A radiation contamination guideline of 40 becquerels per kilogram that the government introduced in connection with school lunches was actually meant for selecting radiation measuring equipment, the ministry has announced.

On Nov. 30, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology sent 17 prefectures notices that could be interpreted as stating that the limit for radiation in ingredients for school-provided lunches was 40 becquerels per kilogram, and in a news conference on Dec. 1, Senior Vice Minister Yuko Mori confirmed this. On Dec. 2, however, Minister Masaharu Nakagawa explained that the figure was actually a guideline for selecting radiation meters.

The ministry did not consult the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is formulating new radiation contamination guidelines under the Food Sanitation Law, before announcing the figure — exposing the lack of communication between the two ministries.

In the wording of its notice, the ministry did not use any terms indicating a binding standard, but rather a guideline that was actually supposed to cover the selection of radiation meters. However, as the confusion sparked nationwide inquiries, the ministry sent another notice to prefectural education boards across Japan late on Dec. 1 stating, “This is a guideline for selecting measuring equipment to purchase, and is not setting a standard for school lunches.”

In its original notice in November, the education ministry provided an example which said that if the radiation level in food exceeded a measuring limit of 40 becquerels per kilogram, then that particular food item could be removed from lunch menus — giving the impression that 40 becquerels per kilogram was the limit.

On Dec. 1, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, upon media reports of a “school lunch limit,” made an inquiry with the education ministry. The following morning, an education ministry official contacted the health ministry and apologized for insufficient coordination.

Commenting on the situation, a health ministry representative said, “If they had talked to us, we could have pointed out that it would cause confusion. We don’t know why they didn’t talk to us.”

A high-ranking education ministry official, meanwhile, said that the notice lacked a detailed explanation.

Earlier the education ministry was hit with a barrage of criticism for setting the radiation dosage limit at which schoolchildren’s outdoor activities would be restricted at 20 millisieverts per year.

Strontium-tainted water leak suspected (NHK, December 04, 2011)

The operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant says about 45 tons of strontium-tainted water may have leaked out of a water treatment device, with a portion of it spilling out of the facility.

Tokyo Electric Power Company says the water may contain high levels of radioactive strontium. Strontium causes internal radiation exposure.

The company is trying to determine whether the water reached the sea.

The utility said at about 11:30 am on Sunday a water leak was spotted in a device to remove salt from contaminated water from which radioactive material had already been removed.

It said the leak was stopped after the device was turned off, but at least 45 tons of water containing radioactive materials may have leaked out, with some portion possibly reaching a ditch outside the facility.

The level of radioactive cesium had been reduced to 45 becquerels per cubic centimeter after the treatment. But the water is believed to have contained 130,000 becquerels per cubic centimeter of radioactive strontium.

The ditch connects to the sea about 600 meters away. The power company is piling up sand bags in the ditch to prevent the water from flowing to the sea.

The water is used to cool down the reactors in the power plant and the utility says the leak does not pose any problems for the process.

Decontamination project shown to media (NHK, December 04, 2011)

Reporters have been shown a model project to remove radioactive materials discharged from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the evacuation zone around the facility.

Workers commissioned by the central government have spent the past week cleaning 4.5 hectares of land around the Okuma town hall. Before they started the task, they had been monitoring the radiation levels of the area since November 18th.

The workers used high-pressure water sprays to wash radioactive substances off the roof of the town hall. They also collected dead leaves and moss, which are believed to contain high concentrations of these materials.

They tested different water temperatures and lengths of shifts to find the most efficient process for removing the substances.

The used water was stored in tanks to conduct tests for recycling, as the local sewage system has not been restored yet.

The project succeeded in reducing radiation levels from about 20 microsieverts per hour to 6 microsieverts.

Masakazu Shima of the Cabinet Office nuclear crisis taskforce said he wants to sincerely apologize for the delay in starting the decontamination work. He said he wants to continue various experiments to find solutions for cases where radiation levels remain high.

He added that he hopes the decontamination can help all the evacuees to return home as soon as possible.

The government will conduct similar projects in 11 cities and municipalities and begin a full-fledged operation early next year.

