By Osamu Tsukimori and Antoni Slodkowski
The Japanese government will get directly involved in containing rising levels of radioactive water at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant instead of relying solely on the operator, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday, calling it an “urgent issue”.
Almost 2-1/2 years after an earthquake and tsunami caused reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima Daiichi station, the toxic water that has plagued the clean-up from the start now threatens to flood out of the plant’s confines Into the Pacific Ocean.
The Fukushima disaster is the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, and the delays in getting to grips with the clean-up have caused global concern.
“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,” Abe 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.
Abe said he ordered Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi to urgently deal with the water situation and ensure Tokyo Electric takes appropriate action to deal with the clean-up, which is expected to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion.
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 on condition of anonymity.
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.
The government moves appear to be in response to warnings by industry experts that Tokyo Electric’s failure to address the problem questioned its ability to safely decommission the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
The utility, also known as Tepco, has been widely castigated for its failure to prepare for the massive 2011 tsunami and earthquake that devastated the plant and led to It has also been criticised for its inept response to the disaster and covering up shortcomings.
DEPENDENT ON IMPORTS
Tepco’s handling of the clean-up has also 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.
“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,” Abe said.
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.
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.
“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.
“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,” said Kotaro Ohga, research fellow at Hokkaido University and groundwater expert.