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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) began accepting applications for the restart of nuclear reactors yesterday. Four power operators submitted requests to restart a total of ten reactors at five plants: reactor #3 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture; reactors #3 and #4 at Kansai Electric’s Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, as well as reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi plant there; reactors #1, #2, and #3 at Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari plant in Hokkaido Prefecture; and reactors #1 and #2 at Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. Kyushu Electric is expected to submit an application to restart two additional reactors by the end of the week.

The NRA said that 80 inspectors divided into three groups will comprise safety inspection teams. An additional team will test for seismic safety. Each assessment is expected to take approximately six months, and will involve onsite inspections and interviews with plant staff. New safety regulations released last month will require plants to have emergency control centers located at least 100 meters from reactors, fire-resistant cables, buildings that are resistant to earthquakes and tsunamis, filtered vents to reduce the amount of radioactivity that will be released into the atmosphere during a nuclear disaster. Operators must also take measures to protect against terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes. If reactors sit on fault lines, the NRA will determine whether or not seismic movement has occurred within the last 400,000 years; if it has, they will not be allowed to continue operating. Pressurized water reactors (PWRs) will be given a five-year grace period to install filtered vents, but boiling water reactors (BWRs) will be required to do so immediately. All plants will have five years to build off-site emergency control centers. Previously, Japan’s nuclear operators were basically allowed to assess their own safety, but after an uproar following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the NRA was established to provide oversight.

In addition, reactors will be limited to a 40-year operating cycle, although utilities can apply for a 20-year extension. However, many experts say that upgrading old plants may simply be too expensive: in addition to meeting the NRA’s new requirements, aging reactors will be subject to ultrasounds of welds and other equipment, as well as tests that assess the strength of concrete. Even retrofitting newer plants could be cost-prohibitive. Experts say that measures such as installing fireproof cables and building seawalls will be astronomically expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. Analysts estimate that just basic upgrades will cost operators 10 trillion yen ($10 billion), further raising the cost of nuclear power.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has long been staunchly pro-nuclear, are pushing hard for the restarts, buoyed by pressure from a nuclear industry concerned about its bottom line and long-term survival. At the end of fiscal year 2012, four of Japan’s nine nuclear power operators posted their largest losses ever.

TEPCO had planned to apply to restart reactors #6 and #7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, a decision it announced to the public on July 2. It has now postponed that plan, after TEPCO President Naomi Hirose met with considerable resistance from Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida this week. Izumida complained that TEPCO failed to obtain prior consent from municipal leaders before announcing that it would try to restart the reactors, in violation of a previously signed nuclear safety agreement. “Only by keeping a promise and not telling a lie can you stand at the starting line,” Izumida said. An official from TEPCO admitted that the company had made a tactical error, saying, “We have entered a thorny path. We may not be able to bring the reactors back online.” At their meeting, Izumida asked Hirose, “Why did you decide to file the application without first making an effort to address safety concerns among local communities?” Highlighting the emphasis that TEPCO has placed on its own bottom line rather than the safety of local residents, Hirose answered bluntly that the company cannot afford to incur a third year of losses. TEPCO has bled 780 billion yen ($7.78 billion) over the past two years, and needs to show a profit in the next fiscal year or risk banks reneging on loans. In the meantime, the company is continuing to install filtered vents at the reactors, in line with the NRA’s new requirements. Rather than employing experts to design the vents, TEPCO has decided to do the work itself in order to save time.

Nationwide, a majority of Japanese people believes that nuclear power should be phased out. Some analysts have questioned whether the NRA can adequately police the nuclear industry, especially considering that the majority of safety inspectors will be former staff from the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). NISA was often accused of being too chummy with the nuclear industry. On Monday, an anti-nuclear demonstration was staged in front of NRA headquarters in Tokyo, to protest bringing reactors online again under safety rules that were created without the benefit of knowing the root causes of the Fukushima disaster—something that inspectors may not determine for years, because radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors remain so high that humans cannot safely enter the buildings for any appreciable amount of time.

Residents who were forced to evacuate after Fukushima—and almost two and a half years later, have yet to return home—also expressed frustration. “They can’t say 100 percent that a disaster won’t occur, and they’re trying to take that risk. More than anger, I feel sadness. The blessings of our land, our efforts, everything went to nothing,” noted Hiroshi Watanabe, a farmer and former resident of Minamisoma. The head of a neighborhood association in the vicinity of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant said, “The local economy is important, but the nuclear plant can threaten our lives.”

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO’s contaminated water woes at the Fukushima Daiichi plant seem never ending. This week, the utility admitted that it found 600,000 Bq/liter of tritium in groundwater samples from a well just 6 meters from the ocean, the highest ever measured in the plant’s groundwater. Tritium levels there have been steadily increasing; they measured 510,000 Bq/liter on July 1. Even more concerning, seawater samples collected near water intakes for reactors #1 to #4 on July 3 measured 2,300 Bq/liter, signaling that radioactive water is pouring into the ocean. It is the highest level ever detected there, and levels have been fast on the rise: on June 21, the water measured 1,00 Bq/liter; on July 1, it contained 2,200 Bq/liter. Nevertheless, TEPCO released a statement saying that it does not have enough data to show that the rise in sea levels is connected to a leak—although it did not explain how else the tritium contamination might have occurred.

In addition, groundwater samples from a well that was dug 25 meters from the ocean showed 900,000 Bq/liter of radioactive substances, including strontium-90. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.8 years and can accumulate in human bones, causing cancer. Experts fear contamination of fish and other sea life, which could contaminate the food chain.

And, rats are once again causing problems for TEPCO, this time at the Fukushima Daini plant, which is located just 8 km from the site of the 2011 disaster. On July 3, workers reported that a rat had entered a hole designed for cables in a vehicle storing an emergency switchboard, and electrocuted itself, shorting out the electric system. In March, a rat caused a major power outage at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after chewing through a cable, shutting down the entire cooling system for spent fuel pools at the plant. TEPCO since reported that it blocked holes through which rats could enter, but apparently did not close this one.

Radiation Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare announced this week that radiation exposure records of 452 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were inaccurate, and in fact, they were actually exposed to greater amounts of radiation than TEPCO reported. The highest increase in exposure was 48.9 millisieverts. An additional 27 workers had been given erroneous exposure data, but they received smaller doses than originally reported. Earlier this year, the utility admitted that it had underestimated exposure for 63 workers by up to several hundred millisieverts. The finding is significant, because Japan limits workers to receiving no more than 100 millisieverts over a five-year period. Both TEPCO and the government have taken next to no responsibility for the error, each blaming the other for the lack of oversight. “We have notified our employees and contractors of the rules,” one TEPCO official said. “We believed that they were observing them. We have done all in our power that we can do.”

Scientists from the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Cosmic Ray Research have discovered extremely high levels of radioactive cesium in moss on a rooftop in Fukushima City, more than 50 km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The moss contained 1.7 million Becquerels of cesium, the highest levels noted over the last year. A non-profit group also evaluated the moss and got similar readings of 1.78 million Becquerels. Professor Ryoji Enomoto, who led the team, said that radioactive hotspots continue to pose a danger to residents. “Decontamination work encompassing broad areas is important, but it is also important to find spots where radiation levels are locally high, by using simplified measurement tools and to decontaminate the spots,” he said. Fukushima municipal officials said that they will decontaminate the affected building and rooftop.