Miyagi Pref. begins thyroid testing for kids near Fukushima border (Mainichi, Dec 4)

SENDAI (Kyodo) — The Miyagi prefectural government began testing the thyroids of 83 children of up to elementary school age Sunday in the town of Marumori, which borders Fukushima Prefecture, to examine the health impact of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The radiation level in the prefecture north of Fukushima is estimated to be below the annual limit of 1 millisievert in most areas but at 4.1 millisieverts and 2.8 millisieverts in two areas of the town, prompting concerns among residents, particularly those with children, it said.

It is considering testing also for internal exposure using a whole-body counter, it said.

“As it borders Fukushima Prefecture and the radiation level is high, I hope to get rid of my worries. I want test opportunities to be offered regularly,” said Toru Sakuma, a 28-year-old self-employed resident who took his 1-year-old boy Haruki for the test.

Japan looks to giant washer to clean Fukushima debris (Japan Today)

TOKYO — Japan is looking to launder tsunami debris in a giant washing machine to get rid of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident, a researcher says.

In a scheme they hope will result in finally being able to dispose of contaminated waste left by the waves that crushed towns on the country’s northeast coast, a cleaning plant will be built near the Fukushima Daiichi power station.

Shredded waste—including the remains of houses and cars destroyed by the tsunami—will be put inside a huge water-filled drum where steel attachments will scrub away radioactive particles, the researcher told AFP.

The plan is a joint scheme between Tokyo-based construction company Toda Corp. and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

“We, as a general contractor, have experience of cleaning soil and hope that we will eventually be able to decontaminate soil as well as debris,” said a research at Toda Corp, who asked not to be named.

He said researchers will experiment with pure water and detergents to find the best way to decontaminate the waste and hope to be able to recycle the water using a series of filters.

In an initial test they will use a tub 120 centimetres (four feet) long and plan to install multiple washing drums three times larger than that once the project fully launches, he said…. Read more here.

Workers at Fukushima nuclear plant recall desperation (Japan Today, Dec 4 )

TOKYO — The embattled operator of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has released workers’ accounts of the desperate moments surrounding the huge earthquake and tsunami that triggered an atomic crisis.

At a hearing into the March disaster, a chief operator described how he realised disaster had hit when lights flickered and went out, including those on the control panels, according to an interim report released Friday by the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).

“I came to realize a tsunami had hit the site as one of the workers rushed into the room, shouting ‘Sea water is gushing in!’” the unnamed chief operator was quoted as saying.

“I felt totally at a loss after losing power sources,” he said. “Other workers appeared anxious. They argued, and one asked: ‘Is there any reason for us to be here when there is nothing we can do to control (the reactors)?’”

“I bowed and begged them to stay.”

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 paralyzed electrical and cooling systems at the nuclear power plant.

The interim report was the first to detail testimonies from workers, who were hailed as heroes in the weeks following the accident as they took extreme health risks to try to prevent a worse nuclear disaster.

They described attempts to release pressure from a reactor container by manually opening a ventilation valve.

“We put on the full protection gear but couldn’t possibly let young workers do the task, as we had to go into an area where the radiation levels were high,” one worker recalled.

“When I got to the place to open the valve, I heard an eerie, deep popping noise from the torus (a donut-shaped structure at the bottom of the reactor),” he said.

“When I put one of my feet on the torus to reach the valve, my black rubber boot melted and slipped (due to the heat).”

The operators also spoke of dismal working conditions as they battled to stabilize the crippled plant.

“We experienced big aftershocks, and many times we had to run up a hill in desperation (fearing a tsunami) with the full-face mask still on,” one worker said.

Another worker spoke of the race to lay power cables and bring back the supply of electricity, saying: “We finished the work (in one section) in several hours, although it usually requires one month or two.”

“It was an operation we had to do in puddles, fearing electrification,” the worker said.

Explosions and fires at the plant unleashed dangerous levels of radiation, forcing TEPCO to pull out hundreds of workers, leaving just a few dozen behind.

Those workers earned the nickname the “Fukushima Fifty,” but that number eventually swelled again by thousands, including technicians sent from partners such as Toshiba and Hitachi.

They were tasked with keeping cooling water flowing into the six reactors at the plant, three of which eventually overheated and experienced meltdowns.

