Japan PM vows to handle Fukushima nuclear crisis

Radiation levels continue to cause concern as plant operator's ability to deal with the situation is questioned

Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka delivers a speech while pictures of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant's water tanks are displayed during a press conference in Tokyo Monday.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

The Japanese government will take prompt and comprehensive steps to clean up the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant amid growing concerns about the plant operator's ability to handle it, the country's prime minister said Monday.

Shinzo Abe said his government will take all necessary steps to deal with the legacy of the March 2011 nuclear disaster, echoing previous statements that his government would take swift action after numerous reports of the plant's mismanagement.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, said over the weekend that radiation readings had jumped 18-fold near a tank holding highly contaminated water at the plant.

Abe's cabinet is likely to discuss funding for the Fukushima clean-up this week after a series of revelations about leaks of radioactive water at the coastal plant, according to Tadamori Oshima, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's task force on post-disaster reconstruction.

Also Monday, workers will switch off one of Japan's only two working reactors at the Oi plant in western Japan for inspections, with the other set for shutdown on Sept. 15 this month. It is not known when they will resume operations amid continued public hostility to nuclear power.

The two reactors were restarted -- despite public opposition -- in July last year after passing safety tests that ended a brief period during which no atomic power was generated in Japan. Kensai Electric Power, the plant’s operator, said that the inspections are legally mandated within 13 months of the start of commercial operations.

Public concern

Public concerns over Fukushima, revived by the news of leaks of radiated water at the plant, have threatened to further delay the restart of other off-line reactors -- a crucial part of Abe's plan for economic revival and a pillar of the turnaround plan TEPCO has given its creditor banks.

Paul Scalise, a research fellow at the University of Tokyo, said the continued closure of Japan's nuclear reactors could lead to bankruptcy.

"TEPCO and other utility companies have been bleeding financially now since nuclear reactors have been off line," he told Al Jazeera from Tokyo.

"The utility companies are arguing for the nuclear reactors to come back online. What is holding things up is the perception, perhaps rightly, that the reactors are on unsafe territory and are positioned on an earthquake fault line," he said.

"The public is concerned about turning the reactors back online and need reassurances. The economy is being impacted greatly through the import of these very expensive fossil fuels, and the reality is that without the nuclear reactors being brought back online, bankruptcy will most likely ensue."

Radioactive waste water

Japan's nuclear industry, which once provided a third of the nation's power, has nearly come to a halt since an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima plant more than two years ago, causing reactor meltdowns.

TEPCO has been pumping water over the reactors to keep them cool, and storing the radioactive waste water as well as contaminated ground water in ever-growing numbers of storage tanks.

Following the discovery of high radiation levels in recent days, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, said there is no evidence of new water leaks.

However, he cautioned that the possibility that contaminated water may have leaked from the tanks "is a very serious issue."

"We believe the monitoring of the tanks is a serious issue as well," he said. "The fact that radiation levels were not measured on a regular basis is an indication that management was not done in a stringent way."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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