However, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other experts have said the seepage will not affect areas beyond the sea directly off the coast of Fukushima Dai-ichi.
“Even 300 tonnes [a day] — that’s still going to be diluted to an almost undetectable level before it would get to any US territory,” commission information officer Scott Burnell said.
Having conceded it had lost the ability to control the tainted water, TEPCO promised to pump out tonnes of it and reinforce soil barriers. It also plans to build a 1.4km wall of soil, frozen solid by coolant, around four of the plant’s six reactors by July 2015, in an attempt to prevent any further leakages.
Early estimates put the cost of the wall at ￥40 billion (US$414 million), making it more likely that the government, which has already loaned TEPCO billions of yen to compensate victims and decommission the plant, will use public money to help stem the flow of radioactive water.
TEPCO’s sudden about-turn over the leaks have added to public anger about its handling of the crisis. The disaster forced the evacuation of 160,000 people as radiation spewed from the plant, bringing Fukushima’s farming and fishing industries to their knees.
“It’s like there’s an allergy to the name Fukushima,” said Takashi Niitsuma, head of sales at the Iwaki fisheries cooperative, of which Hisanohama is a part.
“Even if we could catch fish for sale, no one would buy them. We’re talking about the Pacific Ocean, so it’s not just Fukushima that’s affected by the contamination. If TEPCO allows more water to leak into the sea, the criticism will be worldwide,” he said.
TEPCO’s promises to address the water problem did not even convince Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose support for nuclear power remains unshakeable.
“There is heightened concern among the public, particularly about the contaminated water problem,” Abe said last week. “This is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed. Instead of leaving everything to TEPCO, we need to create a firm national strategy.”
Japan’s newly launched Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) indicated that it, too, had lost faith in the utility’s ability to manage the water crisis, the latest setback in a cleanup and decommissioning operation that is expected to take more than 40 years and cost US$11 billion.
The authority said TEPCO “lacked a sense of crisis” about the threat to the marine environment.
“Right now, we have an emergency,” said Shinji Kinjo, an NRA official in charge of addressing the water leaks, adding that the flow of water “could accelerate very quickly.”
Campaigners accused regulators of concentrating on the possible restart of Japan’s idled nuclear reactors rather than ensuring Fukushima Dai-ichi’s safety.
“More than two years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government isn’t any closer to taking control of the situation,” said Hisayo Takada of Greenpeace Japan. “The government must hold the nuclear industry responsible for the catastrophe and seek expert assistance from other countries.”
“The leakage of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to the ocean is a disaster for marine life and Japanese fisheries, but TEPCO has consistently hidden and understated the seriousness of the leaks,” Takada said.