Fukushima leak worse than thought, government joins cleanup

An estimated 300 tons of contaminated water is leaking into the ocean daily, and has been for two years

Local government officials and nuclear experts inspect a monitoring well Tuesday where high levels of radioactive materials were detected at Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima nuclear plant.

Highly radioactive water from Japan's wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean for the past two years, an industry ministry official told reporters Wednesday as he urged the government to step in and indicated the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, has yet to come to grips with the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

An estimated 300 tons of contaminated water is leaking into the ocean every day, said Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. That is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in barely a week. It was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.

Calling water containment at the Fukushima Daiichi station an "urgent issue," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the government for the first time to step in and help the plant's struggling operator, which only recently admitted water had leaked at all, to deal with the cleanup. It is expected to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion.

"Rather than relying on Tokyo Electric, the government will take measures," Abe said.

The admission also further dents the credibility of the company, which has been severely criticized for its failure to prepare for the massive 2011 tsunami and earthquake that devastated the plant, for a confused response to the disaster and for covering up shortcomings.

"The worsening leaks of contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant prove TEPCO is incapable of dealing with the disaster," Greenpeace said in a statement Tuesday. "Japan's authorities must now step in and ensure action is finally taken to stop the leaks."

Freezing water

The Japanese Nikkei newspaper said the cleanup operation would involve freezing the soil near the site of the disaster to prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor buildings.

Similar technology is used in preventing groundwater flooding in subway construction, but Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday the vast scale of TEPCO's clean-up effort was "unprecedented in the world."

Experts say maintaining freezing ground temperatures for months, if not years, would be costly. The plan is to freeze a nearly one-mile perimeter around the four damaged reactors by drilling shafts into the ground and pumping coolant through them, creating a wall of frozen earth that would block the flow of groundwater into the plant.

"Right now there are no details (of the project yet)," said Shinji Kinjo, head of the task force set up by Japan's nuclear regulator to deal with the water issue. "There's no blueprint, no nothing yet, so there's no way we can scrutinize it."

Kotaro Ohga, a research fellow at Hokkaido University and a groundwater expert, said "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."   

In the early weeks of the disaster, the Japanese government allowed TEPCO to dump tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water into the Pacific in an emergency move.

TEPCO currently pumps out some 400 tons 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, but has failed to prevent groundwater from reaching the plant.

TEPCO's handling of the cleanup has 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.

Humanitarian disaster

While no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the meltdowns at Fukushima, large areas around the plant had to be evacuated with tens of thousands of people still unable to return to their homes.

For areas deemed uninhabitable for at least five years, TEPCO announced that it would reimburse evacuees for the full cost of relocating and the loss of fixed assets, but many victims reported having difficulties accessing the money.

The stage is set for multiple lawsuits that will drag on for years, Yasushi Tadano, a Tokyo-based lawyer who launched a class-action compensation lawsuit against TEPCO in December 2012, told Greenpeace.

"The victims of this disaster often had large houses, rice fields, livestock and land and most had to move from that into small urban apartments or temporary housing," he said. "The amount of compensation being offered is totally insufficient."

Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace, told Al Jazeera that vast uncertainties still surround the environmental impact of the meltdown, but "local communities are paying the price," referring to fishing communities who saw their livelihoods threatened by reports stating local Pacific bluefin tuna contained radiation levels that were higher than usual. Studies later showed the fish was suitable for human consumption.

More than 18,000 people died when the tsunami slammed into Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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