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Pressure is mounting on the Japanese government to intervene in the clean-up of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after experts voiced fears that the power company responsible for the facility is unable to cope.
The leakage earlier this month of hundreds of tons of radioactive water — the most serious incident at the beleaguered plant since it was devastated by a tsunami in March 2011 — highlights the failure by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to properly manage the operation. If the government fails to act, prime minister Shinzo Abe’s pro-nuclear stance may be jeopardized, analysts told Nature.
“It’s clear that TEPCO is unable to solve the problems on its own,” says Tsutomu Toichi, managing director and chief economist at the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo. “The government has to step in to ensure these problems are solved quickly. It is going to have to provide funds, as well as a plan for moving forward, and explain this to the public in a way that is easy to understand.”
Wiktor Frid, a nuclear expert with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority in Stockholm, adds, “That water leaked from a tank unnoticed for several days is alarming and extremely embarrassing for TEPCO”.
The leak has also led to renewed concerns over ocean contamination and food safety, with local fishing cooperatives suspending trial catches and one oceanographer saying that further leaks would have “severe” consequences for marine life.
The leak of some 300 tons of partially treated water that had been used to cool melted nuclear rods from the destroyed reactors was reported by TEPCO on 19 August. The radioactivity of the water stands at about 80 megabecquerels per liter, about 1% of what it was before treatment by an on-site purification system. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority initially labelled the incident a level 1 event (known as an ‘anomaly’) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, but yesterday upgraded it to level 3 (‘serious incident’), citing the large amount of contaminated water leaked and the fact that a safety buffer was not available for the water tank in question.
At present, TEPCO is storing more than 300,000 tons of radioactive water on the site of the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi plant. Radioactive caesium isotopes are being removed from the water by an advanced liquid-processing system built after the accident, but a facility for removing strontium isotopes is not yet ready. Tritium, another harmful radionuclide, cannot be safely removed by any known purification system because it is incorporated within water molecules.
The leaked water is thought to have seeped into the ground and will eventually reach the sea adjacent to the plant. The storage site near Fukushima’s reactor 4, where the leak was discovered, lies some 50 meters above sea level and is just a few hundred meters from the coast.
Measures proposed so far to prevent the polluted water from flowing into the sea — such as freezing or excavating the soil surrounding the storage site — seem to be either very expensive or technically unfeasible, says Joachim Knebel, a nuclear expert and chief science officer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.
“We can’t really assess the situation from far away,” he says. “But it appears to me that none of the proposed measures would work. TEPCO would be well advised to seek international expertise in coping with the problems.”
Several countries, including Russia, have offered to assist with the company’s clean-up efforts, and TEPCO said last week that it will consider accepting outside help. On Monday, it also announced a series of measures, including the installation of a new central control system, to mitigate the risk of future leaks.