(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 government panel investigating the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster will submit an interim report on December 26, without addressing the impact of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake that occurred in Japan before a tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Panel members said that determining the impact has proved difficult, because radiation levels remain so high that equipment, buildings, and the reactors themselves cannot be examined. Many experts believe that the earthquake severely damaged the plant before the tsunami hit. However, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) insists that all major damage was caused by the tsunami, in spite of the fact that they have not been able to physically inspect the reactors. The panel’s decision is significant, because it does not rule out the possibility that the earthquake caused serious damage to the plant. If that proved to be true, reactors across Japan would be rendered unsafe and would need to be retrofitted for seismic safety. Many municipalities are unwilling to approve restarting idled reactors until the probe has concluded and reactor safety has been assured. Currently, almost 90% of the nuclear reactors in Japan are offline. Panel members are continuing to study the issue; their report will be delivered in the second half of 2012.

The same panel said that poor communication by both the government and TEPCO led to serious issues immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including preventing residents from quickly evacuating from the area around the crippled plant.

Japan will cut research and development spending for its Monju fast-breeder reactor by 25% in 2012, which will effectively freeze its long-term use. Overall spending will be reduced by 70%. The Monju project has long been considered a pillar of the Japanese nuclear vision, but has been plagued with problems since construction began. The decision is a blow to the long-term production of nuclear power in Japan.

A 25-person panel reviewing Japan’s energy policy said it is creating new policy “from scratch” and is focusing on a “basic direction” of reducing dependence on nuclear power. The panel is expected to deliver its findings next spring; the new energy policy will be in place by summer.

Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said that the town of Okuma, which is home to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors, will continue to receive funds under the government’s nuclear-hosting subsidy program, in spite of the fact that the reactors are scheduled to be decommissioned. Edano said, “Considering present societal conditions, it would be unthinkable not to provide the subsidies.”

The Namie town assembly has voted to demand closure of TEPCO’s 10 nuclear reactors within Fukushima Prefecture. All 21,000 Namie residents were forced to evacuate after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant; the assembly is now operating from Nihonmatsu. Namie is the first municipality to vote on eliminating nuclear power.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said that Japan’s new nuclear regulatory entity will have a staff of 500 and a budget of 50 billion yen for fiscal year 2012. The new agency, which will absorb NISA, will focus on nuclear crisis management and oversee health checks for those affected by the disaster.


Japan is reportedly preparing to inject up to two trillion yen into TEPCO to keep the company from failing. In so doing, the government would become the utility’s major shareholder, controlling more than two-thirds of its stock. In effect, the move would bring the company under state control. Japan and TEPCO are expected to present a joint management plan in March.

TEPCO has announced that it will raise its rates for corporate customers in April, and hopes to obtain permission from the government to raise rates for household consumers soon after.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has ordered TEPCO to transfer 230 tons of radioactive water that leaked into a tunnel to a storage facility earlier this week, and to determine the source of the leak. The water was discovered on December 18, just days after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that TEPCO had the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant under control.

State of the Reactors

TEPCO and the government unveiled plans for the next stages of its roadmap to decommission the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant this week. The government estimates the process will take up to 40 years to complete. Yukio Edano, the head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), said that the cost of decommissioning was “unclear,” though an advisory panel has estimated costs at 1.5 trillion yen, and some experts believe it could top 4 trillion yen. Phase One, which will last two years, will include removing spent fuel rods from storage pools. Phase Two, which will be completed in approximately 10 years, will involve repairing numerous (and often unidentified) leaks in the containment vessels and then filling them with water to cool fuel and block radiation. Phase Three, which will not be completed for approximately 30 to 40 years, will require the extremely difficult process of removing melted fuel from the reactors and completing the decommissioning process. Goshi Hosono, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, cautioned that there will be many obstacles along the way, and officials noted that significant amounts of nuclear waste will continue to pile up during this time.

The roadmap does not cover plans to decontaminate areas outside of the Fukushima Daiichi compound. METI officials estimate that up to 2,400 square km may require decontamination. That’s approximately the size of Luxembourg.

Contamination (Includes Human Exposure)

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, is revising food safety standards, significantly reducing the allowable levels of radiation in infant food and milk, food for the general population, and drinking water. The revised limit for infant food and milk is 50 Bq/kg, down from the current 100 Bq/kg; the revised limit for food designated for the general population is 100 Bq/kg, one-fifth of the current 500 Bq/kg. Allowable levels of radiation in water will be 10 Bq/kg; currently, that limit is 200 Bq/l. In addition, ministry officials said the allowable annual level of cesium ingested through food will be reduced from five millisieverts per year to one. The new regulations are expected to go into effect in April, although certain foods, including beef and rice, will be granted grace periods of between six and nine months to allow for information dissemination to both food producers and consumers.

The Environment Ministry will monitor an estimated 25,000 children born to mothers who were exposed to radiation as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, in an effort to explore links between radiation exposure and congenital birth defects, asthma, allergies, and other diseases. The children will receive checkups until the age of 13.

Decontamination/Waste Disposal

The Environment Ministry announced it will decontaminate 102 municipalities with radiation levels exceeding one millisievert per year, as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, farmers and some local government officials are concerned that the designation will hurt both tourism and the reputation of food produced in Fukushima Prefecture.

Costs for decontaminating homes in Fukushima, Date, and Kawauchi cities are far exceeding prefectural estimates. The average cost for decontamination is 1.3 million yen; the prefecture only allotted 700,000 yen per household. The prefecture may ask the central government to absorb those costs not covered by the existing budget.

TEPCO has built a facility to store nuclear waste created by water decontamination at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The decontamination system, which was designed by US-based Kurion, requires pouring radioactive water through so-called vessels, which must be discarded once they themselves become too radioactive. Several contaminated vessels are replaced each week; so far, TEPCO has collected 316. The new facility has room for 744 vessels, each of which is approximately 1.4 meters wide and between 2.4 and 3.5 meters high.

The wood-industry association in Fukushima Prefecture is calling upon TEPCO to underwrite the cost of storing and disposing of 16,000 tons of bark and woodchips that are contaminated as a result of being exposed after the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Local waste-processing facilities are refusing to dispose of the bark because of local concerns about the production of radioactive ash.

Other Nuclear News

The vessel housing Reactor 1 at Kyushu Electric’s Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture contains high amounts of copper, according to utility officials. Experts warn that copper is susceptible to deterioration when exposed to nuclear fission.