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

Decontamination Scandal

In an expose that is shaking both the Environment Ministry and Fukushima Prefecture, a team of journalists from the Asahi Shimbun have uncovered significant shoddy practices by Ministry-contracted decontamination teams, including dumping radioactive waste into rivers and forests, failing to collect contaminated water used in the cleanup process, and using high-pressured sprayers inappropriately. Numerous residents and workers reportedly called the Ministry, sometimes repeatedly, to complain about the practices, which violate a law that prohibits disposal of radioactive materials into the environment, but those calls were neither logged nor addressed. Failure to obey the law could earn a 10 million yen fine or a prison sentence of five years. Officials at the Ministry’s central office said they were not even aware of the complaints.

The government originally allotted 650 billion yen ($7.4 billion) to the decontamination process limited to 11 municipalities in just four prefectures, but because the Environment Ministry was understaffed and did not have technical expertise necessary to manage such widespread decontamination, the job was outsourced to several contracting groups, each of which oversees numerous companies. Those contracts outlined specific requirements, ordering the firms to bag all radioactive material, including leaves and branches; only use high pressure sprayers on gutters and collect all water used; and wipe down walls and roofs of houses by hand or with brushes. Contaminated materials were to be stored at temporary storage sites, and cleanup was to occur within 20 meters of both sides of all roads.

The reporters spent 130 hours between December 11 and 18 gathering information and documenting their discoveries with numerous photographs, videos, and audio recordings. When questioned about blatantly improper disposal methods, at least 20 workers interviewed said that they were following direct orders from supervisors. At one dumpsite in a forest, the pile of radioactive debris was a meter and a half high. In another location, a supervisor was recorded instructing approximately 30 workers to throw radioactive debris down a hill. His deputy gave similar orders.

The Asahi journalists observed other workers using pressurized sprayers to clean the parking lot of a post office; the contaminated water was allowed to flow into a gutter that leads to a river. Contamination levels near the gutter were almost as high as those at which evacuation is mandated. In another location, a worker said, “Around July, we just allowed the water used to clean the buildings to flow away. We were only instructed not to do so on days that Ministry officials came.” In many instances, radiation levels at homes were higher after they had been decontaminated.

In response to the report, Environment Ministry officials have established an investigative task force and said that they will demand answers from the heads of contracting firms involved.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Despite widespread public opposition to nuclear power, as well as significant concerns about radiation contamination and residents’ safety in case of a nuclear disaster, 69 of 135 mayors overseeing towns located within 30 km of a nuclear plant say that they would opt to restart reactors if given the chance to do so. Most towns receive significant subsidies from the nuclear industry, which also provides many jobs.

Records show that Japan Atomic Power Co. and Tohoku Electric are storing 800 tons of spent fuel at the Tsuruga and Higashidori nuclear power plants, located in Fukui and Aomori Prefectures, respectively. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently determined that faults located beneath or near reactors and their safety equipment there are most likely active. Experts are warning that the spent fuel, which must be kept submerged in water for approximately five years in order to cool, could be at significant risk if an earthquake strikes.

Worker Safety

New reports from employees working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reveal that TEPCO failed to monitor radiation exposure to arms, legs, and heads of workers, even those who worked in highly contaminated water or rubble. Instead, most workers were only given dosimeters for their torsos. Experts say that exposure levels may be far higher than previously thought, and the utility should reexamine duty assignments to identify those workers who may have been contaminated, in order to monitor them for cancer. TEPCO insists those precautions are unnecessary and so far has refused to investigate further. One worker who waded through highly radioactive water, soaking his shoes and socks, remembered, “I had numbness in my toes for several months, but I did not go to hospital because I thought it was due to the unsanitary environment.”

Radiation Contamination, and Other Effects of the Disaster

Scientists from the Center for Fisheries, Oceanography, and Marine Ecosystem at Japan’s National Research Institute of Fisheries Science are studying fish organs in an effort to estimate how long sea life living near the Fukushima Daiichi plant will be contaminated. By analyzing different layers of the organs, they hope to identify the point at which the fish were contaminated. That data could reveal whether they became radioactive right after the 2011 nuclear disaster or more recently through ongoing contamination from the plant.

In yet another example of the wide-reaching impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, historical experts are warning that stone Buddhist statues carved into cliffs near Minamisoma City during the Early Middle Ages are at risk of being permanently damaged and lost. Wooden structures surrounding the statues were heavily damaged during the massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March 2011, and the subsequent nuclear disaster forced total evacuation of the area for more than a year afterward. Since then, high radiation levels have prevented anyone from protecting the statues from the elements, and the stone has begun to deteriorate. City officials are now working to find a solution, as well as to protect other cultural treasures.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

The Mayor of Futaba, Katsutaka Idogawa, said this week that it will be at least 30 years before residents can return to their homes, which are now in a no-entry zone after being contaminated in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Radiation levels there remain too high for human habitation.