Last month, then Fukushima Daiichi plant chief Masao Yoshida told state broadcaster NHK: “In the first week immediately after the accident I thought a few times ‘I’m going to die.’”

Referring to a hydrogen explosion that tore apart the buildings around rectors 1 and 3, he said: “I thought it was all over.”

Despite a series of setbacks in the past nine months, the Japanese government and TEPCO say they remain on track to declare a cold shutdown later this month, about a month earlier than initially planned.

The accident has not directly claimed any lives but has left tens of thousands of people displaced and rendered whole towns uninhabitable because of radiation, possibly for decades. The quake-tsunami killed about 20,000 people.

In a recent interview with AFP, Goshi Hosono, state minister in charge of nuclear accident settlement and prevention, hailed the plant workers for their battle to tame the crippled reactors.

“It was the emergency workers at the plant who have contributed to it the most,” he said. “We are finally seeing the goal of cold shutdown in sight. The workers’ efforts must be highly applauded.”

But Hosono, when he visited the plant last month, also cautioned that 30 years’ work remained to be done to dismantle the machinery

Nuclear cleanup effort showcased for media (Japan Times, Dec 4)

A cleanup project aimed at decontaminating radioactive areas around the crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear plant is shown off in the deserted town of Okuma

TEPCO’s interim Fukushima report short on answers(Asahi, Dec 04) | Report doesn’t answer blast, radiation leak mysteries (Dec.4)

Why did such massive amounts of radioactive substances escape from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant? Why did explosions tear through its reactor buildings?

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s interim report on the accident at the nuclear plant shed some light on some causes of the nation’s worst-ever nuclear crisis, but these and other crucial questions remain unanswered.

The release of radioactive substances is believed to have peaked on the morning of March 15. As radiation spewed from the plant’s reactors, residents in an extensive area–even as far as Iitatemura, Fukushima Prefecture, about 30 kilometers from the plant–were forced to evacuate.

The report said the air pressure in the containment vessel of the plant’s No. 2 reactor dropped drastically that morning. However, TEPCO says the causal relationship between the pressure drop and the radioactive release is “unclear at this moment.”

It had been assumed that a blast in the pressure control chamber below the No. 2 reactor’s containment vessel caused the increase in radiation leaked into the environment. Analysis of data from a seismometer and other equipment at the complex later showed this hypothesis was incorrect.

The accident will need to be examined from scratch to pinpoint its true cause. However, an on-site investigation at the plant remains extremely difficult due to the high levels of radiation in the area.

The report’s verification of TEPCO’s initial response to the nuclear accident also lacked details.

After a hydrogen blast wrecked the No. 1 reactor building shortly after 3:30 p.m. on March 12–a development nobody had anticipated–TEPCO scrambled to prevent similar blasts from occurring at the other reactors.

The utility arranged to have a hydraulic device break open holes in the reactor buildings to release hydrogen from inside. But shortly after 11 a.m. on March 14, before the device arrived, a hydrogen blast ripped through the No. 3 reactor.

The report did not specify why TEPCO failed to prevent this blast, which happened nearly two days after the first explosion.

TEPCO Vice President Masao Yamazaki said: “It was difficult to obtain equipment due to bad road conditions and other problems after the [March 11] earthquake. We’ll look into the matter further for the final report.”

There also are some loose ends regarding the injection of cooling water into the reactors.

Even after the huge tsunami triggered by the March 11 earthquake hit the power plant and knocked out its cooling systems, the emergency water injection system functioned for about three days at the No. 2 reactor and about 1-1/2 days at the No. 3 reactor. TEPCO had time to prepare substitute water injection methods, such as stationing fire engines at the plant. Its failure to do so eventually resulted in core meltdowns at the Nos. 1-3 reactors.

The report says TEPCO’s response was delayed because valves to reduce pressure in the reactors could not be operated due to a lack of electricity and “TEPCO workers had to remove batteries from staff cars to collect enough power to conduct the operation.”

The report did not clarify why TEPCO did not prepare more power sources while the emergency water injection system was in operation.

