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

Decontamination Scandal

Japan’s Environment Ministry is scrambling to respond to numerous allegations of shoddy decontamination work by government-contracted firms. Ministry officials said last week that they have now confirmed five cases of inappropriate work practices, including dumping radioactive materials into rivers, streams, and wooded areas; cleaning contaminated equipment and boots in rivers; and improper use of high pressure sprayers, including failure to collect and dispose of radioactive water. An additional 14 cases were investigated, but officials said that they were unable to confirm any wrongdoing, despite copious photographic, audio, and video documentation of the incidents by reporters from the Asahi Shimbun. “There was insufficient evidence to prove it,” the government report stated. The Ministry is now asking workers and local citizens to report improper decontamination practices and has increased the number of staff assigned to monitor the work from 50 to 200. Contracting firms were chastised, but in what amounted to only a slap on the wrist, were simply told to improve their processes.

Meanwhile, an investigation by public news network NHK has revealed that some subcontractors in charge of decontaminating Fukushima Prefecture have violated Japanese labor laws in numerous instances. The Environment Ministry and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare have launched a joint investigation into the matter, which is also looking at other violations. Labour Ministry officials said on January 18 that they have uncovered 219 instances of failure to adhere to government regulations so far. Violations include failure to pay government-allotted hazard pay, failure to provide or adhere to employment contracts, unsafe working conditions, and lack of health and radiation checks for workers. The Environment Ministry, which has received thousands of complaints from workers and others aware of the wrongdoing, admitted it has done a poor job of managing the situation. “Since the ministry is not a law enforcement body, there are limitations to the way we look into cases. We acknowledge that our investigation, coupled with time constraints, has not been adequate,” said Shinji Inoue, Senior Vice Minister of the Environment.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), confirmed last week that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration will continue to pursue Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle, despite decades of expensive technical problems with the process. The Rokkasho recycling plant was originally scheduled to open in 1999 with the intention of recycling spent nuclear fuel into reusable fuel. However, the plant has been plagued with problems and has to this day never operated at full capacity. “The significance of the policy will not change. We will continue it as a national policy,” Motegi said. He was meeting with Shingo Mumura, Governor of Aomori Prefecture, which depends heavily on the economic benefits of the plant. In the meantime, the prefecture is building a storage facility in Mutsu to hold vast amounts of nuclear waste that are waiting to be reprocessed.

Public news network NHK is reporting that nine power companies in Japan have charged consumers approximately $90 million per year to cover fees paid to local municipalities, in order to convince them to host nuclear power plants. Although the practice has been occurring for decades, this is the first time that the full amount was revealed—and it does not cover political payments and other monies donated in secret. In 2012, the government changed its policy and said that power companies could no longer consider such payments to municipalities a valid expense in calculating electricity fees. However, so far only Kansai Electric and TEPCO have changed their fee calculation formulas.

A new survey of 20 municipalities shows that 70% that they will not have updated evacuation and emergency preparedness plans ready in time for a legally required March 18 deadline. Thirteen of fourteen areas affected lie close to the crippled Fukushima reactors, which experts say could become even more dangerous if another earthquake or tsunami strikes. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the government declared that local municipalities were required to prepare emergency and evacuation plans for all residents living within 30 km of a nuclear reactor. Previous guidelines only required evacuation for those living within 8 to 10 km. That task has proved difficult, as many residents evacuated from their hometowns after the nuclear crisis first began to unfold, and officials are not sure whether or not they will ever return. One town official noted, “We can’t confirm the actual number [of people living here] because there are residents who have evacuated. There are too many variable factors and thus we can’t decide on specific measures for our regional disaster management plan.” Other cities are struggling to secure enough busses and other vehicles to evacuate their entire population, as well as to ensure that there are adequate roads to get in and out of the towns. “Because so many residents will need to evacuate, compiling the disaster management plan is very hard,” lamented another city official.

Fukushima Prefecture has announced bold new plans to build the world’s largest wind farm off the coast of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, along with hopes to construct the world’s largest solar park. The initiative is an effort to make the prefecture completely energy-sufficient, using only renewable forms of energy, by 2040. The wind farm, which will be capable of generating 1 gigawatt of power, will reportedly host 143 wind turbines. Currently, the largest, which houses 140 wind turbines, sits off the coast of Suffolk, England.

Nuclear Regulation Authority

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) will require installation of filtered vents in all boiling water reactors (BWRs) across Japan, possibly delaying their restart by years. Filtered vents are designed to reduce massive spread of radioactive materials into the environment if a nuclear disaster occurs. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors lacked such filters, causing widespread decontamination after three of them melted down, leading to subsequent hydrogen explosions. “It can’t be said that sufficient measures have been taken without [installing] them,” conceded NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa. Of the country’s 50 reactors, 26 are BWRs.  However, operators of pressurized water reactors (PWRs) will not, for the time being, be required to install filtered vents.

In addition, a newly released draft of proposed NRA safety regulations for nuclear reactors says that utilities will need to build secondary control rooms for reactors, in case primary control rooms are destroyed during an earthquake, tsunami, or terrorist attack, or life-threatening radiation levels there prevent workers from attempting to manage cooling functions.

The draft safety regulations will be released at the end of this month for public review, and will officially take effect in July. Notably, Commissioner Fuketa said that idled reactors that do not meet revised standards will not be allowed to restart, noting, “We will show no leniency in that respect.”  He added that reactors older than 40 years will be shut down if previous problems have been reported regarding either the plants themselves or their operators. This could have a serious impact on nuclear power generation in Japan.

As expected, utility operators have expressed dismay at the proposed regulations, which could be both costly and time-consuming for the power industry. In particular, they said that a rule requiring more than one filtered vent, in case the primary one fails, is unnecessary.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

TEPCO said this week that murasoi fish (similar to rockfish) caught off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, near the Daiichi plant, measured 254,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, which is 2,540 times the government’s legal limit. Since the Fukushima disaster first began to unfold in March 2011, the fishing industry in Fukushima Prefecture and nearby areas has been decimated. Residents continue to express concern about radiation contamination and the food supply.