(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

A newly appointed government panel, tasked with revising Japan’s energy policy, convened their initial meeting this week. For the first time, the panel includes members who oppose the use of nuclear power. Utility companies are not represented on the panel.

Rengo, the largest labor union in Japan, will meet this week to discuss the possibility of embracing an anti-nuclear stance. The move is significant; Rengo was previously pro-nuclear.

The Mayor of Tokai Village in Ibaraki Prefecture, Tatsuya Murakami, sharply criticized the Japanese government’s handling of nuclear disasters, including the March disaster at Fukushima. He was speaking at an anniversary event commemorating a nuclear accident that took place in Tokai 12 years earlier. That event killed two and exposed 666 people to radiation. Murakami opposes restarting the Tokai plant, which is currently offline for routine maintenance. Over one million people live within 30 kilometers of the Tokai reactors.

Iwanai Town in Hokkaido Prefecture re-elected a pro-nuclear mayor in a landslide win. Yuji Kamioka is a proponent of restarting idled reactors at the nearby Tomari plant.

Policemen working at nine headquarters around Japan will soon have access to radiation-proof lead-lined vehicles, in order to step up anti-terrorism efforts near nuclear plants. In addition, the vehicles will be used to rescue victims in case of another nuclear disaster. Representatives of the National Police Agency believe that the Fukushima disaster has made the country more vulnerable to terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities.

TEPCO

A government panel tasked with oversight of compensation from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster submitted a report to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda this week. The panel said that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) must be completely restructured in order to meet its financial obligations, now estimated at JY4.54 trillion through March 2013. Costs are expected to rise as time goes on. The panel recommended cost reductions of JY2.41 trillion over the next decade, including real estate sales and the cutting of 7,400 jobs. In addition, they said that rates should not be raised until cost reductions have been made, noting that TEPCO overcharged for utility costs over the past decade. Those power charges were an astronomical JY618.6 billion over actual costs.

Status of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors

TEPCO admitted this week that if water injections to the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant are interrupted for 38 hours, another meltdown could occur. The assessment estimates that temperatures of the reactors’ cores would rise approximately 50ºC each hour, finally reaching melting point at 2,200ºC. TEPCO said that the likelihood of such an occurrence was small, and that in most cases, water injections could be restarted within three hours.

Hiroyuki Fukano, head of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said that “makeshift equipment” being used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant could break down in case of another earthquake, and backup systems need to be assessed. He also expressed concern about the so-called stress tests that are being implemented at nuclear plants around the country, questioning the very standards that are being used to evaluate them.

TEPCO has revised an earlier assertion that a hydrogen explosion occurred in Reactor 2 on March 15. Initially, TEPCO assumed an explosion had occurred nearly simultaneously in Reactors 2 and 4 after a loud noise was heard at 2, and pressure dropped precipitously. However, seismometer readings contradict that hypothesis. TEPCO provided no explanation for the damage that occurred in Reactor 2 or the drop in pressure.

The conclusion was released in a draft report being prepared by TEPCO’s own committee, which is investigating the cause of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The report includes several pages defending TEPCO. One section says that the company could not have anticipated the size of the tsunami—in spite of the fact that the same week, the government released a report, written by TEPCO in 2008, admitting that the company was aware of the risk of a tsunami that exceeded the plant’s design.

TEPCO did not admit this to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) until March 7, 2011, just a few days before the March earthquake and tsunami occurred, a move that NISA has sharply denounced. The report will not be released until at least November of this year.

Contamination (Including Human Exposure)

Plutonium-239 and -240 was detected in six locations around Japan in June, including the towns of Futaba, Namie, and Iitate Village. The locations range as far as 80 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant; plutonium was discovered previously within the grounds of the plant itself. If plutonium is inhaled or ingested, it remains in the body for decades, and can cause cancer. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years; the half-life of plutonium-240 is 6,563 years. However, the government said that the amounts detected were small and risk of exposure was low.

In addition, strontium-90 was detected in 45 locations. The Ministry collected samples in June and July within a 100-kilometer radius of the plant. Strontium is known to accumulate in human bones, and has a half-life of 29 years.

Japan’s Science Ministry released a new radiation map this week, showing high levels of cesium-137 in Chiba and Saitama Prefectures. Levels in both prefectures, which are more than 200 kilometers from the plant, measured between 30,000 and 60,000 Bq/m2.

As the new sake season kicks off, Sake makers in Japan are voluntarily monitoring sake, as well as the rice they use to make it, for radiation. Brewers are hoping to avoid reductions in sales from radiation fears, as seen in other industries. The cost of testing at one company alone, the Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nohonmatsu, is more than JY1 million.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Radioactive waste is piling up at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as continued efforts to cool reactors generate huge amounts of contaminated sludge and other waste. More than six months after the nuclear disaster there, the government has no concrete plans for long-term disposal. In order to cool the reactors, TEPCO is using a decontamination system built by nuclear powerhouses Areva and Kurion. The process uses large filters (each measuring .9 meter wide and 2.3 meters high), which must be changed every few days. The used filters are radioactive and must be disposed of. In addition, the process produces highly contaminated sludge.

Nihonmatsu City in Fukushima Prefecture has created its own six-person decontamination unit, charged with measuring radiation levels and creating decontamination plans. Nihommatsu City is located 50 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant; high levels of radiation have been detected there, including in the local rice crop.

Evacuation Zones

For the first time, Japan lifted its evacuation advisory for five towns within 20-30 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Residents of Hirono, Naraha, Kawauchi Village, Tamura, and Minamisoma had been advised to stay indoors and be prepared for immediate evacuation in case of another nuclear disaster; many evacuated. The move came after all five municipalities submitted plans for decontamination and rebuilding of infrastructure. The government said that the situation at the plant has improved.

However, numerous obstacles to repopulation remain. Major decontamination needs to take place, and radiation levels remain high. In addition, schools, hospitals, and shops are closed; most doctors and nurses have evacuated to other areas; and the tsunami damaged sewage systems in several locations. Town officials are struggling.

Compensation

After wide criticism for failing to offer financial and technical assistance to communities where radiation readings were estimated at less than 5 millisieverts per year, Japan reversed its decision and said that assistance will also be provided to areas where radiation readings range between 1 and 5 millisieverts per year. The decision carries a stipulation that municipalities submit contamination plans. Yuhei Sato, Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, said that residents should not be responsible for decontamination and the handling radioactive materials.

Power Company Scandals

A panel investigating corruption has confirmed seven cases of collusion between the Japanese government and nuclear power companies, involving town-hall meetings designed to assess public opinion on nuclear power. The group determined that NISA officials asked executives from Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chubu power companies to ensure that pro-nuclear views were well represented at community meetings. Accordingly, those utility executives made staff attend the meetings and ask pro-nuclear questions, copies of which were provided to them beforehand.

Kyushu Electric confirmed accusations that the company improperly influenced public opinion regarding restarting two reactors at Kyushu’s Genkai plant. Yasushi Furukawa, the governor of Saga Prefecture, was also implicated, after putting pressure on Kyushu to solicit the support from its employees at a town-hall meeting conducted in June. In response, the Kyushu employees sent emails expressing desire to restart the reactors. In addition, Kyushu is accused of improperly influencing the outcome of a community meeting involving the Tomari plant and Tohoku Electric’s Onagawa plant in 2006.

Other Nuclear News

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that the North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia will remain closed through October 14, while investigations continue. The plant shut down in August after a 5.9 magnitude earthquake caused problems at the plant, including moving steel casks of nuclear waste several inches. Each cask weighed over 115 tons.