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) announced this week that as part of a comprehensive overhaul of safety standards for nuclear power plants, operators will now be legally required to develop plans to protect reactors from terrorist attacks. The NRA will reportedly submit a draft outline of its proposed new regulations next March, and prepare the standards themselves by July 2013.

In addition, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said that all plants will be required to pass seismic safety tests. If active fault lines are found beneath a reactor, it could be forced to shut down. Experts have raised questions about seismic safety at Kansai Electric’s two Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, which were restarted at the direction of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in spite of vehement public opposition and weekly anti-nuclear protests that sometimes drew as many as 100,000 demonstrators. Tanaka has criticized the Oi restarts, calling them “political,” but noted, “right now we don’t have the legal basis to make any judgment…we don’t have the legal power to stop the Oi reactors.” 

Significantly, Tanaka reiterated that municipalities within 30 km of nuclear reactors will be required to develop emergency procedures and evacuation plans, a directive that will affect over 130 towns and cities and almost five million residents. If those plans are not submitted, reactors will not be allowed to go back online. He admitted that this might be highly challenging in some areas. Previously, only those within 10 km of power plants were required to create evacuation and emergency plans. Tanaka said, “We must clear questions and concerns one by one. Otherwise, we will never regain the public’s trust. No reactor should operate unless the local community has emergency plans that residents can accept.”

But, despite promises to maintain neutrality and independence, the NRA said this week that it will allow the advice of experts who have accepted funding from the nuclear power industry, provided the total amount is less than 500,000 yen ($6,379) per year. Those who have worked within the last three years for operators whose reactors are being examined will not be assigned to advise on those particular reactors and plants.

Nuclear Politics in Japan

Fukushima Prefecture has admitted that no minutes were compiled immediately after a panel of experts studying effects of radiation on local residents met three times in October 2011, in spite of the fact that Japanese law specifically requires such records be kept and released to the public. In April of this year, one of the officials reconstructed minutes from a set of notes after a resident requested them, but they were only a third as long as those from some subsequent meetings, when minutes were submitted on time. In recent weeks, reports surfaced that the Prefecture held secret meetings before each of the public ones, during which experts were advised on what they should and should not say, and were told not to tell anyone else about the closed-door gatherings. Prefectural officials say they are continuing to investigate the issue and will release a report shortly. Yukiko Miki, Director of Information Clearinghouse Japan, sharply criticized the revelation, saying, “Under the freedom of information system, government organizations are supposed to disclose documents that they created if requested to do so. If such bodies are allowed to compile documents after being asked to disclose them, they could create documents to their own advantage. Such an act could damage the public’s confidence in disclosed public information.”

The Shizuoka Prefectural Assembly voted against a public referendum to determine whether Chubu Electric Power Company should be allowed to restart reactors at its Hamaoka plant there. The move comes after citizens’ groups, which recognized widespread opposition, gathered over 160,000 signatures. Governor Heita Kawakatsu signed off on the initiative in August, saying, “I will respect the will of residents and (make efforts) to realize a referendum.” But this week, one of the assembly members implied that the residents’ concern about their own safety was an inadequate reason to hold the referendum, saying that they should not influence Japanese nuclear policy. Meanwhile, recent scientific reports show that the plant is at risk of being struck by a 21-meter tsunami if a massive earthquake occurs. The utility is in the process of building an 18-meter high seawall, which is now a year behind schedule, and insists that this would be adequate protection against the 21-meter wall of water.

Electric Power Development Company (known in Japan as J-Power) has resumed construction at its proposed Ohma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture, as workers prepare steel sheeting designed to line reactor containment vessels. Although the government recently announced that it would abolish nuclear power in the 2030s, and forbid the building of any new reactors, it said that construction already begun at three plants, including the Ohma facility, could continue. Experts have criticized the move, pointing out that if the Ohma plant is allowed to operate for the government-allotted 40 years, it will extend at least a decade past the 2030s goal. The plant was originally scheduled to be completed in November 2014, but the schedule has now been extended by 18 months. A J-Power executive admitted that the utility was taking advantage of the apparent loophole, noting, “We rushed the announcement of the construction resumption to forestall any policy change.”

