Lethal: Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (left) inspects contamination water tanks at TEPCO's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP/TEPCO
A crisis over contaminated water at Japan's stricken nuclear plant worsened when the plant's operator said it detected high radiation levels near storage tanks, a finding that raised the possibility of additional leaks.
The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, said on Saturday it found the high levels of radiation at four separate spots on the ground near some of the hundreds of tanks used to store toxic water produced by makeshift efforts to cool the Fukushima Daiichi plant's three damaged reactors. The highest reading was 1800 millisieverts an hour, or enough to give a lethal dose in about four hours, TEPCO said.
The contaminated spots were found as TEPCO employees checked the integrity of the tanks following a leak two weeks ago that released 300 tonnes of toxic water into the Pacific. The spill, which sparked fears the toxic water may have seeped into the nearby ocean, was categorised as a level 3 event, making it the single most serious incident since three reactors went into meltdown after being swamped by a 2011 earthquake-sparked tsunami.
It prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to announce that the government would step in to help get the plant under control, amid rising public fears of a second environmental disaster at the plant crippled two years ago by a huge earthquake and tsunami.
Saturday's discoveries suggested there may have been other leaks from the tanks, many of which appear to have been shoddily built as TEPCO has scrambled to find enough storage space for the contaminated water being produced by the plant. However, TEPCO said that it had found no evidence of fallen water levels in nearby tanks, making it unclear how much water, if any, may have leaked out, and whether any reached the Pacific, about 460 metres away.
About 430,000 tonnes of contaminated water, or enough to fill 170 Olympic-size pools, are stored in rows of tanks at the plant, which appears to be running out of open space to put them all. The contaminated water increases by 400 tonnes every day as groundwater flows into the basements of the damaged buildings housing the three ruined reactors, which melted down in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
TEPCO must draw off that water to prevent it from overwhelming jury-rigged cooling systems that keep the reactors' melted cores from reheating and melting into the ground in a phenomenon known as a China syndrome. TEPCO has struggled to safely handle and store all the water.
New York Times with AFP