Highly radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is pouring out at a rate of 300 tonnes a day, officials said on Wednesday, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the government to step in and help with the cleanup.
The revelation amounted to an acknowledgment that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has yet to come to grips with the scale of the catastrophe, two-and-a-half years after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami.
TEPCO only recently admitted water had leaked at all.
Calling water containment at Fukushima Dai-ichi an “urgent issue,” Abe ordered the government for the first time to get involved in helping struggling TEPCO handle the crisis.
The leak from the plant 220km northeast of Tokyo is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in a week. The water is spilling into the Pacific Ocean, but it was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.
As early as January this year, TEPCO found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but the company denied the claims.
Fukushima Fisheries Federation chairman Tetsu Nozaki said he had only heard of the latest estimates of the magnitude of the seepage from media reports.
Environmental group Greenpeace said TEPCO had “anxiously hid the leaks” and urged Japan to seek international expertise.
“Greenpeace calls for the Japanese authorities to do all in their power to solve this situation, and that includes increased transparency … and getting international expertise in to help find solutions,” Rianne Teule of Greenpeace International said in a statement.
In the weeks after the disaster, the government allowed TEPCO to dump tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific in an emergency move, but the escalation of the crisis raises the risk of an even longer and more expensive cleanup, already forecast to take more than 40 years and cost US$11 billion.
The admission further dents the credibility of TEPCO, criticized for its confused response to the disaster during which it covered up shortcomings.
“We think that the volume of water is about 300 tonnes a day,” said Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees energy policy.
Tatsuya Shinkawa, a director in the ministry’s Nuclear Accident Response Office, told reporters the government believed water had been leaking for two years, but Yoneyama said it was unclear how long the water had been leaking at the current rate.