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Gov't to help using taxpayer money

August 9, 2013

Editorial: Gov't should speed up radioactive water disposal at crippled Fukushima plant



The government has decided to use taxpayer funds from the fiscal 2014 state budget to prevent water contaminated with radioactive materials, which has accumulated on the premises of the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, from leaking into the sea.

Since plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has failed to properly respond to this problem, it is only natural for the government to take the initiative in dealing with the matter. It can be even said that the government's decision came too late.

Still, TEPCO is primarily responsible for the nuclear disaster. Since the use of public funds means that the efforts to bring the nuclear crisis under control will come at taxpayer cost, the government must not waste any of the money. In order to win the public's understanding, the government should fully disclose a road map toward disposing of the contaminated water, and should also outline how much taxpayers should expect the work to cost.

The Natural Resources and Energy Agency, which is under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, estimates that 1,000 tons of underground water is flowing onto the premises of the damaged power station per day -- and that 300 tons of the water has leaked into the sea after being contaminated with radioactive materials. Although there is no sign that the sea off the power plant is contaminated with radioactive substances, the agency has not ruled out the possibility that such contaminated water has been leaking into the sea since shortly after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis in March 2011.

The fact that such a serious estimate is being released now -- more than two years after the accident -- demonstrates that the crisis is far from being brought under control.

With these circumstances fully in mind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "Disposing of contaminated water is an urgent task. Instead of leaving the matter up to TEPCO, the government will take countermeasures." The prime minister then instructed Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to take prompt action to this effect.

Specifically, the ministry is considering using taxpayers' money to lay pipes around affected reactor buildings, which will be used to send cooling liquid that is dozens of degrees Celsius below the freezing point in order to freeze the ground -- thereby preventing contaminated water from leaking.

A total of about 400 tons of underground water is flowing into each of the No. 1 to 4 reactor buildings, where it is being contaminated with radioactive substances. The project aims to decrease the amount of radioactive water on the premises of the reactor buildings by freezing the ground around the structures, and blocking underground water from flowing into their compounds. Such large-scale construction work is unprecedented, and the government and the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) accordingly need to monitor how the project will be implemented.

Even if the construction work progresses smoothly and steadily, the system cannot be put into operation until 2015. Consequently, stopgap measures that are presently being implemented or considered include pumping contaminated water, improving the ground, and implementing an underground water bypass system wherein a well will be drilled to direct underground water into the sea before it flows onto the premises of the reactor buildings.

Such an underground water bypass system has not won consent from local fisheries cooperatives, however, which are worried about possible harmful rumors regarding the contamination of the sea where their members operate.

Motegi has asked a government panel on contaminated water disposal to consider how to confirm the safety of pumped underground water, and how to release the water into the sea. However, the government must also provide a detailed explanation of the project to the local communities hosting the power plant. The NRA decided last month to set up a working team to analyze radioactive water on the premises of the power plant, which will help ensure the objectivity of relevant data.

The process of decommissioning reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is expected to take 30 to 40 years. Unless the problem of contaminated water is solved, the decommissioning process will not move forward.

As the entities responsible for decommissioning the Fukushima reactors, the government and the NRA should consider and implement countermeasures against radioactive water at the power plant in a proactive manner.


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