(This post is by Christine McCann)
Here’s the latest news from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Sunday, September 11, marked the six-month anniversary of the March 11 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
After only eight days in office, Yoshio Hachiro, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) resigned this week. Hachiro was under fire for insensitive remarks he made while visiting the region around the Fukushima plant, including calling the area a ghost town and making jokes about radiation exposure. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda quickly appointed Yukio Edano to replace Hachiro as head of METI. Edano was previously Chief Cabinet Minister under the Kan administration, overseeing the government response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government will allocate JPY220 billion to fund ongoing decontamination efforts in residential areas affected by radiation. He added that radioactive rubble and other debris will need to be stored temporarily in Fukushima Prefecture, though he did not provide a timeline for how long it will be there.
Prime Minister Noda will deliver his first policy speech this week, during an extra Diet session. He is expected to address issues surrounding the ongoing nuclear crisis as well as reconstruction. Earlier in the week, he said that the country cannot move forward until the nuclear crisis is addressed and Fukushima is decontaminated.
Japan ended limits on energy usage this week, earlier than expected after energy shortages were not as severe as power companies had predicted, in spite of reduced nuclear supply. This summer, residents and businesses were asked to reduce power usage by 15%. Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro (before he resigned) said Japan would review how to handle expected power shortages this winter, but will try to avoid another usage limit.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said that Japan will provide details to the IAEA later this month regarding its new nuclear regulatory agency, as well as a training program for safety workers.
Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) began government-mandated stress tests on two of its reactors at the Kashiwazaki-kariwa nuclear plant, in order to determine their ability to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, and power loss. TEPCO hopes that the tests are the first step in bringing the reactors back online. However, the Governor of Niigata Prefecture, where the plant is located, has said that he will not restart any reactors until the full effects of the Fukushima disaster are clear.
Status of the Reactors
IAEA Director General Yukio Amano said that he believes that the Daiichi plant will achieve cold shutdown (reactor temperature below 100ºC) by the roadmap January deadline.
Contamination (Including Human Exposure)
The Science Ministry released a new color-coded map showing various levels of aerial contamination in Japan, showing that even some areas outside the evacuation zone exceed recommended annual exposure levels.
Recovery efforts in areas affected by Japan’s nuclear disaster, including Fukushima Prefecture and Tokyo, are being seriously hampered by a lack of storage for radioactive waste and debris. The amount of waste is significant; in the city of Minamisoma alone, officials estimate there are 610,000 tons of rubble. Decontaminating homes, roads, and schools means that topsoil must be removed—but most local governments have no plan or timeline designed to dispose of it. Currently, residents are being advised to place radioactive dirt and rubble in heavy plastic bags and store it on their property, raising concerns about contamination of groundwater and drinking water from wells.
Experts are expressing concern that a number of inexpensive radiation detectors—some of which are being used by local governments around Japan—are highly inaccurate. Six months after the March disaster, a lack of radiation testing equipment remains an ongoing problem in cities around the country.
Residents of Minamisoma City, less than 30 kilometers from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, are making efforts to independently decontaminate roads leading to local schools and kindergartens in order to make them safe for children. Schools in the area have been closed since March.
Experts are urging Japanese officials to test wild animals and plants for contamination after a wild boar, several deer, and wild mushrooms measured radiation levels that exceed legal limits. They say that studies need to be done to determine long-term impact.
The Japanese government announced it may allocate an additional JY3 trillion ($38.6 billion) to a fund earmarked for victims of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The new sum would bring the total amount of government compensation funds to JY5 trillion.
TEPCO began sending out compensation forms this week to victims affected by the Fukushima disaster. Currently, 60,000 people have requested forms.
Other Nuclear News
An explosion at EDF’s Marcoule plant in southern France (near Nimes) killed one and injured four. The explosion occurred in an oven used to burn radioactive waste, including contaminated equipment. Workers onsite said that no alarms sounded when the explosion took place, and that local residents were not informed until more than an hour later. Company officials announced that no radiation leaked from the plant and insisted it was an industrial accident, not nuclear. France’s Authority Nuclear Safety (ASN) declared the accident ‘completed’ later in the day, although the cause of the explosion is still unknown. The waste-processing facility was not included in the stress tests of nuclear facilities requested by the French government, nor the most recent inspections by the ASN.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors is meeting this week in Vienna to discuss an international nuclear safety plan. Critics have complained that the plan, which has been amended to provide for voluntary participation by member countries (rather than mandatory) is too weak.
Addressing the topic of global nuclear energy, IAEA Director General Yukio Amano said he expects the number of nuclear reactors worldwide to increase significantly by 2030, in spite of the crisis at Fukushima. Currently there are 432 reactors around the globe; that number is expected to increase by 90 to 350 reactors, with the largest growth in Asia. The United States, France, and Russia are home to the greatest number of nuclear plants.