Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco for short, has spent the last two and a half years trying to contain contaminated water at its ravished Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant was pounded in March 2011 when a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan, wiping out the cooling complex and causing a meltdown in three reactors. The earthquake was reported as one of the strongest on modern record, shifting the main island of Japan about 8 feet east, sending waves more than 100 feet high and subsequently killing nearly 19,000 people.
At the time of the accident, the meltdown tipped the scales of the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale at 7, or “major accident,” the highest level in the rating system. It was the worst nuclear event since the meltdown at Chernobyl 25 years earlier. The plant has remained closed since 2011 and had been downgraded to a level 1 “anomaly” until the latest news of the leaking contaminated water. On Wednesday, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said it plans to upgrade the situation to a level 3 “serious incident” due to the magnitude of the leakage.
The Japan Times reported that 300 tons (almost 72,000 gallons) of radioactive water is flowing into the Pacific Ocean each day from Fukushima Daiichi. The Japanese government is reportedly going to go ahead with a last ditch attempt to stop the leakage, hatching a plan to sink pipes carrying coolant into the ground to create a 1.4-kilometer ice barrier around reactors to contain the tainted water. The plan is anticipated to cost up to 50 billion yen (approximately $410 million). The process has been successfully used before, mostly in construction and mining applications, but never on such a large scale.
Calling the situation “deplorable” at a news conference on Wednesday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the government will make every effort to stop the leaks as quickly as possible. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Tepco couldn’t handle the problem and that the government would be intervening. “We will direct Tepco to make sure there is a swift and multi-faceted approach,” said Abe. Part of that plan includes Tepco digging up the earth that has been contaminated and properly disposing of it.
Tepco has about 1,000 steel storage tanks at the nuclear plant that have been holding radioactive water after it has been run through a processing system that removes most, but not all, of the radioactive elements. The tanks are as close as a few hundred feet from the shoreline with the water being used to keep melted radioactive material cool. Leaks have been springing here and there across the past two years, with the latest ones the worst, raising alarm about the situation. The water is reported as highly radioactive, with measurements exceeding 100 milliseiverts per hour. That’s double the maximum annual exposure permitted to workers at the plant.
Fearing the larger leak could be a precursor to a disaster, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka warned that the country must remain alert and move quickly to rectify the problem as many of the storage tanks are built with the same design as those that have leaked. “We are at a situation where there is no time to waste,” said Tanaka at a press conference.
China is “shocked” that toxic water is still leaking at the nuclear plant, imploring Japan to provide information quickly and completely. The United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Association has said that it is ready to provide assistance at Fukushima Daiichi if requested.