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

Japan will reportedly phase out all nuclear power by 2030, according to a draft government proposal. An official announcement is expected within the next week. The move is significant; before the Fukushima crisis began in March 2011, Japan planned to rely on nuclear power for 50% of its power needs by 2030. But since the disaster, 48 of 50 reactors in Japan have been taken offline, and public opposition to nuclear power has continued to grow. Anti-nuclear demonstrations, rare in Japan, have become widespread and at points have been attended by more than 100,000 people. Japan has been trying to determine how much nuclear energy it should use by 2030: 0%, 15%, or 20-25%. At one point, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was expected to back the 15% plan, but pressure to completely eradicate nuclear power continued to snowball. Nevertheless, experts caution that in Japan’s volatile political climate, a loss by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in elections expected to be held this fall means that the decision could be reversed if a new political party comes into power.

However, officials in Aomori Prefecture are now expressing concern and anger, because ending nuclear power means that nuclear fuel recycling, a mainstay of the economy in that prefecture, will presumably end. Japan has long included recycling of fuel as part of its nuclear energy cycle, even though the Rokkasho reprocessing plant there, which was first built 20 years ago, has been plagued with problems and has never operated at full capacity. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel—or “nuclear garbage,” as local officials call it—has continued to build up. The governor of Aomori, Shingo Mimura, has promised to return the fuel to nuclear power plants around Japan if recycling is not continued, expressing concern that Aomori not become a final mass storage place for nuclear waste. If prefectural officials do return the waste, spent fuel pools would almost immediately reach capacity, and their respective plants would be forced to shut down. Most are already offline already, in response to the Fukushima disaster. Meanwhile, Britain and France, who are also storing spent fuel for Japan, have met with their country’s ambassadors from Japan to ensure that they, too, will not be left holding vast amounts of nuclear waste for unknown periods of time, and that Japan would willingly accept return of the spent fuel currently sitting overseas.

Japan’s newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA), which will be overseen by a five-person panel called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), will reportedly begin operations on September 19. The new agency, which will employ 500 staff, replaces the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), widely criticized for having conflicts of interest as a division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which is responsible for promoting nuclear power in Japan. Now the NRA has become highly controversial, since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that he would appoint Shunichi Tanaka to head the commission overseeing it. Tanaka was formerly deputy head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), which promotes nuclear power, and four of the five commissioners have admitted that they accepted remuneration from the nuclear power industry within the last few years. Such appointments normally require Parliamentary approval, but in the wake of the controversy, and facing significant opposition in the Diet, Noda said he will make the appointments without Parliamentary approval now that the Diet is out of session. In response, anti-nuclear protesters from all walks of life have been demonstrating outside the Prime Minister’s official residence, and on Tuesday formed a human chain around the Parliament Building.

TEPCO

A year and a half after the nuclear disaster at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, TEPCO finally released 600 additional photographs taken in the 18 days following the beginning of the crisis on March 11, 2011. The move came after considerable pressure from a Diet-appointed investigatory panel. That report, which produced a highly critical evaluation of TEPCO’s response to the disaster earlier this year, criticized the utility for failure to produce the pictures, many of which were taken by employees and contract staff. TEPCO has variously blamed its slow response on a lack of internal coordination, time needed to sort the photos (which apparently took 18 months), and a desire to protect nuclear security. Junichi Matsumoto, who is acting General Director of TEPCO’s Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, said, “We were unsure exactly how many photos were left at the site and how many of those photos had not been disclosed before.”

TEPCO has appointed Dale Klein, former Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Kenichi Ohmae, formerly a nuclear engineer at Hitachi, Ltd., to a newly-created third-party Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, which it says will oversee reform of its nuclear power division. TEPCO’s own Chairman, Kazuhiko Shimokobe, is also a committee member. Both Klein and Ohmae are pro-nuclear; Klein currently sits on the Boards of Directors of Southern Company and Pinnacle West in the US, both of which operate nuclear reactors. Many analysts charge that the utility has established the committee in an effort to win back public trust, so that it will encounter less resistance this spring when it tries to win local approval for restarting seven nuclear reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. Nearby residents are already protesting the move. However, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose rejected that claim. Nevertheless, he later said, “We are aware that restarting the reactors would not be allowed by the people in Niigata unless we properly do things.”

