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

TEPCO announced this week that it is once again considering releasing massive amounts of radioactive water into the ocean. The water has been used to cool the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, and is being stored in 930 tanks on the plant’s compound, each capable of storing 1,000 tons of water. Each tank fills within two and a half days. Although officials are in the process of building new storage tanks, leveling a nearby forest to do so, they are running out of room. Approximately 400 tons of contaminated water is produced each day, and decommissioning efforts are expected to take more than 40 years. TEPCO said that a new decontamination system called ALPS is far more effective at removing various radioactive contaminants than earlier systems, but admits it is still unable to remove radioactive tritium. Current samples of the water contain 1,300 Bq/cm3 of tritium, far greater than the legal limit of 60 Bq/cm3. As a result, the Nuclear Regulations Authority (NRA) has said that TEPCO needs to continue to store the water, and the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations strongly opposed the prospect of dumping the water into the sea. In the first months following the beginning of the Fukushima crisis, TEPCO released low-level radioactive water into the ocean, prompting outrage from both local fisheries and the international community. (Source: NHK)

The government said that it will release a revised roadmap for decommissioning the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors by June, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced last month that he wants to speed up the cleanup process. The process will take at least 40 years; however, some experts say they expect it will take far longer, possibly decades more. “It’s a pipe dream,” observed Michio Ishikawa, Chief Advisor at the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute, in reference to the 40-year goal. Just decommissioning the reactors is expected to cost $100 billion, in addition to at least $600 billion or more for compensating victims of the disaster and decontaminating areas decimated by radiation contamination.

TEPCO officials said that they have once again dispatched a robot into the building housing reactor #2 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in an effort to examine pipes connecting the suppression pool and containment vessel there. They launched an earlier mission in December, but the robot was unable to navigate stairs in the building.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Despite a recent survey of Japanese nuclear plant operators showing that most believe that they will not be able to bring reactors back online anytime this year, as a result of expensive and time consuming retrofitting required under new regulations of the NRA, as well as extensive inspections of the nation’s reactors, French energy group Areva announced this week that it is resuming plans to ship nuclear fuel to Japan. Greenpeace said the shipments will begin in April. The mixed-oxide fuel (or MOX) was originally scheduled to be delivered to plants operated by Kansai Electric, Chubu Electric, and TEPCO in 2011, but the shipment was cancelled following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those utilities now deny having any plans to accept nuclear fuel from Areva, but Yannick Rousselet of Greenpeace noted, “We suspect that part of the shipment is destined to go to the same recipients.” MOX fuel contains plutonium and is considered a potential national security threat; if secured by terrorists, it could be used to make nuclear weapons. Luc Oursel, Chief Executive Officer at Areva, expressed hopefulness about the Japanese nuclear market, saying, “We believe that there could be half a dozen reactors which will restart [in Japan] at the end in 2013.”

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has announced plans to resume activities of Japan’s Central Environmental Council, but has removed three candidates who are vocally anti-nuclear from the panel. Mie Asaoka, head of the environmental Kiko Network, has been a member of the Council since 2005; two others, Kazuhiro Ueta, a professor, and Junko Edahiro, a journalist, sat on a global warming subcommittee of the Council. All had been told that their appointments were confirmed in December, but the offers were rescinded after the pro-nuclear LDP took control of the government. The LDP claims that they are simply trying to reduce the number of participants to improve discussions.  A statement released by the Environment Ministry said, “We have decided to streamline the council in order to improve discussions.” A Ministry official noted that some members had been chosen from local governments and business organizations. “As a result,” he said, “a number of those considered pro-environmental were not included in the council.”

Officials from the NRA have begun a three-week long in-person inspection of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s (JAEA) Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. Earlier this year, the NRA discovered that the JAEA had not conducted safety checks on almost 10,000 pieces of safety equipment required to run the reactor.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Radiation tests on food conducted between April 2012 and January 2013 reveal that approximately 2,000 samples of mushrooms, seafood, and wild game such as boar contained more than 100 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium, which is the government’s limit for human consumption. Experts say that some species, such as mushrooms, absorb cesium from the clay and leaves in which they grow. Similarly, bottom-feeding fish consume leaves at the bottom of rivers and the ocean, and are then eaten by other fish, further contaminating the food chain. Experts caution that because cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, contamination in these foods could persist for decades. All samples of beef, water, and infant formula showed no signs of contamination. Officials said that they found only one instance of contamination in prepared food—dried mushrooms—but also only tested 1,493 samples, a mere fraction of the processed food on store shelves.

The NRA has produced a new report recommending that Japan’s central government provide “continued and sustainable support” for an ongoing prefectural health survey being conducted by Fukushima University in the wake of the nuclear disaster there. The NRA noted that the risks of low-level radiation exposure remain unknown and require further long-term study. However, local residents, who say they have lost trust in the research process and its results, have criticized the study. As of December 2012, only approximately 20% of residents had agreed to participate.

Evacuation and Repopulation Efforts

A new survey of residents from Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures conducted by the Mainichi Daily News reveals that 80% of respondents believe that they will never return to their homes, which were rendered uninhabitable by the 2011 nuclear disaster. Most listed concerns about radiation danger as well as lifestyles and infrastructure that have been destroyed as reasons for their decisions. Many polled are still living in temporary housing provided by the government. The original governmental allowance covered a three-year period, but officials are considering extending it by another year because many people are struggling financially and have limited employment options. Of those polled, only 2% said that nuclear reactors should be reactivated.