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

For the first time, TEPCO has reported that radiation levels of groundwater near reactor #1 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant are higher than they were even in the days immediately following the nuclear meltdowns. Samples taken this week from a trench near the reactor measured 11,600 Bq/liter of radioactive cesium. In March 2011, groundwater there measured only 1,490 B/liter. However, contamination levels near reactor #2 are still significantly higher. TEPCO officials say that they believe the levels near reactor #1 are comparatively lower because seawater from the tsunami washed through the tunnel, diluting radioactivity there.

TEPCO has been fighting an ongoing battle with contaminated water at the plant, and recently admitted that approximately 300 tons of radioactive water have been pouring into the ocean daily. Experts believe it has been doing so for almost two and a half years. Last week, workers began installing a group of 28 pipes into the ground around the buildings housing reactors #1 and #2, which will be used to pump up groundwater and prevent it from flowing into the sea. They had planned to finish the project on Saturday. However, their efforts were hampered when equipment they were using to install the pipes was damaged; they now plan to finish sometime this week. Eventually, the utility hopes to pump out 70 tons of groundwater per day, but officials have cautioned that because they don’t know the cause or location of the leak, those efforts may prove fruitless.

A group of Japanese professors, architects, and writers have proposed creating a museum and tourist attraction at the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, even as decontamination and decommissioning efforts there continue. The plan follows a new trend called “dark tourism,” which sheds light on places like Auschwitz, Cambodia’s killing fields, and Ground Zero in New York. The group said that they hope to prevent Japan and the world from ever forgetting the Fukushima disaster. Plans include building hotels that shield radioactivity; a museum; a gift shop; and restaurants. Tours to the Fukushima compound will be organized, in which tourists will be required to wear protective gear and respirators.

Worker Safety Issues

Two more workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation on August 19, following an announcement just last week that 10 other workers had been contaminated. Like their colleagues from the week before, the two workers were waiting for a bus in front of the anti-quake operations center where they worked, when radiation monitor alarms sounded. Because contamination levels there are normally lower, they were not wearing facemasks. The workers’ heads and necks measured 13 Bq/cm3 of radioactive dust, which is three times what TEPCO has set as its threshold. However, full-body scans came back normal, indicating no internal exposure. Last week, company officials said that they believed that the contamination came from a mister that was spraying water on the workers in order to prevent heatstroke, but now they admit that they have no idea how the contamination occurred: the mister has been shut off since last week. Officials noted that other radiation alarms on the compound did not go off, and water temperatures at the plant’s reactors have not increased.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Analysts estimate that decommissioning Japan Atomic Power Company’s (JAPC) Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, as well as reactors #1 and #2 at Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, will cost a combined 1.72 trillion yen. The reactors are all more than 40 years old, and new regulations released in July by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) have outlawed operation of reactors for more than 40 years unless significant, and often expensive, upgrades are made. The assessment sheds light on upcoming bills that Japan can soon anticipate, considering that approximately 30% of its reactor fleet has been operating for more than 30 years, and will presumably need to be decommissioned within the next decade. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) released a report in 2007 estimating that each boiling water reactor (BWR) in Japan will cost as much as 65.9 billion yen to fully dismantle; decommissioning costs for each pressurized water reactor (PWR) could reach 59.7 billion yen. Decommissioning all reactors across the country when they reach 40 years of age could eventually total 3 trillion yen. But, the truth is that those numbers could climb even higher: experts recently announced that the Trawsfynydd Power Station in Great Britain, which only operated for 25 years, will take 90 years to decommission. Current cost estimates for the process are 90 billion yen—double the original estimate—but that number may grow as time goes on, causing some to worry that decommissioning the Fukushima reactors will be even lengthier and more expensive than originally anticipated.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

Nearly two and a half years after the Fukushima disaster first began to unfold, tens of thousands of people who were forced to evacuate their homes remain displaced. Japan is struggling to adequately decontaminate towns and villages, and to repopulate those that have been declared safe for reentry. Repeated cover-ups, scandals, and errors by both the government and the nuclear industry have left many distrustful of promises that areas are once again safe. For instance, the government recently declared many beaches in Fukushima Prefecture safe for swimming, and then, just weeks later, admitted that massive amounts of radioactive water are flowing into the Pacific Ocean every day. Yukiteru Naka, a nuclear engineer with TEPCO for 40 years, said, “We knew all along that there was some risk—the loss of my home is the price I have to pay. If I were to speak personally, then I would think nuclear power in this country should be zero.” Others, who may never return to their homes, have become despondent. Many are elderly, like Tomiko Endo, who is still living in a barracks set up for evacuees in Koriyama. The shelter is located 250 km from her hometown of Tomioka, which sits just 15 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “I’ve already given up the idea of farming at home again. What I want most from this government is something close to a normal life,” she said.