(This post is by Christine McCann)

Today marks seven months since the nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis.

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japan’s Board of Audit said that $857 million in subsidies, earmarked for nuclear site reserve funds, will be redirected. The money was 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.

Previously, the Board had said that the money would be in limbo until the country’s energy policy was revised.

A survey of 29 prefectural and municipal governments shows that 60% say that community support is a significant factor in allowing for resumption of the nation’s nuclear reactors; only 17% placed importance on the government’s ‘stress tests.’ The government hoped the tests would reassure residents of nuclear safety; however, many continue to experience confusion and doubt about the effectiveness of the tests.

A 12-person team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Japan to assist with nuclear safety and decontamination issues, and will remain there through October 15. Juan Carlos Lentijo, Spain’s General Director for Radiation Protection, is leading the team.

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum announced that the capacity utilization rate of Japan’s nuclear reactors reached its lowest point ever in September. Only 20.6% of the reactors were utilized, compared to 26.4% in August.

TEPCO

Records show that 448 Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives donated over JY59.57 million to Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) between 1995 and 2005. This amount was in addition to previously reported purchases of tickets to political fundraisers. In spite of a promise made in 1974 to eschew political donations, TEPCO informed executives of the amount that was appropriate to donate, depending on the position they held. Although donating was not compulsory, many employees admitted they felt pressure to do so in order to be successful within the company. One former executive said, ‘Because the company stopped corporate donations in 1974, the individual donations were considered an alternative.’

Moody’s Investors Service said that if Japan forces banks to waive loans to TEPCO, Moody’s will immediately slash the power company’s credit rating. TEPCO is struggling with compensation, decontamination, and decommissioning costs that are expected to top $110 billion.

TEPCO said that power blackouts are unlikely this winter, as resumption of its thermal plant in Soma means that supply will be greater than peak usage rates of the last winter.  However, company executives caution that power shortages could occur next summer.

State of the Reactors

The amount of hydrogen in pipes leading to Reactor 1 has fallen after a week of nitrogen injections, making the possibility of hydrogen explosion ‘unlikely’, according to TEPCO. Two weeks ago, technicians working on a pipe discovered that hydrogen levels in the pipe were between 61 and 63%. An explosion can occur when levels exceed 4%. Workers finally cut the pipe, in preparation for the installation of radiation filtering equipment. The process is already two weeks behind schedule.

Seven months after the nuclear disaster, footage from the Fukushima Daiichi plant shows that for the first time, steam is no longer rising from reactors damaged by hydrogen explosions that occurred in March. The footage shows significant damage inside of Reactor 3.

TEPCO has begun spraying decontaminated and desalinated water on dry wood in the 1.2 million square meters around the plant, as a result of fire concerns. TEPCO said that local communities as well as fishermen approved the move. In order to ease water storage issues, the company will continue to spray 100 tons per day. The water was being stored in basements of the reactors, which are currently filled to 90% of their capacity.

A 25-meter long truck equipped with a vacuum hose is removing radioactive dust from the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Test show that the vacuum reduces radiation by approximately 53%. TEPCO will need to dispose of the radioactive dust.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

Fukushima Prefecture has begun ultrasonic thyroid testing on 360,000 children under the age of 18. They will be tested every two years until their twentieth birthdays, and then every five years thereafter. Those who develop cancer or other abnormalities will receive medical care. Children are highly susceptible to the effects of radiation on the thyroid gland. Doctors from other prefectures are assisting in the process; almost 5,000 children have been tested so far. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, over 4,000 children developed thyroid cancer.

Japan’s Education Ministry (MEXT) has released new radiation maps of the 10 prefectures within the Tohoku and Kantu regions. Radioactive cesium measured between 30,000 and 100,000 Bq/m2 in the mountains of Okutama, and between 30,000 and 60,000 Bq/m2 in some parts of Tokyo. Municipal officials will monitor food supply, especially wasabi, which is produced in Okutama. MEXT hopes to produce radiation maps covering 22 prefectures by the end of this year.

Experiments on seawater off the Fukushima coast conducted by Japan’s Science Ministry show that levels of cesium-137 are 58 times greater than they were before the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  Samples were taken from 11 locations between 45 and 320 kilometers from the coastline.

Fishermen in northeastern Japan continue to suffer huge losses as consumers avoid fish and seafood from the region out of radiation fears. Fish catch is down between 85% and 99% from last year. Earthquake and tsunami damage to fishermen’s equipment is also contributing to the problem.

Japan’s Health Ministry announced new safety rules for nuclear workers who labor outdoors. Previously, regulations only covered indoor workers. New requirements include mask wearing and use of dosimeters. Outdoor decontamination efforts are expected to increase as more evacuees move back to their homes.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Only 2 out of the 59 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have decided where to temporarily store radioactive soil. All 59 said they do not want to host an intermediate storage facility, in part because the government has not determined how long radioactive waste will remain there before being permanently disposed. In addition, most local residents have expressed strong objection to housing the storage facilities, out of fear of radiation and contamination of their water supply.

Efforts to decontaminate areas affected by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster continue to hit roadblocks as experts discover that some decontamination methods are proving ineffective. For example, the use of high-pressure water cleaners produces large amounts of radioactive water that experts fear will contaminate groundwater, sewers, and lakes and rivers — and eventually, the food supply. In addition, the process is less efficient than previously thought, since radioactive cesium binds to hard surfaces such as roads and roofs. Some experts suggest that roofs and roads will need to be completely replaced, a process that will be expensive, require considerable technical expertise, and produce huge amounts of radioactive waste.

Tokyo insists that its decision to accept half a million tons of waste and debris from Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures over the next three years will not present a danger to city residents. However, public opinion of the move has been critical because of concerns that the waste might be radioactive. Over 900 emails and telephone calls to government offices showed 730 people expressing concern, and 100 showing support.

Fukushima City will attempt to decontaminate fruit orchards through removal of leaves, branches, and surface soil. The city has not yet determined where the radioactive waste produced in the process—enough to fill the Tokyo dome, which has a seating capacity of 55,000—will be stored. Some farmers have expressed concern that removing such a deep layer of soil will damage the trees, but concede that fears of radiation are damaging their livelihood. In past years, Fukushima City led the nation in peach and pear production.

The government’s failure to deal with contaminated rice straw from last year is frustrating farmers, who are producing new straw from the current rice crop, but have no place to store it. In Iwate Prefecture, over 700 tons of straw is being stored in barns and out in the open, beneath plastic sheets. Because cesium measures more than 8,000 Bq/kg, it cannot be burned or buried in local landfills.

Recent Science News

Scientists from the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute say that a magnitude 9 earthquake occurs in the Tohoku region approximately every 440 years — far more frequently than the previously estimated 1000 years. In addition, the estimate that a magnitude 7 quake will strike off Miyagi Prefecture approximately every 37 years.

Kazuomi Hirakawa, a researcher at Hokkaido University, revealed that geological samples show that five tsunamis may have hit Higashidori Village in Hokkaido Prefecture over the past 1,000 years. The village is home to the Higashidori nuclear power plant, as well as a storage facility for highly radioactive nuclear waste. Hirakawa believes that the most recent tsunami struck the village in 1611.