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 yesterday, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the government to step in and help in the clean-up.
The revelation amounted to an acknowledgement that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) has yet to come to grips with the scale of the catastrophe, 2 1/2 years after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami. Tepco only recently admitted water had leaked at all.
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 leak from the plant 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in a week. The water is spilling into the Pacific Ocean, but it was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.
As early as January this year, Tepco found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but Tepco denied the claims.
Tetsu Nozaki, the chairman of the Fukushima fisheries federation said he had only heard of the latest estimates of the magnitude of the seepage from media reports.
Environmental group Greenpeace said Tepco had “anxiously hid the leaks” and urged Japan to seek international expertise.
“Greenpeace calls for the Japanese authorities to do all in their power to solve this situation, and that includes increased transparancy…and getting international expertise in to help find solutions,” Dr. Rianne Teule of Greenpeace International said in an e-mailed statement.
Fukushima is on Japan’s northeastern coast and faces the Pacific. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not believe the seepage will have any effect on the West Coast.
“Even 300 tonnes – that’s still going to be diluted to an almost undetectable level before it would get to any U.S. territory,” said Scott Burnell, public information officer for the commission. “The scale of what’s occurring at Fukushima is nowhere near the scale of the releases we saw during the actual accident.”
In the weeks after the disaster, the 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 crisis raises the risk of an even longer and more expensive clean-up, already forecast to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion.