Japan officials vow help in resolving nuke crisis

Taking lessons from Chernobyl visit Sunday, the Japanese government pledges to establish a task force to clean up leaks

Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi inspects contaminated water tanks at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Monday.

Japan's industry minister set up a task force Monday to take charge of the Fukushima cleanup, reserving a $3.6 billion emergency fund to curb leaks of radioactive water from the crippled nuclear plant.

Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters that lax maintenance by the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), was largely to blame for the series of leaks from storage tanks at the plant, which was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

"The urgency of the situation is very high," Motegi said. "From here on, the government will take charge."

On Sunday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited Chernobyl in Ukraine, the site of a 1986 nuclear disaster, and was due to hold talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Monday. A spokesperson said Kishida hoped the two ministers would share their experiences in overcoming the consequences of nuclear disasters.

The leaks have shaken confidence in the reliability of about 1,000 tanks, at least five of which have leaked, that are crucial for storing water that has been pumped into three damaged reactors to keep their radioactive fuel cool. In a recent sample of 170 types of fish, 40 percent showed signs of contamination, robbing local fishermen of their livelihoods.  

Last week TEPCO said 80,000 gallons of highly contaminated water had flowed from one tank, in the worst leak so far. Most of the water is thought to have seeped into the ground, but some may have entered the sea through a rainwater gutter, it said. The tanks contain nearly 80 million gallons of partially treated radioactive water.

TEPCO said that it would invite foreign experts to advise it on how to deal with highly radioactive water leaking from the site.

Motegi, who toured the plant Monday, said inspections of the tanks would be doubled to four times a day. "Water control is a very important issue. We have to prevent contaminated water from reaching the sea," he said.

Sloppy management

TEPCO president Naomi Hirose, who accompanied Motegi, apologized for the leaks. He said the company is setting up a new task force to better deal with the problem of radioactive water and will step up efforts to assess the extent of underground water contamination and prevent leakage into the sea.

TEPCO plans to build more tanks to store another 800,000 tons of water, which, combined with plans to pump out uncontaminated underground water, it says should prevent the situation from becoming dire for another three to four years.

"But we cannot keep making tanks endlessly," Hirose said.

The chief of Japan's nuclear watchdog, Toyoshi Fuketa, who inspected the plant last Friday, also criticized the plant's management of the tanks, some of which have hoses running directly on the ground.

TEPCO spokesman Noriyuki Imaizumi said Saturday that a two-person team has been inspecting the 1,000 tanks during twice-daily "patrols," which regulators have criticized as ineffective. He acknowledged that the workers usually did not carry tools to measure radioactivity and did not keep full inspection records unless there were notable irregularities such as major rust spots and leaks.

Humanitarian disaster

As the crisis drags on, costs are mounting.

Fishermen working from a port in the nearby city of Iwaki had hoped to resume test catches next month, after sampling showed a decline in radioactivity over the past two years. But those plans were scrapped, and fisheries operations in Fukushima remained suspended indefinitely after news of the latest leak from the plant.

It remains unclear what the environmental impact from the contamination will be on sea life, but the frustrations of those who rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood is evident.

"The operators [of the plant] are reacting too late every time in whatever they do," said Fumio Suzuki, whose boat has been part of the sampling trips since the 2011 disaster.

"People in the fishing business have no choice but to give up. There are many [fishermen] who have mostly given up already," Suzuki added.

Nobuyuki Hatta, director of the Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Research Center, said recent tests before the latest leaks showed promising results, with fewer fish found exceeding radiation limits.

While no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the radiation released by the meltdowns, large areas around the plant had to be evacuated. Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes, with scientists warning that some areas may have to be permanently abandoned.

TEPCO's stock price plunged nearly 6.9 percent Monday after the release over the weekend of further details of the crisis.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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