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Japan govt steps in to plug Fukushima radioactive leak

AFP

The operator of the nuclear power plant destroyed by a tsunami in 2011 has come under heavy criticism after a major radioactive water leak became public knowledge, sparking widespread alarm.

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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday that the government would step in to bring the contamination under control at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power planet after it became public that a constant stream of radioactive water was leaking from the site.

The Japanese government revealed on Wednesday that 300 tonnes of contaminated water were flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the site each day, more than two years after a tsunami caused the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi station to go into meltdown.

The announcement came after the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), acknowledged water leaks at the end of July following months of denial.

“Stabilising the Fukushima power plant is our challenge. Specifically, the contaminated water problem is one that the Japanese people have a high level of interest in and is an urgent issue to deal with,” Shinzo Abe said at a crisis cabinet meeting.

“Rather than relying on Tokyo Electric, the government will take measures,” Abe said, prompting questions on the nuclear operator’s capacity to deal with the situation.

Contaminated water

Cooling water has been used since the meltdown to keep the temperature of the reactors under 50°C. In addition, runoff rain water is believed to have become contaminated as it flows naturally through the coastal site.

Tepco is planning to build an underground barrier to stop those flows. However, Jérôme Joly, the deputy head of France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), told FRANCE 24, “That would be a short-term measure, which would not solve the issue of water storage for a volume of 700 cubic metres per day.”

“Tepco has the ability to accomplish this mission,” Joly added. “The only criticism that can be levelled at the company   and it is a serious one   is that they waited too long to tackle the leaks and to inform the relevant authorities.”

Until last month, Tepco had said contaminated water remained trapped under its buildings. Yet the radioactivity measured on a fish caught near the power station in January was 2,500 higher than the legal limit.

Tepco losing credibility

Such discrepancies have undermined the company’s credibility in the eyes of many experts. Dale Klein, the former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Tepco executives at a panel meeting earlier this month: “These actions indicate that you don't know what you are doing... you do not have a plan and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people.”

The effect of the contamination on the ecosystem remains unclear. “The effects on biodiversity are not the same as in the Chernobyl disaster, because the emissions are smaller but they will last longer”, said Joly of IRSN.

Fukushima is the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. It is estimated the site will take forty years to clean up.

Two years on, 160,000 people have not been able to return home because of radiation in the atmosphere, ground and water. More than 1,400 have lost their lives to poor evacuation conditions, deteriorating living conditions or suicide.

However, no deaths have yet been directly attributed to nuclear contamination.

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