28 Juillet 2013
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, has admitted there is ground water contaminated with highly radioactive substances from the plant leaking into the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO officials said the leak "will have no effect on the coast," but it may very well cause yet greater economic damage to northeastern Japan by feeding public worries about local products.
The central and local governments plus TEPCO must step up off-shore radiation monitoring and make the results public. TEPCO must also move fast to stop the contaminated water from reaching the sea by installing barriers and improving the nuclear plant buildings' foundations.
TEPCO noticed the ground water problem after the water level in an observation well on the No. 1 plant grounds was seen rising and falling with the tides, leading utility officials to conclude that ground and sea water were mixing below the plant. As tritium makes up much of the leaking radioactive substances, TEPCO believes that polluted water in a service tunnel built on the seaward side of the plant is the source of the contamination.
The power company revealed all this on July 22. Severe contamination of the observation well, however, was confirmed all the way back on June 3. In the following days, TEPCO also confirmed that the concentration of radioactive substances in the local seawater was rising, and measured the concentrations in the well water. During this time, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) also stated that it "strongly suspected" radioactive material was seeping into the ocean. Even so, TEPCO continued to insist that the elevated radiation levels were caused by "water that leaked near the No. 2 reactor intake port on April 2, 2011, some of which remained in the ground."
TEPCO was also late reporting a radioactive water leak from an underground storage tank in April this year -- yet another in a string of incidents that show the utility is treating fluctuations in radiation data too lightly, and is responding to these incidents too late as a result. TEPCO's predisposition to try and cover up problems has not changed at all, and we might go so far as to say the company lacks even the ability to take responsibility for the entire situation.
A portion of the data TEPCO finally revealed on July 22 was submitted to the NRA on July 18, and we have to wonder if the utility deliberately delayed releasing the full story so that it wouldn't impact the outcome of the July 21 House of Councillors election. TEPCO denies any such intention, but we remain doubtful.
Japan came in for harsh international criticism some two years ago -- soon after the March 2011 meltdowns -- for dumping contaminated water into the ocean. This time around, the NRA has said it plans to quickly establish a working group to investigate the seeping ground water. There are still many unknowns in the case, including how much contaminated water has made it to the ocean and exactly how it got there. We hope and expect that authorities will get a good grasp of the entire situation, evaluate the risks and take appropriate countermeasures.
However, even if the seepage is stopped, this case shows that the current plan to deal with radioactive water is on the brink of failure.
Even now, the flow of ground water beneath the No. 1 plant is increasing the volume of contaminated water at the rate of 400 metric tons per day. Meanwhile, a plan to redirect groundwater into the ocean before its contaminated has failed to gain the support of local fishing cooperatives. Another plan to freeze soil into a subterranean dam to keep ground water away from the plant isn't expected to be completed until fiscal 2015.
Dealing with the ground water problem is not part of the government's schedule for dismantling the shattered No. 1 plant reactors, and work on-site has yet to address the seepage directly. Contaminated ground water measures are, however, an essential part of any plan to decommission the reactors. We call on the government to do its utmost to address this problem, including explaining the reality of the situation to local residents and drawing up a budget estimate to deal with the issue.