooling systems. Kyushu said that no radiation leaks were detected and the plant is safe. If nuclear fuel does not remain cool, meltdown can eventually occur. Only one of the Genkai plant’s reactors remains in service.

In response to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) task force released a report this week urging plants to upgrade safety measures at nuclear plants around the country. Recommendations include adding monitoring equipment to spent-fuel pools, strengthening containment structures, and upgrading venting systems. In addition, the panel said that more reliable methods to automatically shut down plants are crucial in case of natural disaster, such as the recent flooding in Nebraska and this summer’s earthquake in Virginia. The cost of such measures could raise the price of nuclear power.