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A worker walked near the storage tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Okuma, Japan, where workers raced to contain a leak.

Toshifumi Kitamura • Associated Press file,

300 tons of radioactive water leaks from Japanese nuclear plant

  • Article by: HIROKO TABUCHI
  • New York Times
  • August 20, 2013 - 9:00 PM

 

– Three hundred tons of highly contaminated water have leaked from a storage tank at the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on Japan’s Pacific Coast, its operator said Tuesday, raising further concerns over the site’s safety and prompting regulators to declare a radiological release incident for the first time since disaster struck there in 2011.

Workers raced to place sandbags around the leak at the site to stem the spread of the water, a task made more urgent by a forecast of heavy rain for the Fukushima region later in the day. A spokesman at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator, acknowledged that much of the contaminated water had seeped into the soil and could eventually reach the ocean, adding to the tons of radioactive fluids that have already leaked into the sea from the troubled plant.

The leaked water contains levels of radioactive cesium and strontium many hundreds of times higher than legal safety limits, Tokyo Electric said. Exposure to either element is known to increase the risk of cancer. The company said it had not determined the source of the leak.

At crisis levels

“We must prevent the contaminated water from dispersing further due to rain and are piling up more sandbags,” said Masayuki Ono, a spokesman for the operator, also known as TEPCO.

TEPCO has acknowledged in recent weeks that leaks of radioactive runoff at the site, about 150 miles north of Tokyo, are at crisis levels. The runoff comes from cooling water that workers are pumping into the damaged cores of the site’s three most damaged reactors, as well as from groundwater pouring into the breached basements of those reactors.

The latest leak comes from one of the site’s 1,000 tanks, about 500 yards inland, TEPCO said. Workers discovered puddles of radioactive water near the tank Monday. Further checks revealed that the 1,000-ton capacity vessel, thought to be nearly full, contained only 700 tons, with the remainder having almost certainly leaked out.

‘Difficult and dangerous’

There had been concerns raised among some experts over the durability of the tanks. Ono said that TEPCO had assumed the tanks would last at least five years, but the latest leak comes less than two years after the company started installing them.

“It is going to be very difficult and dangerous for TEPCO to keep on storing all this water,” said Hiroshi Miyano, an expert in nuclear systems design at Hosei University in Tokyo. He said, for example, that another strong earthquake or tsunami could destroy the tanks. At some point, TEPCO will have no choice but to start releasing some of the water into the ocean after cleaning it, Miyano said. The continued mishaps at the site have heightened public scrutiny of TEPCO and made it more difficult to build public consensus around any release of water, he said.

“That just makes the problem worse, with no viable solution,” he said.

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