SEOUL — The Japanese government on Tuesday pledged nearly $500 million to fight toxic water leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, part of an increasingly precarious cleanup job that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says requires “radical measures.”
Concerns about fast-accumulating contaminated water at the plant, nearly 21 / 2 years after an earthquake triggered a major nuclear accident, have pushed the government to invent on-the-fly solutions.
For example, part of the money announced Tuesday will go toward pumping coolant through underground pipes around critical buildings, officials said, freezing soil and creating a “seal” almost a mile long.
The announcement suggests mounting problems at Fukushima, where hundreds of tons of irradiated water flow daily into the sea. It also marks the government’s most direct attempt yet to take charge of a site operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which has been criticized by regulators for lax oversight.
The 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima involved three reactor meltdowns and a massive release of radiation that forced the evacuation of 160,000 residents. The government has since declared the plant to be in a state of “cold shutdown,” meaning its reactor cores are stable. But analysts say that term belies the complex and environmentally damaging problems Japan could face during decades of cleanup.
The greatest challenge, for now, is the water. When a nuclear plant is operating as designed, irradiated water is contained. But the Fukushima plant — battered by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the enormous tsunami that followed, and now relying on makeshift equipment — has become a soggy mess.
Every day, roughly 400 tons of groundwater flows from surrounding mountains and seeps into reactor buildings, Tepco says. There, it mixes with highly toxic water used to douse and cool the crippled reactor cores.
Some of the water leaks into the sea, Tepco says, although the exact path — whether through cracks in buildings, or through pipes or trenches — remains unclear. Workers, speaking occasionally to the media, say they are in a perpetual fight to drain toxic water from areas where it should not be and store it in containers.
So far, the company has pumped the water into nearly 1,000 gray drums, each the size of a small house. But those drums were hastily constructed, regulators say, using some parts that were bolted, not welded, together.
Last month, Tepco admitted that one storage drum had sprung a leak. Spiking radiation levels around the tanks have raised fears that others could be leaking as well. But it is hard to tell: Water levels in the tanks have not been measured on a regular basis, said Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, at a news conference Monday.
“We believe that management of and monitoring of tanks represents a serious problem,” Tanaka said, adding that regulators have given Tepco “strict instructions” to strengthen its oversight.
Among other actions, Japan’s government plans to seal off reactor buildings and upgrade a system to remove radionuclides from the contaminated water that is on site.
At a meeting Tuesday, Abe and other Japanese officials said the central government, not Tepco, should take the lead in handling technically challenging problems at the plant, according to public broadcaster NHK. Abe said the latest steps will help provide a “fundamental solution to the problem of radioactive water, instead of reacting to each new problem as it comes up.”
Some analysts initially criticized the government for leaving the 40-year, $11 billion decommissioning job in the hands of Tepco, which was slow to admit the extent of the crisis during its initial weeks. Before the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, Tepco also ignored experts’ warnings about the Fukushima facility’s ability to withstand natural disasters.
Tepco has technical control of the site, but the government’s increased willingness to intervene could provide safety assurances days before the International Olympic Committee picks a host city for the 2020 Summer Games. Tokyo is widely seen as the front-runner, with Istanbul and Madrid also in contention.
The chief of Tokyo’s 2020 bid wrote recently to IOC members, telling them that life in the city is “completely normal” despite the leaks 150 miles to the north, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.