x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New Fukushima contamination alert

Japanese nuclear watchdog plans to upgrade severity level from 1 to 3 amid fears more tanks are leaking water with high radiation levels.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) executive vice president Bungo Aizawa (right) at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) executive vice president Bungo Aizawa (right) at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.

TOKYO // Japan's nuclear crisis escalated yesterday to its worst level since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant more than two years ago.

The country's nuclear watchdog said it feared more storage tanks than previously admitted were leaking contaminated water.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it viewed the situation at Fukushima "seriously" and was ready to help if called upon.

China said it was "shocked" to hear that contaminated water was still leaking from the plant, and urged Japan to provide information "in a timely, thorough and accurate way".

"We hope the Japanese side can earnestly take effective steps to put an end to the negative impact of the after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident," China's foreign ministry said.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, called the situation "deplorable".

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said it feared the disaster - the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 - was "in some respects" beyond the ability of the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to cope.

The company has been criticised for its failure to prepare for the disaster and also accused of covering up the extent of the problems at the plant.

After months of denial, it recently admitted the plant was leaking contaminated water into the Pacific from trenches between the reactor buildings and the shoreline.

It said on Tuesday that contaminated water with dangerously high levels of radiation was leaking from a storage tank - the most serious problem in a series of recent mishaps, including power cuts, contaminated workers and other leaks.

The nuclear authority said it was worried about leakage from other similar tanks that were built hastily to store water poured over melted reactors at the station to keep them cool. The water in the latest leak is so contaminated that a person standing close to it for an hour would receive five times the annual recommended radiation limit for nuclear workers.

A spokesman for the authority said the agency planned to upgrade the severity of the crisis from a level 1 "anomaly" to a level 3 "serious incident" on an international scale for radiological releases.

An upgrade would be the first time Japan has issued a warning on the International Nuclear Event Scale since the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima in March 2011. Explosions then led to a loss of power and cooling, triggering a maximum level 7 alert at the plant.

Shunichi Tanaka, the authority's chairman, likened the stricken nuclear plant to a house of horrors at an amusement park.

"I don't know if describing it this way is appropriate, but it's like a haunted house and, as I've said, mishaps keep happening one after the other," he said. "We have to look into how we can reduce the risks and how to prevent it from becoming a fatal or serious incident."

He said the authority would consult the IAEA about whether it was appropriate to assign a rating to the leakage at the plant.

"Japanese authorities continue to provide the agency with information on the situation at the plant, and agency experts are following the issue closely," said Gill Tudor, an IAEA spokesman.

"The IAEA views this matter seriously and remains ready to provide assistance on request."

Each step on the International Nuclear Event Scale represents a 10-fold increase in severity, according to the IAEA. A level 3 rating is assigned when there is exposure of more than 10 times the limit for workers.

"Though serious, this leak is a long way from the level 7 incident we were facing in 2011," said Andrew Sherry, the director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester.

"The approach taken by Tepco to drain the tank, pump leaked water to temporary storage, and protect the drainage of contaminated water to groundwater, is entirely sensible.

"This incident highlights the need for an inspection programme for these many hundreds of storage tanks, and the need to consider replacing bolted or sealed storage tanks, which were relatively quick to build, with a more-robust welded design."

South Korea's Asiana Airlines said it would cancel charter flights between Seoul and Fukushima city from October due to concern over the radioactive water leaks.

The city, about 60 kilometres from the nuclear facility and with a population of about 284,000, is a popular destination for golfers and tourists visiting nearby hot springs and lakes.