Cesium-tainted ash being returned to Tokyo area(Asahi, Dec 04)

KOSAKA, Akita Prefecture — Rejected by residents, incinerated waste containing radioactive cesium is being returned to the Tokyo metropolitan area where it originated.

Outside experts investigating the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. seem to have taken a sympathetic attitude toward TEPCO although they concluded the utility’s safety measures were insufficient.

It is believed their probe into TEPCO’s reaction to the accident was superficial out of concern for the potentially huge compensation claims that TEPCO faces.

“TEPCO should have decided in advance detailed procedures based on the assumption that all external power supplies were lost,” the panel of outside experts said in its assessment of the accident.

The view of the panel of outside experts, which was created to verify TEPCO’s internal investigation, was revealed Friday, when TEPCO announced an interim report on the nuclear crisis put together by an in-house investigation committee set up by the utility.

The committee of outside experts presented the view that both the government and TEPCO failed to assume the complete loss of power in planning countermeasures against severe accidents such as those that resulted in the ongoing nuclear crisis.

At the nuclear plant, the March 11 tsunami disabled emergency power generators, and workers concentrated their efforts mostly on venting steam containing radioactive substances from the reactors.

But TEPCO had not decided how the venting and water injections should be carried out when all the power supplies are lost, and thus workers at the plant were confused.

TEPCO has said the core of the No. 1 reactor started being damaged shortly before 7 p.m. on March 11, four hours after the massive earthquake hit east Japan.

However, venting at the No. 1 reactor was was not begun until about 2 p.m. on March 12.

The outside experts’ crisis examination committee also touched on the fact that there were only two phone lines connecting the plant’s quake-proof building for emergency use and three central control rooms, though the workers had to handle six reactors at the plant simultaneously.

“Sharing such information is a very important task,” the experts simply pointed out in their report.

===

Experts agree with probe panel

However, the interim report by the in-house investigation panel contained almost no descriptions of failures in TEPCO’s responses to the accident.

It has been already revealed that venting equipment was delivered to the wrong place and plant workers knew nothing about auxiliary battery storage. But the report did not mention such failures at all.

About the fact that TEPCO had assumed tsunami more than 15 meters high–equivalent to the March 11 tsunami–in 2008, the in-house investigation committee flatly denied that the assumption required action.

The committee concluded, “The estimate was based on a simulation of unlikely events, and thus the predicted tsunami were not likely enough to require the company to prepare.”

The outside experts’ panel agreed, saying, “Tsunami of a scale that could not be predicted.”

The experts also did not deeply examine why venting in the No. 1 reactor was delayed for so long. More than seven hours elapsed between the time the government confirmed the evacuation of nearby residents at 12:30 a.m. on March 12 and the time when the venting was ordered.

Kenji Sumita, professor emeritus of Osaka University and former acting chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, said: “The investigation committee’s report shows a lack of self-reflection on how insufficient the safety measures were. Also, the report doesn’t tell us what roles TEPCO’s head office played in the crisis.

“The opinions of the outside experts’ panel are also ambiguous about the fact that TEPCO said it was unable to predict a hydrogen explosion, and it seems to be trying to protect TEPCO,” he added.

One member of the outside experts’ committee said, “In the process of compiling the report, I felt TEPCO was worried about the compensation problem.”

About 40 shareholders of TEPCO recently demanded in writing that the company’s auditors file a lawsuit against 61 past and current management executives seeking more than 5 trillion yen of compensation for the company. They said they will file a class-action lawsuit if the auditors fails to act.

It is inevitable TEPCO will face a shareholders lawsuit as the probability that the auditors will follow the demand is low.

Probably because they took TEPCO’s concerns about such a lawsuit into consideration, the outside experts frequently used expressions that skirted the issue of blame or negligence on the part of TEPCO, although the committee emphasized TEPCO’s reaction ended in failure.

For instance, the experts committee said, “As a consequence, assumptions of severe accidents were insufficient.”

TEPCO Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, who chairs the in-house investigation committee, said at a press conference Friday, “We had implemented measures for severe accidents as part of integrated actions with the government.” His suggested the government should share responsibility with TEPCO for the inadequate accident-prevention measures.

Trainees steer clear of Tohoku / Radiation fears apparently behind sharp drop in foreign interns (Yomiuri, Dec.4)