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 government panel assigned with analyzing data from a series of 11 town hall meetings, thousands of online responses, and deliberative polling has determined that a majority of the Japanese public wants to abandon nuclear power. Their report states, “We can say with certainty that a majority of citizens want to achieve a society that does not rely on nuclear power generation.” Accordingly, it is advising the government to prepare a concrete plan to eliminate nuclear energy and ensure safety at power plants as reactors are decommissioned.  Economic Minister Motohisa Furukawa announced, “A majority of people are eager to get rid of nuclear power. That is our conclusion after we discussed a variety of public opinions submitted to the government at this time.” The panelists say that the public’s response is a direct result of distrust in the government’s ability to manage the nation’s energy policy and the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Japan has been trying to decide whether it should depend on 0%, 15%, or 20-25% nuclear power by 2030.

In the face of such strong public opposition, including massive anti-nuclear protests that have been held every Friday since March, the government is reportedly now seriously considering abandoning nuclear energy. Previous reports said that officials who were once strongly wedded to the 15% option are now afraid of significant losses in the upcoming autumn elections if they do so. Indeed, one Lower House member of the Diet admitted, “We cannot win the upcoming election unless we put up a zero-percent policy.” Another noted, “I think the ‘zero by 2030’ scenario is becoming mainstream in the government. I think it is because of the election.” But some experts warn that unless the government plan contains a specific target date for eradication of nuclear power, the move could be virtually meaningless.

A new poll of 2,249 voters conducted by the Asahi Shimbun shows that 47% consider “nuclear power generation” an issue of “great importance” in upcoming parliamentary elections, expected to be held near the end of next month. In addition, 80% of respondents said they support phasing out the use of nuclear power.

Reports by nine power companies across Japan show that power outages are “avoidable” and none is expected through September 7, in spite of the fact that only two of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors are operating. The announcement highlights the effectiveness of power saving efforts and contradicts dire warnings issued by the utilities earlier this year, which said that widespread blackouts would occur without the benefit of nuclear power. In fact, there were no blackouts. Analysts say that customers within the utilities’ service areas (both residential and commercial) used between 8% and 16% less power than in 2010. 

After recent revelations that fault lines below several of Japan’s nuclear plants might be active, possibly forcing their closure in keeping with a law that prevents operation under such circumstances, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said this week that it plans to change the law in order to keep the plants open. Experts have expressed concern. NISA officials said that they will draft the amendment to the legislation and then pass it along to the newly-formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), expected to begin operations in September. NISA operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which is charged with promoting nuclear power in Japan. The arrangement has long been criticized for its conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, Shikoku Electric Company and Hokuriku Electric said that their Ikata and Shika power plants, respectively, are both capable of withstanding earthquakes triggered by multiple faults and would encounter “no problems” in the case of such an event. In spite of having vested interests in the outcome, the utilities’ operators conducted the studies themselves. NISA officials are expected to approve the test results. TEPCO is in the process of conducting similar studies at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

Status of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO admitted this week that water being injected into reactors #1, #2, and #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant dropped below the amount required to keep damaged fuel from overheating and potentially melting down further. Officials said that the issue was discovered before the temperature of the water began to rise, but added that they did not know what caused the problem and said they are looking into it. Utility officials said that the water injection system is the “most important” part of maintaining the reactors’ safety.

Officials from TEPCO said this week that two unused fuel rods removed from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor #4 were undamaged, but admitted that they did discover rust and concrete debris measuring up to 2 cm in diameter within the rods. Experts surmise that the rubble was lodged in the rods as a result of the hydrogen explosions last March. Workers have yet to examine fuel pellets within the rods. The spent fuel pool at #4 holds 1,535 fuel assemblies, and experts have repeatedly warned that the structure, which was heavily damaged in last year’s explosion and whose walls are now bulging, is in a precarious state. It would pose a tremendous risk if an earthquake caused additional damage, particularly if it collapsed.

TEPCO has announced plans to build holding tanks with an additional capacity of 170,000 tons to store highly radioactive water, which continues to build up at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant at a rate of 400 tons per day. Currently, tanks at the Fukushima compound, which are capable of holding 220,000 tons, are 85% full. They are expected to reach capacity within the next three months. The utility said that the new tanks will become full within just over a year—November 2013—at which point officials will need to start destroying nearby forests to make room for more storage. The radioactive water is a by-product of efforts to keep the crippled reactors cool, a process that’s expected to go on for decades, as well as continuous seeping of groundwater into the reactors through cracks in damaged container vessels. (Source: NHK)

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Government officials have ordered the halt of cod shipments from Aomori Prefecture, after high levels of cesium were discovered in two sample fish tested there. Contamination levels measured 133 Bq/kg; the government limit is 100 Bq/kg. The cod in question were caught in Hachinohe, almost 400 km from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but experts say that they are known to travel long distances. “Some fish that ate highly radioactive offerings off Fukushima Prefecture probably traveled north and produced the high cesium readings in Aomori,” said an official from Japan’s Fisheries Research Agency (FRA). Some of the contaminated fish had already been sold to consumers. Other fish caught in the same area tested below allowable limits, leading TEPCO to say that there may be so-called radioactive hotspots in the ocean. But others surmise that leaks of radioactive substances from the plant may be ongoing. The nuclear disaster has had a devastating effect on the fishing industry in Fukushima Prefecture. Last year in Aomori Prefecture, Pacific cod sales brought in 1.4 billion yen ($18 million), and fishermen are now worried about protecting their livelihoods. 

The esteemed International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, is urging the Japanese government to lower annual radiation exposure limits to less than one millisievert, in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The organization will submit a formal written request to government officials. In addition, they urged them to provide adequate and timely information to residents about the amount of radiation exposure they’ve received.

Farmers in Fukushima Prefecture began the season’s first rice sales to the public this week, after officials announced earlier this month that every bag of rice shipped would be tested to ensure none exceeds the government’s radiation standard of 100 Bq/kg. Last year, a scandal erupted when prefectural officials declared all rice safe, but were forced to admit that some rice that went to market was in fact contaminated with radioactive cesium. (Source: NHK)

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Farmers in Fukushima Prefecture are trying to decontaminate pastures in Samegawa Village, in an attempt to be able to feed cattle pasture grass next year, by removing the top layers of soil and adding zeolite, a compound that absorbs radiation. They hope to sow seeds for new grass next spring. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, farmers have voluntarily refrained from feeding their livestock grass at the advice of the government, but a scandal erupted last year when contaminated rice straw, harvested before the disaster but stored outdoors, was fed to cattle. The move resulted in vast amounts of contaminated beef being sent to market.