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

Nuclear Regulation Authority

This week, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) released a new study, which estimates that radiation doses could exceed international evacuation guidelines even beyond the NRA’s proposed 30 km evacuation zone if an accident were to occur at four out of sixteen nuclear power plants it tested. That zone is an increase from the current recommendation, which requires evacuation within a 10 km radius of a nuclear reactor in case of a nuclear crisis. The issue raises questions about whether a 30 km evacuation zone is conservative enough.

The four plants concerned are TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture and Fukushima Daini plant in Fukushima Prefecture; Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture; and Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. The NRA study based radiation-release simulations on the total amount of radiation released during the Fukushima disaster, 770,000 quadrillion Becquerels. One quadrillion is equal to a thousand trillion. It considered weather conditions, including wind direction, wind speed, and precipitation forecasts, but did not take into account geographic factors, such as mountainous terrain. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommends evacuation if residents are exposed to 100 millisieverts or more radiation within a seven-day period.  Tests shows that residents living up to 40.2 km from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant could be exposed to those high levels of radiation.

But on the same day, the NRA released new draft recommendations for creating evacuation zones for residents living near nuclear reactors. The new guidelines increase the so-called “urgent protective action planning zones (UPZ)” from 10 km to 30 km. NRA Chief Shinichi Tanaka defended the move, despite the Authority’s own studies saying that 30 km may not be adequate protection in some cases. He said that municipalities outside of those zones could still decide to evacuate once they received information on radiation levels. However, he did not clarify whether the government or utilities would be required to reimburse residents if such an evacuation order were given. Nor did he acknowledge that in the case of the Fukushima disaster, residents did not receive accurate radiation dispersal information until weeks later. The new guidelines increase the number of municipalities that could be subject to evacuation in case of a nuclear emergency from 45 in 15 prefectures to 135 in 21 prefectures. Many of those towns have yet to draft required emergency plans, but the NRA said that reactors cannot be restarted without them. Tanaka added, “Realistically, it will be difficult to operate nuclear power plants without the consent of local governments.”

The new evacuation zones are eliciting concern from municipal leaders across the country who want utilities to sign safety agreements with them. The added requirements increase the chances that nuclear power providers will encounter more resistance in their eventual efforts to restart reactors across the nation. For instance, the NRA’s radiation study revealed that residents in Shiga Prefecture would be exposed to high levels of radiation if a nuclear disaster occurred at Kansai Electric’s Oi plant in nearby Fukui Prefecture. Reactors #3 and #4 there were recently restarted by order of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in spite of widespread public opposition and weekly, sometimes massive protests. Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada said, “I want Kansai Electric to realize the irrationality of setting borders based only on local government units. I hope it will sign agreements [with us] that are in line with the damage forecast.” But Kansai has so far refused. A company official said, “We will not be able to deal with host municipalities and those that are located outside those hosts in the same manner. We have no intention of simply expanding the range of local governments involved because that would mean playing down the significance of the host municipalities.”

Manufacturers located within 30 km of nuclear reactors are also expressing concern, and in some instances, considering moving operations away from potential danger zones. For example, Suzuki Motor Corporation manufactures all engines for its cars produced in Japan just 13 km from the Hamaoka nuclear power plant. Osamu Suzuki, Chairman and CEO, noted, “The manufacturing sector in the Chubu region would be devastated if a nuclear accident occurred.” Suzuki has begun to move some of its operations away from the plant.

Other Nuclear Politics in Japan

Kunihiko Shimazaki, Deputy Chairman of the five-member NRA and a prominent seismologist, said this week that any geological fault lines that have shown activity within the past 400,000 years should be considered active. The decision could have profound effects on the future of many nuclear reactors that sit atop fault lines previously declared “inactive,” often by the plant operators themselves. In Japan, it is illegal to operate a nuclear reactor if it sits on top of an active fault line. Recently, the NRA called for seismic studies of all nuclear reactors in the country.

A new survey by the Mainichi Daily News shows that only seven of 21 prefectures subject to urgent protective action planning zones (UPZ) within 30 km of nuclear reactors have secured shelter for residents in case a nuclear disaster should occur. Another six have secured partial shelter, but not enough for all residents. Some prefectures said that they will advise residents to evacuate by car—in direct opposition to the central government, which advises people to evacuate on foot in case of a tsunami, in order to avoid gridlock on roads. In addition, 16 prefectures have yet to decide how they will distribute iodine tablets, which protect thyroid glands from radiation exposure and possible cancer.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

TEPCO said this week that it launched a 2-meter wide balloon, equipped with cameras and a dosimeter, inside reactor #1 at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Workers hope to get a better sense of damage sustained during last year’s hydrogen explosion there, in order to begin planning for the reactor’s decommissioning. The balloon rose 30 km within the reactor, and radiation levels measured 150 millisieverts per hour near the second floor, and 54 millisieverts per hour near the fifth floor. Photos showed considerable debris scattered throughout the building.

TEPCO continues to struggle with increasing amounts of contaminated water building up in the basements of reactor buildings. Although the utility is now recycling water used to cool melted fuel, groundwater continues to seep into the damaged reactor buildings, thereby also becoming radioactive. Currently, TEPCO is storing 200,000 tons of highly radioactive water. That would fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and the company expects that amount to triple within the next three years unless ground water seepage can be stopped—a task that may be next to impossible, because radiation levels remain too high for humans to get near the buildings. TEPCO has already destroyed a nearby forest in order to accommodate water storage tanks, and may need to add more. Water Treatment Manager Yuichi Okamura said, “It’s a pressing issue because our land is limited and we will eventually run out of storage space.” Experts have raised concerns about the area’s water supply and possible effects on the ocean. Nuclear Engineer Masashi Goto noted, “You never know where it’s leaking out and once it’s out, you can never put it back in place. It’s just outrageous and shows how big a disaster the accident is.”

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Officials in Fukushima Prefecture have discovered contaminated rice measuring 100 Bq/kg, in excess of the government’s limit of 100 Bq/kg. The rice was grown on a farm in Sugawa, and was not sold to the public. Nearby farmers have been asked to voluntarily refrain from shipping their rice until officials determine the cause of the contamination, but the government has not expressly forbidden it.

Decontamination and Waste Disposal

Newly-appointed Environment Minister Hiroyuki Nagahama announced this week that the Ministry will increase the pace of decontamination in Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the nuclear disaster which first began to unfold more than a year and a half ago. Residents and municipal leaders have expressed increasing levels of frustration that the pace of decontamination work has been so slow, finally prompting Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to order Nagahama to accelerate the process.

Meanwhile, radioactive soil is continuing to raise concerns among residents in Fukushima Prefecture, many of whom have been forced to store the highly-contaminated soil on their own property because more than a year and a half after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the government has yet to decide where it should be stored. Much of the soil was removed as residents were decontaminating their homes and gardens. One resident, Tsuneo Ota, had to cut down most of the trees in his yard to accommodate 45-liter sealed plastic bins, normally used to store medical waste. Seventy percent of homes in the Yamagiwa Community in Fukushima are storing radioactive soil aboveground.