The United States National Academy of Sciences will conduct a nuclear safety meeting in Tokyo from November 26 to 28, 2012 in order to study lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Participants may conduct on-site investigations of the crippled reactors. The meeting’s goal is to increase safety at US nuclear plants; the Academy plans to produce a report in early 2014.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

For the first time since the nuclear disaster began to unfold, TEPCO has begun to evaluate the containment vessel of reactor #1, which suffered a major meltdown and subsequent hydrogen explosion more than 18 months ago. Testing will continue through Saturday. The utility plans to determine atmospheric radiation levels within the reactor, measure temperatures, and take water samples. On Tuesday, workers used an endoscopic camera to look inside the reactor. Although water levels were higher than the company had previously assumed they would be—2.8 meters from the bottom of the containment vessel—officials admitted that they still have no idea where the melted fuel is located.

In addition, TEPCO said that scaffolding, piping, and other equipment within the reactor is showing rust and signs of corrosion, and a metal rod, an unidentified bolt, and other equipment are strewn about the vessel, probably as a result of the hydrogen explosion. Radiation levels within the vessel are exceedingly high, measuring 11.1 sieverts per hour. That would kill a person within 40 minutes of exposure, although it’s not as high as levels in reactor #2, where levels in March measured 73 sieverts per hour, causing death within a mere seven minutes. Keiji Miyazaki, Professor Emeritus at Osaka University, cautions that TEPCO will not be able to accurately determine the reactor’s condition until its central control drives are studied. Astronomical radiation levels prevent workers from doing so for the time being.

Contamination, Including Human Exposure

Rice shipments from Hirono in Fukushima Prefecture resumed this week, in spite of the fact that farmers were asked to voluntarily refrain from planting rice last year. Two farmers ignored the directive, and between them produced 80 bags of rice. Fukushima officials say that they contain less than the government limit of 100 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium. One of the farmers, Ryohei Niitsuma, said he removed a layer of contaminated topsoil before planting the rice and used fertilizer containing potassium and zeolite in an effort to prevent it from absorbing radiation from the soil. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has had a devastating effect on farming in the region. “The nuclear disaster instantly destroyed our relationships of trust we had built over the years,” he said.

In the meantime, municipal officials from Okuma are harvesting rice from two experimental plots designed to determine the difference in radiation levels after decontamination. One plot was decontaminated by removing 5 cm of soil, and one was left untouched. Contamination levels will be measured to see if they exceed government limits for safe consumption. Kiyoyuki Matsumoto, a town official leading the project, noted, “We cannot imagine when people from this town will be able to return to their homes. It may be several years or several decades from now. But we hope that the result of this experiment will help farmers who want to return to this town and resume their farming in the future.”

Japan Tobacco, Inc. admitted this week that it will cancel orders for 4.5 tons of tobacco it planned to purchase from farmers in Fukushima prefecture, after recent tests show contamination levels of 110.7 Bq/kg of radioactive cesium in tobacco samples gathered there. The company previously said it would not process tobacco that exceeded 100 Bq/kg, the same limit set by the government for general foodstuffs, including beef, rice, seafood, and vegetables. Last year, tobacco farmers in Fukushima Prefecture voluntarily suspended harvests, in the wake of the nuclear disaster at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Waste Removal and Storage

A new survey conducted by public television network NHK reveals that hundreds of thousands of bags of radioactive soil remain on the premises of approximately 1,500 properties from which it was removed, because the government has yet to determine where to store it. More than 18 months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has decontaminated just 1.1% of those whose radiation levels are so high that they require it, and of those, contaminated soil remains at approximately one-third. In many cases, it’s protected only by plastic tarps. The government plans to build a waste repository in Futaba, but so far has met with considerable opposition from residents, who are concerned about their own safety.