Japan says nuclear plant leak worse than thought, govt joins clean-up

TOKYO,  (Reuters) – Highly radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is pouring out at a rate of 300 tonnes a day, officials said on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the government to step in and help in the clean-up.

The admission indicates that two and a half years after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which only recently admitted water had leaked at all, has yet come to grips with the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Calling water containment at the Fukushima Daiichi station an “urgent issue,” Abe ordered the government for the first time to get involved to help struggling Tepco handle the crisis.

The newly acknowledged leak from the plant 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in barely a week. The water is spilling into the Pacific Ocean, but it was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.

In the early weeks of the disaster, the Japanese government allowed Tepco to dump tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific in an emergency move.

But the escalation of the long-running crisis raises the risk of an even longer and more expensive clean-up, which is already forecast to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion.

The admission also further dents the credibility of Tepco, which has been severely criticised for its failure to prepare for the massive 2011 tsunami and earthquake that devastated the plant, for a confused response to the disaster and for covering up shortcomings.

“We think that the volume of water (leaking into the Pacific) is about 300 tonnes a day,” said Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, which regulates Tepco, involved in handling the Fukushima disaster.

Tatsuya Shinkawa, a director in METI’s Nuclear Accident Response Office, told reporters the government believes water has been leaking for two years, or essentially throughout the nuclear crisis, but Yoneyama told Reuters it was unclear how long the water had been leaking at the current rate.

“We don’t know if all of that water is contaminated or not, but it’s possible,” he said. The water is from the area between the crippled reactors and the ocean, where Tepco has sought to block the flow of contaminated water by chemically hardening the soil.

ABE STEPS IN

As the crisis worsens, Abe ordered his government into action.

“The contaminated water problem is one that the Japanese people have a high level of interest in and is an urgent issue to deal with,” the premier told reporters after attending a meeting of the government’s task force on the disaster.

“Rather than relying on Tokyo Electric, the government will take measures,” he said after instructing METI Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to urgently deal with the water situation and ensure Tepco takes appropriate action.

The Japanese leader stopped short of pledging funds to deal with the issue, but the ministry has requested a budget allocation to help address the water problem, an official told Reuters.

The Nikkei newspaper said the funds would be used to freeze the soil to prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor buildings – a project with an estimated cost of up to 40 billion yen ($410 million).

On Thursday, the Finance Ministry is scheduled to announce its ceilings for budget requests from ministries for the fiscal year starting next April.

DEPENDENT ON IMPORTS

Tepco’s handling of the clean-up has complicated Japan’s efforts to restart its 50 nuclear power plants, almost all of which have been shut since the disaster because of safety concerns.

That has made Japan dependent on expensive imported fuels for virtually all its energy.

An official from the country’s nuclear watchdog told Reuters on Monday that the highly radioactive water seeping into the ocean from the Fukushima plant was creating an “emergency” that Tepco was not successfully containing on its own.

Abe said on Wednesday, “To ensure safety, I would also like the head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority to do his best to find out the cause and come up with effective measures as a regulator.”

Tepco pumps out some 400 tonnes a day of groundwater flowing from the hills above the nuclear plant into the basements of the destroyed buildings, which mixes with highly irradiated water that is used to cool the fuel that melted down in three reactors.

Tepco is trying to prevent groundwater from reaching the plant by building a “bypass”, but recent spikes of radioactive elements in sea water has prompted the utility to reverse months of denials and finally admit that tainted water is reaching the sea.

Tepco and the industry ministry have been working since May on a proposal to freeze the soil to prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor buildings.

Similar technology is used in preventing groundwater flooding in subway construction, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday that the vast scale of Tepco’s attempt was “unprecedented in the world.”

The technology was proposed by one of Japan’s largest construction companies, Kajima Corp, which is already heavily involved in the clean-up.

Experts say, however, that maintaining the ground temperatures for months, if not years, would be costly. The plan is to freeze a 1.4 km (nearly one mile) perimeter around the four damaged reactors by drilling shafts into the ground and pumping coolant through them, creating a wall of frozen earth that will block the flow of groundwater into the plant.

“Right now there are no details (of the project yet). There’s no blueprint, no nothing yet, so there’s no way we can scrutinise it,” said Shinji Kinjo, head of the task force set up by the nuclear regulator to deal with the Fukushima water issue.

Kotaro Ohga, a research fellow at Hokkaido University and a groundwater expert, said: “It is incredibly difficult to completely block the groundwater like this. It would be better if they could pump clean water before it reaches the plant.”

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