(This post is by Christine McCann)

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

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced his cabinet this week, including the re-appointment of Goshi Hosono, who served as both Nuclear Crisis Minister and Environment Minister under the previous Prime Minister, Naoto Kan.

Hosono said that his priorities are decontamination, nuclear waste storage and management, and the establishment of a new nuclear regulatory agency. He admitted that highly radioactive waste will probably have to be stored, at least temporarily, in Fukushima Prefecture near the site of the disaster.

TEPCO

A government panel investigating Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO)'s saleable assets has determined that the company's real estate holdings are worth $14 billion in book value (which is based on purchase price.) Resale value is probably considerably higher. The panel is looking at potential sources of compensation for victims of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. TEPCO says it can only part with a small section of the land, worth $1.3 billion.

State of the Reactors/Cooling Efforts

For the first time since the March disaster, the temperature of the bottom of Fukushima Daiichi's Reactor 3 fell below 100ºC, moving the reactor closer to cold-shutdown status.

Typhoon Talas hit parts of Western and Central Japan this week, killing 39 people and leaving 55 missing, while causing massive flooding and mudslides. Experts are concerned that the increased rainfall will tax the already-full reservoirs of contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing potential leakage and further contamination of ground water.

Contamination (Including Human Exposure)

Japan released the results of 2,696 radiation readings taken at schools and parks within a 20 kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as adjacent zones. Readings from Okuma Town (approximately 1 kilometer from the plant) measured over 700 millisieverts per year; areas 19 kilometers from the plant measured 100 millisieverts per year. The maximum recommended exposure level is 1 millisievert per year.

Togichi Prefecture plans to temporarily move radioactive ash, measuring approximately 30,000 Bq/kg, to waste treatment facilities within the prefecture. Officials want to eventually move the ash to lined, water-proof pits at least 20 meters from houses, but are encountering resistance from residents, who doubt the safety of the arrangement.

Numerous radioactive hot spots have been designated in Date City, causing confusion among residents, who have been urged to avoid parks and forests and stay inside. In some towns, 50% of the households have been deemed hotspots; evacuation is voluntary but government assistance is provided. Residents complain that measurements are unreliable and inconsistent; one house may be eligible for evacuation compensation, while the house next door may not.

High levels of radioactive cesium-in some cases measuring 2,720 Bq/kg-were found in tea leaves in Chiba and Saitama prefectures. Tea producers are trying to determine where the tea originated.

Rice Crisis

In spite of government assurances of safety, the Fukushima nuclear crisis is having a profound effect on sales of rice from the region. A survey conducted by a professor at University of Tsukuba shows that Japanese consumers are unlikely to buy rice harvested from Fukushima, even if the government says that the rice is free of radiation.

Evacuation

A recent study shows that because of confusion about government guidelines and unclear evacuation zones, 70% of Japanese prefectures have decided not to conduct evacuation drills or are undecided about whether they will do so. In the past, residents within a 10 kilometers radius participated in drills; however, the Fukushima disaster affected a far greater area, leaving officials confused about what drills are most effective. Municipalities say they cannot proceed without clear guidance from the government.

Compensation

Fukushima Prefecture officials met with TEPCO President Toshio Nishizawa this week, after the company announced plans for compensating victims of the Fukushima disaster. Prefecture officials complained that compensation guidelines should be much broader, including those who evacuated of their own volition. Moreover, they said all 2 million Fukushima residents should be compensated for emotional distress. Nishizawa said that TEPCO will do its best.

Other Nuclear News

Risk of earthquake damage to many US nuclear plants is significantly greater than previously thought. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says that 25% of the nations reactors may need upgrades, admitting that reactors are at risk for larger earthquakes that those they were originally designed to withstand. Nuclear reactors in the US are not subject to reevaluation of earthquake robustness, unlike building codes, which must be updated every 5 to 6 years to reflect changes in seismic science. Similarly, they are not regularly evaluated for their ability to withstand floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or other natural disasters. The nuclear industry has argued that the recent 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia-which shifted 115-ton waste casks several inches-is proof that the North Anna plant there can withstand a large quake.

The NRC said that May's emergency shutdown at Massachusetts' Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, operated by Entergy Corp, was due to “inadequate enforcement of operating standards, failure to follow procedures, and ineffective operator training.” The plant is now subject to a year-long safety review and additional inspections.

In spite of lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster, and a general European distrust of nuclear power, Finland announced it will build a new reactor in the northern part of the country. Greenpeace Nordic expressed concern about the handling of nuclear waste.

Shikoku Electric halted operation of its Number 1 reactor at Ehime Prefecture's Ikata plant for routine maintenance and inspection, bringing the total number of shut-down reactors in Japan to 43, or 80% of the total. Restart dates have not been set.