Fukushima radiation readings spike to highest levels

The readings have jumped by more than a fifth

Contaminated water tanks at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are leaking toxic water into the ocean.
Japan Pool/ AFP/ Getty Images

Radiation readings around tanks holding contaminated water at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have spiked by more than a fifth to their highest levels, Japan's nuclear regulator said Wednesday, heightening concerns about the cleanup of the worst atomic disaster in almost three decades.

Radiation hot spots have spread to three holding areas for hundreds of hastily built tanks storing water contaminated by being flushed over three reactors that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011.

The rising radiation levels and leaks at the plant further inflamed international alarm, one day after the Japanese government said that it would step in with almost $500 million of funding to fix the growing levels of contaminated water at the plant.

Readings just above the ground near a set of tanks at the plant showed radiation as high as 2,200 millisieverts (mSv), Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said Wednesday. The previous high in areas holding the tanks was the 1,800 mSv recorded Saturday.

Both levels would be enough to kill an unprotected person within hours. The NRA has said the recently discovered hot spots are highly concentrated and easily shielded.

The revelations came just days before the International Olympic Committee decides whether Tokyo -- 140 miles from the wrecked plant -- will host the 2020 Olympic Games, and the government is keen to show that the crisis is under control. Madrid and Istanbul are the rival candidates.

"The world is watching to see if we can carry out the decommissioning of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, including addressing the contaminated water issues," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Cabinet ministers, who met to approve the plan.

The government intervention responds to only a tiny slice of the Fukushima crisis triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed safety sytems and caused three reactor meltdowns. The cleanup, including decommissioning the ruined reactors, will take many decades and likely rely on unproven technology.

The measures do not address the full problem of water management at the plant or the bigger issue of decommissioning. The sensitive job of removing spent fuel rods is to start in the coming months. The ultimate fate of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), also remains unclear, as does the question of who will eventually foot the bill: Japanese taxpayers or the embattled TEPCO.

"This is a matter of public safety, so the country has to take the lead on this issue and respond as quickly as possible," Economics Minister Akira Amari told a news conference. "Figuring out who to bill for the costs can come later."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a separate news conference that the government would spend a total of $473 million, including $210 million in emergency reserve funds from this year's budget.

Of that, $320 million will fund the building of a massive underground wall of frozen earth around the damaged reactors to contain groundwater flows, and $150 million will be spent to improve a water-treatment system meant to drastically reduce radiation levels in the contaminated water.

TEPCO criticism

TEPCO, Japan's biggest utility, has come under a fresh flood of criticism following a stream of bad news including its admission, after repeated denials, that contaminated water was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. That was followed by leaks from aboveground tanks used to store radiated water.

The problems have revived notions, debated but rejected in the months after the 2011 disaster, of liquidating TEPCO or at least splitting off the Fukushima operation from its other businesses and putting it under direct government control.

"Is anyone at TEPCO taking responsibility for these mistakes? I haven't heard of anyone stepping down or being fired," said Taro Kono, a deputy secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who is critical of nuclear utilities. "TEPCO needs to go down and the government needs to take over," he said, acknowledging that his was a minority view in the ruling party.

Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and other LDP officials have said liquidating TEPCO was not being considered.

Critics said the government was mainly trying to cool down international media coverage ahead of the Olympics decision.

"At a moment when international public opinion is worrying about the long-term consequences of repeated leaks at the site, Tokyo seems to be obeying the short-term logic of waiting until the Olympics decision is over," Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear energy analyst based in Paris who frequently visits Japan, said by email.

A more sustainable option, he said, would be to seek global support to confront Fukushima's unprecedented challenges.

Motegi denied the Olympics bid was the main motivating factor. "The government felt that we want to be fully involved and put together fundamental measures regardless of the decision on where they will hold the Games," he said.

Off limits

Measurable radiation from water leaking from the facility is confined to the harbor around the plant, Motegi said, and is not an environmental threat to other countries because the radiation will be diluted by the sea.

Yet in April 2012, fish caught more than 120 miles from Fukushima showed extremely high levels of contamination with radioactive cesium traceable to the failed nuclear plant. That same month, a report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution showed cesium-137 in ocean eddies 180 miles from Fukushima at levels hundreds to thousands of times higher than expected to occur naturally.

The closest towns to the stricken plant remain deserted and off limits to the public. But some former residents have started to return to their homes, some of which are less than 12 miles away, as decontamination work progresses.

China said last month it was "shocked" to hear that contaminated water was still leaking from storage tanks, and it urged Japan to give timely and accurate information.

TEPCO is storing enough contaminated water to fill more than 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools, mostly in hastily built tanks that officials have said may spring further leaks.

The planned measures are daunting. Freezing earth to block water flows is a technology commonly used in digging subway tunnels, but is untested on the Fukushima scale and the planned duration of years or decades. Furthermore, some engineers say this plan will cause water to pool under the damaged plant, further destabilizing the ground around the reactors and spent-fuel pools. The decontamination technology has repeatedly suffered from glitches.

The Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), developed by Utah-based EnergySolutions and Toshiba Corp., can remove all radioactive particles from water except tritium, which has a half-life of approximately 12 years. But the system has been stalled for months due to mishaps.

Gregg Levine contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and Reuters

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