August 7, 2013 9:10 am

Japan poised to intervene in Fukushima clean-up

Members of a Fukushima prefecture panel, which monitors the safe decommissioning of the nuclear plant, inspect the construction site of the shore barrier, which is meant to stop radioactive water from leaking into the sea, near the No.1 and No.2 reactor building of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this photo released by Kyodo August 6, 2013. Highly radioactive water seeping into the ocean from Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is creating an "emergency" that the operator is struggling to contain, an official from the country's nuclear watchdog said on Monday©Reuters

Japan’s government is preparing to take a more direct role in the clean-up effort at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, in an acknowledgment that Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the stricken plant’s operator, is struggling to solve a crisis over leaking contaminated water.

Officials said on Wednesday that Tokyo would fund an unprecedented operation to freeze the ground around sensitive parts of the plant, to prevent groundwater from seeping in and mixing with dangerously irradiated coolant water.

A toxic mix of runoff and coolant is flowing back out of the battered facility and into the ocean at a rate of about 300 tonnes a day, according to the environment ministry.

“This is a critical issue of strong interest to the Japanese people,” Shinzo Abe, prime minister, told reporters after a meeting of the government’s accident-response team. “Instead of leaving everything to Tepco, we need to create a firm national strategy.”

Tepco has been criticised for failing to stop the leaks and for its slowness in disclosing the problem, which outside experts had first identified several months ago. The utility’s miscues have revived memories of its widely condemned response to the tsunami-induced meltdowns of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.

A perception that it failed to provide clear explanations, and reflexively played down the extent of the damage, led to promises of greater transparency and a revamped “safety culture” – pledges that are coming under fresh scrutiny as a result of the leaks.

“Tepco’s actions are reactive and slow,” Kiyoshi Takasaka, a member of a committee of nuclear experts advising Fukushima prefecture, told Japanese media on Wednesday. Other members of the committee called Tepco’s handling of the water problem “haphazard” and complained that the utility lacked a convincing containment strategy.

It was unclear how much of a threat the leaks, equivalent to 1,500 oil drums a day, posed to humans or the environment. Tepco and outside experts have said the impact on areas beyond the plant’s immediate vicinity was likely tiny, since radioactive particles would be quickly dispersed into statistically harmless concentrations.

Still, the fact that Tepco has not been able to identify the source of the leaks, and the prospect that they could persist for months or years, has worried specialists and the public. The issue could influence a national debate over whether to allow the resumption of operations at dozens of other nuclear facilities that have been idled over safety concerns.

The ground-freezing project involves drilling several shafts into a 1.4km perimeter around the damaged reactors, then pouring in chemical coolant. The plan was proposed by Kajima, a Japanese construction company, and is projected to cost at least Y40bn, though there are few certainties about either the technology or the price tag.

“There’s no blueprint, no nothing yet, so there’s no way we can scrutinise it,” said Shinji Kinjo, the head of a task force set up by Nuclear Regulatory Authority to deal with the water issue.

Tepco has attempted to seal off a smaller area where the toxic-water outflow appears to be strongest, by hardening the ground with injections of sodium silicate. But water quickly filled the zone and began flowing over top of the silicate “wall”.

The government effectively nationalised Tepco after the accident, but its financial and logistical involvement in the clean-up has been mostly indirect so far. Decommissioning the facility is already expected to take decades and cost more than $10bn dollars.

“Tepco’s actions are reactive and slow,” Kiyoshi Takasaka, a member of a committee of nuclear experts advising Fukushima prefecture, told Japanese media on Wednesday. Other members of the committee called Tepco’s handling of the water problem “haphazard” and complained that the utility lacked a convincing containment strategy.

Specialists have said that, at the current rate of leakage, the water does not pose a serious threat to humans or the environment beyond the area immediately around the plant. That is because the level of contamination is low enough that, even with hundreds of tonnes escaping each day, the toxins are quickly dispersed, and add only imperceptibly to the level of naturally occurring radiation in the sea.

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