Editorial: Leak of contaminated water at nuclear power plant Stopgap measures can’t go on

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is nowhere near being brought under control. Once again highly contaminated water has leaked.

There is growing concern that the water has flowed into the sea, and the local fisheries cooperative has decided to suspend its trial operations off the cost of Fukushima Prefecture next month. This was no doubt a wrenching decision and is a setback for reconstruction and the rebuilding of people’s lives.

There must be no more of these kinds of leaks. As long as the radioactive materials cannot be contained, the accident at the nuclear power plant will never be over. TEPCO and the central government must acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and take action to ensure there is no recurrence.

The tank that leaked about 300 tons of water this time was made of steel. But instead of being welded it was assembled in a simple manner using waterproof packing and bolts. Of the approximately 1,000 tanks on the plant’s premises, 350 are of this same type.

TEPCO must have anticipated that the seams might deteriorate. But they reportedly do not even have records of the daily inspections that were made. For this reason, they have been unable to determine exactly when the leak started. This is careless to say the least.

In the emergency inspections made after the leak was discovered as well, high levels of radiation in the vicinity of two tanks of the same type were newly confirmed, and leaks are suspected.

For the time being, the only thing that can be done is to monitor that type of tank more closely. In tandem with the investigation of the cause of the leak, how about putting water level indicators on all of the tanks? Experts have pointed out the need to coat the tanks’ seams as well.

It is also essential to have a way to limit the extent of the damage in the event of a leak. The area around the tanks could be covered with tarpaulins to prevent water from seeping into the ground. Rainwater should also be prevented from getting into storm drains. We would like TEPCO to take thoroughgoing measures of this sort.

But these are merely stopgap measures. The structural factor behind these repeated leaks of contaminated water is the huge amount of groundwater flowing onto plant premises. This water mixes with the contaminated water, and every day it is necessary to pump up 400 tons of it. According to the central government’s calculations, another 300 tons of contaminated water is flowing into the sea every day.

Even if more and more tanks are set up, one of these days a limit will be reached. And no matter where the water is stored, there will inevitably be concern about leaks. The flow of contaminated water into the ocean is affecting the environment and fisheries and leading to mistrust of Japan by the international community.

Drastic measures are called for. It comes down to this: How can the amount of contaminated water being created and stored be reduced?

The local community has not consented to a plan to pump the ground water up before it is contaminated and then discharge it into the sea via a bypass. The public’s distrust of TEPCO is reportedly behind this. There is equipment at the plant to remove the radioactive materials from the water, but it is not working.

In light of this situation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, declared that the central government will no longer rely on TEPCO and will take action itself. We would like to think that this is an expression of genuine concern.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has proposed freezing the ground around the reactors to keep the groundwater out, but there are areas of uncertainty in terms of the technology and the costs, and it would reportedly take a year or two to complete the project.

This is a matter of urgency. TEPCO has essentially been nationalized. It is time for the government to step up to the plate. If the central government displays a willingness to assume responsibility for discharging the groundwater via a bypass as well, the community will certainly regard the situation differently.

Of course, from the people’s standpoint, it would be unacceptable for the amount of public funds injected into this project to just keep gradually increasing. We would like to see the government and TEPCO present a detailed work schedule and cost estimates.

(Originally published on August 25, 2013)