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

Yesterday marked two years since the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and triple nuclear meltdown that struck Fukushima Prefecture and Japan. The country continues to struggle under the long-term effects of nuclear disaster. Current estimates of the cost of the nuclear crisis are $250 billion, although that number is expected to rise. To date, the designers and builders of the Fukushima Daiichi plant—Toshiba Corporation, Hitachi, and General Electric—have paid nothing.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

In response to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent order to speed up decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a panel jointly comprised of government and TEPCO officials and led by Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), met for the first time this week to discuss possible new timelines. The group expects to submit a revised roadmap by June. However, experts say that TEPCO’s original estimate of 40 years’ time may, in fact, be too ambitious. “It’s like going to war with bamboo sticks,” said Takuya Hattori, who worked at TEPCO for 36 years and is now President of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum. Michio Ishikawa, former Chief Advisor at the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute agreed, noting, “It’s a pipe dream.” (Source: NHK and Reuters)

In fact, decommissioning will prove to be a momentous task. Before workers can even remove fuel from the damaged reactors, they need to plug leaks in the reactor containers, caused by both melting fuel and hydrogen explosions, and cover the fuel with water in order to reduce radiation levels, a process that could take up to four years to complete. Because of the holes in the containers, 400 tons of groundwater leaks into the reactor area each day, becoming contaminated. In addition, TEPCO intentionally pumps additional cooling water into the vessels. The company admits that it still has no idea of the exact location of the fuel or its condition.

Storing the radioactive water has become a growing headache; currently, the utility has 260,000 tons of water stored in tanks on the Fukushima compound, with room to store at least 60,000 more. But, with a 40-year minimum timeline, TEPCO could run out of storage space within months. Officials have recently announced that they are considering dumping low-level radioactive water into the ocean, a move that has been met with strong opposition from the local fisheries association. Although TEPCO has recently begun using a new processing system to remove some radioactive elements, it is unable to remove tritium. Current samples measure 5 million Bq/liter of tritium; the legal limit is only 60,000 Bq/liter.

A new exposé by Japanese public news network NHK reveals that as much as 55% of the water poured into the Fukushima reactors immediately following loss of power in March 2011 did not reach the overheated fuel, as a result of leaks in piping. The reactors overheated, leading to a triple nuclear meltdown. Moreover, a broken pump directed water to reactor #3’s condenser, rather than its core, allowing the fuel to overheat. Significantly, experts say that fire trucks that are currently stationed outside of nuclear reactors nationwide to keep fuel cool in case of power loss would be ineffective at preventing meltdowns because the sprayed water would not actually reach a reactor’s core.

Toshiba Corp has unveiled a new robot designed to decontaminate the crippled Fukushima reactors. The robot, called Arounder, has the capability to reduce radiation on surfaces via high-pressure jets, and can be operated using remote cameras from 75 meters away. Toshiba was one of the companies that designed and built the Fukushima reactors, which melted down in March 2011, but is now profiting from the disaster and ensuing cleanup.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

In response to the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear protests erupted across Japan and across the globe. In Fukushima Prefecture, thousands came out to demonstrate against nuclear power. In Tokyo, approximately 40,000 people gathered. Recent polls show that 70% of Japan’s public supports phasing out nuclear power. One protester noted, “When the government talks about recovery, they are talking about infrastructure. When we talk about recovery, we are talking about the future of our children.”

For the first time, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has officially declared that fault lines running beneath reactor #2 at Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tsuruga Prefecture are likely active, despite protests from the utility. The damning announcement comes via the recommendation of a panel of seismic experts, including an NRA Commissioner, who studied the Tsuruga plant. Reactor #1 there is now almost 43 years old; because new NRA regulations say that reactors must be decommissioned once they are 40 years old, it, too, will likely never be restarted.

A survey of 15 mayors from Fukushima Prefecture—part of a larger study that also included leaders from Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures—reveals that 13, or 86%, believe that the nuclear crisis at the Daiichi plant was the biggest aspect of the March 2011 disasters, superseding the earthquake or tsunami. Delays in decontamination efforts were also named as ongoing problems.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Despite a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO), which said that risks of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are relatively low, residents in Fukushima and nearby prefectures are expressing concern that the long-term effects of radiation exposure are unknown and may not emerge for decades. The WHO study was based on radiation estimates taken from food and environmental measurements, rather than examinations of people. In a separate study, thyroid radiation testing of iodine exposure was conducted on only 1,080 children, and those tests were considered so unreliable that their parents were not notified of the results. A recent examination of 133,000 children in Fukushima who were 18 years or younger at the time the crisis first began to unfold showed that 40% have developed abnormalities in their thyroid glands, presenting as cysts or lumps measuring up to 2cm.  Officials insist that these are harmless and nothing to worry about, and are similar to rates for children in other areas of the country. A total of 360,000 children are eligible for testing. Experts caution that the tests are hard to characterize at this point, because no baseline tests were conducted before the disaster first began. They advise closely monitoring the children for the rest of their lives.