WASHINGTON, July 12, 2013 — The Japanese nuclear power plant at Fukushima is thought to have been leaking contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean for the past two years, according to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority. The announcement came after experts from Japan’s nuclear regulator analyzed readings of radiation levels in the waters surrounding the plant.
The Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant was severely damaged by the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan. Core meltdowns in three of its six nuclear reactors have caused contaminated groundwater to leak into the basements of the reactor buildings. The water is being pumped and stored in tanks on the plant, but workers have not been able to stop the flood.
The operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco, has until recently denied that any of the contaminated water was getting into the ocean surrounding the plant. However, in the past few days Tepco representatives have stated that they are now unsure whether contamination is reaching the ocean.
“We’ve seen for a fact that levels of radioactivity in the seawater remain high, and contamination continues — I don’t think anyone can deny that,” said Shunichi Tanaka, head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority at a briefing after a meeting Wednesday. “That said, considering the state of the plant, it’s difficult to find a solution today or tomorrow. That’s probably not satisfactory to many of you. But that’s the reality we face after an accident like this.”
Experts have long maintained that the plant has been leaking long after the initial contamination during the early days of the meltdown. Jota Kanda, an oceanographer at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, examined the radiation levels in the ocean water surrounding the site and concluded that it was likely that the plant was leaking.
Kanda says that if the plant were not leaking, radiation levels around the site would be much lower than they currently are because tidal flushing would have dispersed initial contamination.
“This suggests that water might be leaking out from the plant through damaged pipes or drains, or other routes Tepco doesn’t know about,” Kanda said.
Nuclear Regulation Authority officials have asked Tepco to examine the origin and extent of the leak and assess the environmental damage. Officials have also announced the formation of a panel of experts to determine how to contain the damage.
On Wednesday, Tepco was still reluctant to admit to contamination leaking into the Pacific Ocean. Company spokespersons argued that the water samples did not provide conclusive evidence that contaminated water from the plant was leaking into the surrounding waters.
However, in April Tepco reported spikes in radioactive cesium, tritium, and strontium detected in groundwater in the plant. Tepco admitted that around 120 tons of radioactive water may have leaked from a storage tank into surrounding ground, but claimed that “there is no leakage to the ocean since there is no drainage ditch near the reservoir.”
In May the company was forced to admit, however, that high levels of strontium and tritium were found in samples taken off the coast surrounding the plant.
News of the leak comes on the heels of the death of Masao Yoshida, nuclear engineer and chief manager at Fukushima Power Plant, of cancer. Experts say that his death was not a result of radiation exposure from the accident, but from a previous esophageal cancer.
As part of the cleanup, for the past two years Tepco has been cooling the melted fuel rods in the three reactors by flushing water over them. However, contaminated water has been building up at the rate of an Olympic size swimming pool each week, and Tepco is running out of space to store it.
Last April Tepco sought approval to channel “groundwater with low levels of radiation” to the sea through a bypass around the plant. The proposal has been met with strong local opposition, especially from fishermen.