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

State of the Fukushima Reactors

Backlash from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent statement that the Fukushima nuclear disaster is “under control” is on the rise, as municipal leaders from the town of Namie, as well as Tokyo’s Governor Naoki Inose, slammed his assertions this week. Abe spoke on September 7 from Buenos Aires, where he was trying to convince members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award hosting rights for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to Tokyo. The city eventually won that honor, beating out both Madrid and Istanbul. However, the statement has incensed local politicians, who say that it’s patently untrue.

“We strongly protest [the Prime Minister’s] irresponsible comment [which has] grave problems that fly in the face of fact,” said an official statement released by the Namie Town Assembly. Members called the ongoing contaminated water crisis at the Fukushima Daichi plant “an emergency” that has turned the entirety of Namie’s population into long-term evacuees. And, 290 residents have died as a result of the evacuation. “If Abe does not have an idea of how stifling it is for people to be forced to evacuate, he should sincerely listen to what evacuees have to say,” the Assembly’s statement added.

The governor of Tokyo agreed. “[The water leaks] are not under control necessarily at this state. It was very important for the central government to demonstrate its resolve to get things done right by providing funds for [the water crisis. Government] officials should now strive toward resolving it,” he said, acknowledging that Abe’s statement was largely an effort to sway IOC officials, rather than one based on fact. Even TEPCO officials have questioned Abe’s assessment. Kazuhiko Yamashita, an executive with the TEPCO, subsequently told members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), “Predictable risks are under control, but what cannot be predicted is happening. We believe that the current conditions show that [the problem] is not under control.” The fact that Yamashita used almost the exact same language as Abe did has raised eyebrows.Company officials later confirmed that the prime minister had spoken without talking to TEPCO first. While in Buenos Aires, Abe also insisted that any contaminated water that had poured into the ocean was contained within a 0.3 square kilometer area of TEPCO’s port. But this week, while visiting the Fukushima Daiichi plant, he asked the utility’s plant chief, Akiro Ono, “Where at the 0.3 km2 area,” implying he did not have comprehensive knowledge of the situation.

In the meantime, TEPCO workers have discovered five loose bolts at the bottom of a tank that held 1,000 tons of highly radioactive water. The company believes that the loose bolts may have led to a massive leak last month, in which approximately 300 tons of the water flowed out, some of it into the nearby Pacific Ocean. TEPCO has more than 1,000 storage tanks dotting the Fukushima Daiichi compound; 350 are of the bolted variety, chosen because they were cheaper and faster to construct that a sturdier welded type. In addition, they found eight separate bulging areas along sealing sections designed to make the steel-paneled structure waterproof. Workers are continuing to dissemble the tank in an effort to determine whether or not taking the tank apart, moving it, and reconstructing it months before the leak occurred led to structural problems, as some experts have charged.

TEPCO

In response to a government request last week, TEPCO has finally agreed to shut down reactors #5 and #6 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Although nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions crippled reactors #1 through #4 in March 2011, reactors #5 and #6 were largely undamaged, thanks to a backup power generator not disabled by the massive tsunami that led to power outages at the other reactors. TEPCO has long hoped to restart those reactors, worried about its bottom line, but local opposition to the move has been vocal and strong in a prefecture utterly decimated by the nuclear disaster. Now, officials say that the undamaged reactors will form the core of a new training center designed to teach engineers and other nuclear experts the best way to decommission reactors.

The decision to keep reactors #5 and #6 offline is not a great loss to TEPCO; started in 1978 and 1979, respectively, they will soon be nearing the end of their mandated-40 year lifespan. In addition, workers and other resources used to keep the reactors active can now be directed toward the hard work of decommissioning reactors #1-#4, a process expected to take at least 40 years.

Meanwhile, Tadamori Oshima, a senior politician within Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is pushing to split TEPCO into two companies: one responsible for decommissioning and decontaminating the plant, and the other for compensation to victims of the Fukushima disaster, as well as its primary business, which includes power generation. The branch responsible for decommissioning and decontamination would primarily be supported by taxpayer funds. Oshima said that the split would allow the utility to speed up decommissioning efforts, but some analysts are raising concern that the question of who is responsible for those tasks—including paying for them—could become murky.

Radiation Contamination

Officials from Shiga Prefecture have discovered between 200 and 300 tons of radioactive woodchips near Lake Biwa, which provides drinking water for approximately 15 million people in the Kansai region. They believe that the chips, which contain as much as 3,000 Bq/kg of radioactive materials, were left there by a man in April. At the time, the man said that he laid them on a path to provide easier passage. In addition, they were used to support the banks of the dry Kamo riverbed, which leads to the lake, and piled up in 77 sandbags. Officials have not been able to contact the man since the end of April, when suspicious residents noticed the chips and contacted municipal officials. Many months later, the prefectural government now says that it plans to remove the chips.Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada noted, “The site is an estuary leading to Lake Biwa, and leaving the chips there without permission is extremely malicious. We will deal with the matter strictly.”

Compensation Issues

The LDP plans to submit a new bill during next month’s extraordinary Diet session that would extend the statute of limitations for victims of the Fukushima disaster to file claims against TEPCO from three to 10 years. As the law stands now, those who have not yet filed claims against the utility, including businesses, will lose the opportunity to do so in 2014. Many victims have failed to submit the necessary paperwork because the process to do so is arduous, with long, complicated claim forms. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations said that a million potential claimants could benefit from the extension.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

The economy of many cities and towns in Fukushima Prefecture continues to flounder in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster there. Approximately 160,000 people were forced to evacuate in the first days of the crisis, and tens of thousands remain displaced. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has estimated total decontamination costs for the nuclear disaster at $50 billion. Municipal officials are concerned that residents will not return, because decontamination efforts have not met with much success, and fear of radiation remains high. And, many former residents say that they are worried that conditions at the Fukushima plant are still unstable. “We’ve worked hard to make our city livable again, but everything we’ve done could be for nothing unless the problems at the plant are fixed,” lamented Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai.

Although the government lifts evacuation orders once radiation levels sink lower than 20 milliseiverts per year, the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that people not be exposed to more than 1 millisievert per year. Moreover, many residents no longer believe official radiation estimates released by the Japanese government, which are often lower than those readings gathered by citizens and independent organizations using hand-held Geiger counters. Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer from Iitate, said, “They remove the ground under the posts, pour some clean sand, lay down concrete plus a metal plate, and then put the monitoring post on top. In effect, this shields the radiation [emitting] from the ground. I asked the mayor, ‘why don’t you protest to the central government?’ But the municipality isn’t doing anything to fix the situation.”