Worker Safety

Contract workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant are facing challenges to monitoring their health after Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare halted subsidies for health checks of contracted workers earlier this year. Initially, the Ministry said it would underwrite the cost of the examinations, since employment at the Fukushima plant was considered “emergency work.” That arrangement provided workers with cataract checks when they had been exposed to a cumulative 50 millisieverts and cancer screenings once they’d received a cumulative 100 millisieverts. However, they lifted that status in December when TEPCO declared the reactors there “stable.” Now, new workers are no longer eligible for subsidized care, and more than 180 workers who reached the prescribed limits after December aren’t, either. The decision to cancel the subsidies has been heavily criticized by Makoto Akashi, Director of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, who said that the number of workers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation at the Fukushima plant is expected to rise.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Although fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture began test-fishing 10 different types of seafood this month, including some types of crab and squid, experts are warning that further studies must be done to understand why some fish are measuring abnormally high levels of radioactive cesium that exceed the government safety limit of 100 Bq/kg. Last month, cod (which migrate long distances) captured off the cost of Aomori Prefecture measured 132.7 Bq/kg; earlier this summer, rock trout caught near Fukushima Prefecture measured 380 times the legal limit. Although oceanic radiation readings are low, some marine biologists posit that the fish are eating contaminated sandworms. They say further studies must be conducted to understand the impact of radioactivity on the food chain. (Source: NHK)

Meanwhile, scientists led by Hideo Yamazaki from Kinki University announced this week that they found high levels of radioactive cesium in subsea mud on the northwestern coast of Japan, near the mouth of the Shinanogawa River. The highest concentrations, measuring 460 Bq/kg, were discovered in samples taken between 2-3 cm deep, below 30 meters of water. The researchers plan to present their results at a meeting of the Oceanographic Society of Japan later this week.

Waste Disposal and Decontamination

Fukushima Prefecture has promised to conduct lifelong thyroid examinations on 360,000 young people who were aged 18 and younger at the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. So far, medical officials have performed checks on 80,000 subjects. This week, officials reported that they have discovered lumps of at least 5.1 millimeters or cysts of 2.1 centimeters on 425 young people. Thyroid cancer was discovered in one, although officials say that the radiation absorbed from Fukushima was likely not the cause, since thyroid cancer is slow-growing and takes longer to develop. Benign tumors were discovered in 27 others.

A group of scientists from the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) are advising the government via the Japan Atomic Energy Company (JAEC) to completely overhaul its nuclear waste disposal plan. Currently, the government plans to bury spent nuclear fuel 300 meters below ground, where it will need to stay for tens of thousands of years until it is no longer radioactive.

However, the SCJ group said that because Japan is so prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity, there’s no guarantee of safety for future generations.

Instead, the researchers recommend storing the waste in “temporary safe storage” facilities, either above ground or underground, for up to a few hundred years—and in the meantime, actively working to develop new technology to ensure safe burial of the highly radioactive material. That technology does not exist at this point. “Based on current scientific knowledge, we cannot determine a geological formation that would be stable for hundreds of thousands of years…And thus the best possible option is temporary storage,” Harutoshi Funabashi, a scientist from Hosei University, said. “This does not mean postponing the problem irresponsibly to the future,” he added. “It is to secure time to find ways to more appropriately handle the matter.” As of now, Japan is storing 2,650 cylinders of highly radioactive vitrified waste, as well as 24,700 cylinders of spent nuclear fuel. The scientists point out that local consent is crucial in determining burial sites, but discussions on where the spent fuel should ultimately be stored have not even begun.

In addition, the SCJ report criticized the government’s apparent lack of concern about the total amount of waste being generated, and said it needs to ultimately set a cap on the total amount of radioactive waste produced.

More than 18 months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s government continues to struggle in its efforts to decontaminate radioactive homes and public areas within the evacuation zone covering 11 municipalities near the plant. Insistence by government officials that radiation zones be established before any cleanup work began has seriously hampered efforts, and now, many residents are discovering that significant earthquake damage to walls and roofs of homes is preventing workers from using high-pressure hoses to reduce radiation levels. So far, work has only begun in one city, Tamura. (Source: NHK)