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Japan's uphill battle over tainted water
Publication Date : 12-09-2013
At the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the battle against leaking contaminated water goes on. So much tainted water has leaked from storage tanks and even seeped into the ocean that the issue, at one point, cast a shadow over Tokyo‚Äôs bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that his government would take the initiative in handling the water leakage at the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. ‚ÄúI will take responsibility for deciding on a programme to resolve the issue once and for all,‚ÄĚ he said during the IOC general meeting in Buenos Aires on Saturday.
The world is keeping its eye on whether Japan can contain the contaminated water, as Abe vowed. The nation‚Äôs credibility is at stake in this battle.
At a press conference held for the foreign media on September 2, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said: ‚ÄúThe contaminated water issue remains unsolved. We can‚Äôt say it‚Äôs under control yet.‚ÄĚ
On September 3, the government announced it will tap a public fund of 47 billion yen (US$469 million) to beef up measures against the tainted water leakage.
Akira Amari, state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, said: ‚ÄúTEPCO has been cornered financially and psychologically. This [announcement] means the government will waste no time in doing what should be done.‚ÄĚ
The contaminated water issue includes three main problems.
First, the amount of radioactive water increases by 400 tonnes at the plant every day. Nuclear fuel in the plant‚Äôs Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors, all damaged by the March 11, 2011, disaster, continues to generate heat and needs to be cooled with water. But the cooling water keeps escaping from the damaged reactors. Moreover, groundwater flowing down from the hills has seeped into the reactor buildings, increasing the amount of tainted water to 430,000 tonnes.
Second, contaminated water has leaked from makeshift storage tanks. Because of weak joints in the 1,000-tonne steel tanks, an estimated 300 tonnes of water has leaked from a faulty tank.
Third, highly radioactive water that accumulated in underground tunnels that hold pipes and cables, which are connected to the reactor and turbine buildings, has found its way into the plant‚Äôs harbour. Tepco has said it has seen a rise in radiation levels due to the water leaks at a well near a protective wall and a location within the harbor surrounded by jetties and an ‚Äúundersea curtain‚ÄĚ. Radiation readings at the harbour entrance, about 500 meters offshore, are reportedly about one-500th of the maximum level set by World Health Organisation guidelines for drinking-water quality.
Based on such data, the effect of the contaminated water is fully contained within a 0.3-square-kilometre area in the harbour, Abe said during the IOC‚Äôs general meeting.
Early warning ignored
However, Masao Yoshida, the chief of the Fukushima plant when the nuclear crisis broke out, raised the alarm over water leakage in April 2011. ‚ÄúHandling the water is an urgent task. If we fail to deal with it, we can‚Äôt overcome [the crisis],‚ÄĚ said Yoshida, who died in July.
Tepco, however, found that simply securing space to store an increasing volume of radioactive water was enough to keep its hands full. As a result, it delayed taking steps to tackle the water leaks, leaving highly radioactive water untouched in the tunnels.
Masayuki Ono, acting general manager of Tepco's nuclear power and plant siting division, said: ‚ÄúWe deal with issues according to their priority, but face delays in solving them. Under the current system, we‚Äôre not capable of handling the risk properly.‚ÄĚ