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

State of the Fukushima Reactors

A new radiation survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science, Culture, and Technology (MEXT) reveals that environmental radiation near the Fukushima Daiichi plant has fallen by 40% over the last year, particularly northwest of the crippled reactors. That decline was steeper than expected. The study used helicopters to measure radiation levels one meter from the ground at approximately 140,000 locations within an 80 km radius of the damaged plant. Officials attribute the drop to changes in weather patterns, including wind, rain, and snow, which presumably spread the radiation to other areas of Japan and out to sea. One Ministry official explained, “Typhoons hit in June and later. They may have helped spread the radioactive substances [to other areas].” In addition, officials say that radioactive cesium-134, which has a half-life of two years, also contributed to the decline, but caution that other radioactive substances, such as cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, remain in the area. Researchers are unable to determine how much radiation levels have declined from the first days after the disaster began to unfold, because they initially used different testing methods that make comparisons difficult.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) announced last week that the Japan Energy Panel, a group tasked with determining the nation’s energy policy for the coming decades, will begin meeting again, albeit with far fewer members who are opposed to nuclear power. The previous panel had 24 members, a third of whom were opposed to nuclear energy. The new panel has been reduced to 15 members, but only two who are considered anti-nuclear—Kazuhiro Ueda from Kyoto University and Kikuko Tatsumi, an advisor to the Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists—were reappointed to the panel. Akio Mimura, advisor to Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation, has been named Chair. Mimura is considered a proponent of nuclear power, as is Issei Nishikawa, Governor of Fukui Prefecture, which hosts 13 nuclear reactors and is highly economically dependent on nuclear energy. The panel will meet for the first time on March 15; their goal is to develop new energy policy by the end of the year.

Akira Amari, Minister of Japan’s Economic Revitalization Office, reiterated statements made last week by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the government aims to restart nuclear reactors across Japan as quickly as possible, assuming that the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) certifies them safe to operate. Amari was meeting with Shosuke Mori, Chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation.

The governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Shigetaro Yamamoto, has once again postponed making a decision regarding whether or not Chugoku Electric Power Company can build a new nuclear power plant in the town of Kaminoseki. This is the fourth time he has asked Chugoku for more detailed explanations of why they believe that it is necessary to build reactors. Yamamoto plans to give the utility a year to respond. Some anti-nuclear activists believe that the governor is stalling while anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan remains high, and eventually plans to grant approval.

In the meantime, members of a local Iwaishima Island fisheries cooperative, who have until now refused Chugoku’s offers to pay them to grant approval to build the plant, have changed course and now say that they will accept the payout. Seven other cooperatives already took the payout, which was worth $124 million; the Iwaishima branch was the last holdout. Many of the members are elderly and no longer fish, and one member said that this led to the change of heart, because they will no longer be personally affected by the decision. Other residents remain ardently opposed to the reactors. (Source: NHK)

Nuclear Regulation Authority

A new survey of nuclear plant operators shows that most believe that they will not be able to bring reactors back online anytime this year, because of extensive retrofitting that will be required under new regulations of the NRA. The revised rules will be released in July, and utilities will be eligible to submit applications for restarts beginning July 18. Shunichi Tanaka, Chair of the NRA, noted that in the past, nuclear power plant inspections have taken between six and twelve months, although he has pledged to try to shorten that time period. Most plant operators say that significant facility upgrades, including building seawalls to reduce the impact of tsunamis, establishing secondary power sources, and installing filtered vents to reduce the impact of leaking radiation, will take time and money. Several plants are currently being examined for recent seismic activity, which could take them offline permanently. The collective estimated cost of making the required upgrades is at least 1.1 trillion yen, a number that will probably increase as more details about the NRA’s requirements become available. Nevertheless, French nuclear reactor supplier Areva said this week that it expects approximately six Japanese reactors to go online before the end of the year, with more to eventually follow.

An eight-member NRA working group has been charged with determining the best way to protect Japan’s nuclear reactors from terrorist attacks. Members include nuclear power experts and national security specialists. The group plans to submit recommendations to the NRA within a year, including suggestions to screen employees of nuclear power plants for criminal backgrounds and debt that might allow them to be bribed by terrorists.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

In another example of how much radiation has leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors into the ocean, TEPCO reported that it captured a greenling fish containing 510,000 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. The fish was caught in nets that the utility set up within its own port, in an effort to reduce the number of radioactive fish that are swimming out to sea and further contaminating the food chain. That amount is 5,100 times the government’s legal limit for human consumption. Earlier last month, workers captured a rockfish continuing 277,000 Bq/kg. TEPCO said that it will try to capture more of the contaminated fish and kill them.

Worker Safety

An investigation into nuclear workers’ radiation exposure levels conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reveals that so far, records for 63 workers underreported the amount of radiation they received while working at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant between November 2011 and October 2012. That number is expected to grow as the Ministry continues to investigate records of workers who were exposed to radiation between March and October 2011, when radiation levels were far higher. Japan requires power companies and their contractors to record and maintain the amount of radiation to which workers are exposed, both in personal record books and in a central database managed by the Radiation Effects Association. The discrepancies are significant, and could mean that workers who went on to work at other plants were exposed to levels higher than those allowed by law (50 millisieverts per year or a cumulative 100 millisieverts over five years.) Earlier this month, TEPCO admitted that it had not submitted exposure data for approximately 21,000 workers. It plans to do so by the end of this month.

Radioactive Waste Disposal and Decontamination

Three workers have come forward to confirm illegal dumping practices of radioactive materials by subcontractors assigned to remove contaminated waste created by the Fukushima disaster. Earlier this year, a series of articles by the Asahi Shimbun highlighted numerous similar incidents, but this is the first time that workers themselves have reported being ordered to improperly dispose of waste by a supervisor. The workers said that they were told to dump radioactive branches and leaves into a nearby river in a forest in Tamura, Fukushima. One worker said, “I was worried I might be fired if I refused. But the supervisor was doing the same thing right in front of me.” One of the men reported the incident to Environment Ministry officials in an interview that lasted over an hour, but he said he received little response. Meanwhile, government officials say that they have no evidence of poor disposal practices in that area.