(This post is by Christine McCann)

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

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will stress the need for nuclear power in Japan, albeit with a high degree of concentration paid to safety issues, according to a leaked draft of a speech to be delivered at the UN Meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security. The meeting, which will be held later this week in New York City, will be chaired by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, in conjunction with the 66th General Assembly of the United Nations.

Kojiro Irikura, the head of the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission’s committee on seismic safety standards for nuclear plants, says that those standards must be completely revised, a process which could take years. Irikura insists, ‘All plants, not just new ones, must be able to withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 15 meter tsunami.’ He expressed concern about additional safety issues, including external power sources unable to sustain high levels of seismic activity, thereby putting reactors at risk. The last time seismic standards were revised, the process took 5 years. The committee will present recommendations by March of 2012, but in the interim, local government officials have expressed strong reluctance to allow idled reactors to go back online.

In an address to the IAEA general assembly, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono said that although there is popular agreement in Japan to reduce nuclear power, public debate is crucial. In the interim, Hosono wants idled reactors back online by March, in order to avoid negative impact on the economy. He admitted that there are significant problems with the system designed to compensate victims of the Fukushima disaster.

The Foreign Ministry has set aside a JY1.5 million budget to offset rumors about nuclear contamination in Japan’s food supply. As part of the initiative, the Ministry will invite social media users with a large following, including those who use Facebook and Twitter, to visit Japan, eat local food, and then post about their experiences. Ministry officials recognize that not all posts will be positive, but they hope that the overall impression will dispel safety concerns.

Over 60,000 people gathered in Tokyo this week to protest nuclear energy in Japan and demand that nuclear power plants be shut down. It was the largest demonstration since the March disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Participants included Nobel-prize winning novelist Kenzeburō Ōe, who has called for the abolition of nuclear power.

TEPCO

Over the past 20 years, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has paid over JY40 billion ($521 million) in undisclosed donations to local municipalities. This money is in addition to ‘energy grants’ and fuel taxes, which are public knowledge. According to a TEPCO executive, ‘We paid the donations because we wanted to obtain the understanding of local governments on the construction of nuclear power plants.’ Municipalities were asked to keep the origin of the funding secret; many used the money to build expensive facilities or to cover budget shortfalls.

Japanese insurance companies are considering halting coverage for TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, because policies are designed to cover plants in good condition. Should another nuclear crisis occur, the plants would not be covered, and would be rendered illegal. In addition, the plant continues to spew radiation, and much of the structure has been damaged. According to Japanese nuclear compensation law, plants cannot operate unless they are insured for compensation of victims in case of an accident. Although the plant will be decommissioned, the process is expected to take decades. The Japan Atomic Energy Insurance Pool, which handles private insurance policies, is expected to make a decision on whether or not to extend coverage by the end of this year.

Hiroyuki Fukano, the head of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), has strongly criticized TEPCO’s decision to submit heavily redacted copies of nuclear safety manuals, after a committee investigating the Fukushima disaster requested them. One document was so heavily redacted that only two words were visible. NISA still has not received the document in full. Fukano admitted that because of the large amount of contaminated water at the Daiichi plant, ‘we can’t say the situation is under control.’

After saying it would increase prices by as much as 15% to cover expenses associated with the Fukushima disaster, TEPCO reversed its position. Public and governmental response to the proposed price hike had been both swift and harsh. The company did not rule out smaller increase in the future.

In order to cover rising compensation costs owed to victims of the Fukushima disaster, TEPCO will sell 280 properties, including its company headquarters in Tokyo and employee recreation facilities. The sale is expected to raise JY200 billion. In addition, TEPCO will reduce pension benefits and reduce its workforce by 10% over the next several years, a loss of 3,000 jobs.

As a result of local opposition to nuclear power, TEPCO’s Fukushima Daini plant will be decommissioned, according to Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). The Daini plant is approximately 15 km south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where the March nuclear disaster plant took place.

Status of the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors

Goshi Hosono, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Minister, announced that TEPCO will bring the Fukushima Daiichi plant into cold shutdown status (reducing reactor temperature below 100ºC) by the end of this year, sooner than the previously announced January deadline. He was speaking at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference.

TEPCO revealed that nearly all core detectors in Reactor 1 were damaged in the nuclear meltdown, after temperature and pressure within the reactor containers exceeded equipment design. Out of 97 detectors, which check the status of control rods, only one is in working condition.

TEPCO has increased the amount of water being injecting into Reactors 2 and 3 at the Daiichi plant, in an attempt to bring reactor temperatures below 100ºC.

Contamination (Including Human Exposure)

Radioactive cesium exceeding the 500 Bq/kg limit was found in wild mushrooms in 43 cities and towns in Fukushima Prefecture, prompting Japan’s central government to ban mushroom shipments. The move has had a significant impact on local mushroom hunting tours and festivals, a large source of revenue for several municipalities within the prefecture. Cultivated mushrooms are not subject to the ban.

Beef Crisis

Fukushima Prefecture resumed beef shipments on September 15, two months after a ban was put in place when contaminated cattle were discovered. All cattle will now be checked for radiation, allowing approximately 200 cows to be checked per day. Testing is expected to have a price tag of JY126 million, which will initially be paid for by the prefecture. However, officials say that they may turn to TEPCO and the central government to reimburse those costs.

Evacuation

Starting this week, exiled residents of Fukushima will be allowed to return briefly to their homes within the 20 kilometer evacuation zone. For the first time, they can travel in their own cars, rather than taking prefectural buses, and will be allowed to stay for 4 hours. TEPCO is providing protective clothing, dosimeters, and two-way radios; it will check returning cars for radiation and decontaminate them if necessary. Residents who were evacuated from within 3 km of the plant will not be granted access, as radiation in those areas is still too high.