Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe has ordered the government to help in the clean-up of radioactive waste from the country's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
Officials disclosed this week that highly radioactive water continues to pour out of the plant at a rate of 300 tonnes a day.
The revelation amounted to an acknowledgement that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) has yet to come to grips with the scale of the catastrophe, 2½ years after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami. Tepco only recently admitted water had leaked at all.
Calling water containment at the Fukushima Daiichi station an “urgent issue”, Mr Abe ordered the government for the first time to get involved to help struggling Tepco handle the crisis.
The leak from the plant, 220km northeast of Tokyo, is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in a week. The water is spilling into the Pacific Ocean, but it was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.
As early as January this year, Tepco found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but Tepco denied the claims.
Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of the Fukushima fisheries federation, said he had heard of the latest estimates of the magnitude of the seepage only from media reports.
Environmental group Greenpeace said Tepco had "anxiously hid the leaks" and urged Japan to seek international expertise.
“Greenpeace calls for the Japanese authorities to do all in their power to solve this situation, and that includes increased transparency . . . and getting international expertise in to help find solutions,” Rianne Teule of Greenpeace International said in an emailed statement.
Fukushima is on Japan's northeastern coast and faces the Pacific. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not believe the seepage will have any effect on the US west coast.
“Even 300 tonnes – that’s still going to be diluted to an almost undetectable level before it would get to any US territory,” said Scott Burnell, public information officer for the commission.
In the weeks after the disaster, the government allowed Tepco to dump tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific in an emergency move.
But the escalation of the crisis raises the risk of an even longer and more expensive clean-up, already forecast to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion. – (Reuters)