Editorial: Leaks of contaminated water at nuclear power plant

Situation nowhere near under control

More than two years after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, we have been reminded that a tightrope act is still being performed.

It has been found that 120 tons of water contaminated with radioactive materials has leaked from an underground reservoir on the plant’s premises. And yesterday the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced that water may have leaked from another reservoir as well.

This is the biggest leak of water since December 2011, when the government declared that the situation at the power plant “under control.” After the disaster, TEPCO came in for severe criticism from other nations along the Pacific after releasing a huge amount of contaminated water into the sea. Further contamination of the sea must be prevented at any cost.

This time, TEPCO has said it is unlikely that any water has flowed into the sea because the reservoirs are about 800 meters from the coast. So where did the 120 tons of water go?

As a rule, it is not a simple matter to determine the flow of underground water. TEPCO has a responsibility to thoroughly examine and clarify the situation.

Contaminated water, which continues to accumulate, will be the most difficult problem in dealing with the disaster for some time to come. More than 260,000 tons of water has accumulated already. The company could not keep up with the need for more storage tanks, and the underground reservoirs were a last-ditch measure. Holes were dug in the ground and then lined with waterproof sheets.

Early on, water began leaking at two of the seven locations where reservoirs were dug, seriously undermining trust in the method. A fundamental overhaul of the storage plan for the contaminated water is inevitable.

Nevertheless, water continues to be injected into the damaged reactors at the No. 1 power plant in order to cool them. And another 400 tons of groundwater flows into the basements of buildings every day, further increasing the amount of contaminated water.

Some of the water has been recovered and used for cooling again after the cesium was removed, but the rest has to be stored in the underground reservoirs.

Nevertheless, TEPCO’s failure to take fundamental measures and its repeated implementation of emergency measures has exposed its weaknesses.

Last month a problem occurred when a storage pool for spent nuclear fuel could no longer be cooled. A mouse had apparently gotten into a temporary distribution board and caused a short circuit, which led to a power outage.

TEPCO’s reliance on stopgap measures suggests that essential safety is being neglected. The company must learn from the series of problems at the plant.

At the end of March TEPCO drew up its final report on the restructuring of its nuclear power division and touted the change in the thinking of its management team. But the corporate culture does not seem to have changed much.

The announcement of the leak of contaminated water was not made until two days after the company determined the facts of the situation. TEPCO’s explanation was that it wanted to properly investigate the situation first. Many people must have thought, “Not again!”

Whether or not residents who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture are able to return home will be affected. This situation may also reignite harmful rumors about agricultural and marine products, some of which had begun to abate.

The government too must treat this situation very seriously. The handling of the situation by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which has designated the No. 1 nuclear power plant a “facility that requires special management,” must be questioned. The authority is in a position to monitor the safety measures at the plant. The reservoirs should be checked constantly, but to what extent is that being done?

Demanding work will continue, and the work will become even more demanding once decommissioning of the reactors begins. The time has come to ask ourselves whether these tasks should continue to be left up to TEPCO.

(Originally published on April 8, 2013)