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Asia

Can Tokyo stop the Fukushima crisis?

With one measure after another failing to stop the seepage of hundreds of tons of contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima plant, the government of Japan has stepped in. But critics say it is too little, too late.

The Japanese government announced that it will spend Y47 billion (US$ 473 million) to plug the leaks and cleanse water that has become radioactive after being used to cool four reactors damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. At the same time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted that efforts to date by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) have not been comprehensive.

"Instead of the ad hoc approaches that have been taken in the past, we put together a basic policy today that will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water," Abe told members of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters in Tokyo on Tuesday, September 3rd.

"The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved," he said. According to government figures, an estimated 300 tons of radioactive water has been leaking every day into the Pacific Ocean since the accident. Moreover, TEPCO admitted last week that 300 tons of toxic water had spilled out of one of the some 1,000 tanks on the site before the leak was noticed.

This aerial photo taken on Aug. 31, 2013, shows the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Tokyo announced it will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water at Fukushima

Efforts to date fail

In the most recent problem to emerge, radiation readings at the facility have soared 20 percent to their highest level yet, the Nuclear Regulation Authority announced Monday. Readings close to water tanks that have been leaking tons of contaminated water have spiked to 2,200 millisieverts - a level that would prove fatal to a human in a matter of hours.

The key elements of the government's plan to halt the leak include drilling nearly 30 meters into the ground around the reactors and pumping in water chilled to minus 40 degrees. This wall of frozen earth should then prevent more contaminated water from coming into contact with groundwater and escaping into the Pacific Ocean.

New water treatment systems will also be constructed at the plant to deal with the thousands of tons of radioactive water collected since March 2011.

Makeshift storage tanks to store contaminated water at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled by tsunami following the massive earthquake in March 2011 in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: EPA)

TEPCO admitted that hundreds of tons of toxic water had spilled out of one of the some 1,000 tanks

Neither of the new approaches has ever been attempted on such a scale and there are concerns that they might not work.

"I just don't know if this will be adequate, but I suspect this is just a starting move by the government to take over a significant portion of the safety and security situation at Fukushima," said Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group.

"It looks very much as if TEPCO has not been able to get on top of the situation at the plant, as well as not being able to assure the Japanese public that it is getting things under control," he said.

Failure to act

In light on this development, nuclear experts argue the government should have stepped in much earlier. "This happened 30 months ago and TEPCO told the government that they could handle it - perhaps they were overly optimistic or they did not understand the scope of the problem," Tom Snitch, a professor at the University of Maryland, told DW. "Unfortunately, the government believed them," he added.

The international nuclear community has come up with a number of proposals that could help at Fukushima, Snitch said, but it has so far been largely excluded from implementing the plans.

"There are solutions to the issues at Fukushima, but they are technical," he said. "The problem is that Tokyo cannot make the political decisions to put these solutions in place."

According to the scientist, the Japanese say that US firms do not have the correct technology to decommission Fukushima, claiming that they have worked on US plants that were used to make weapons.

But Snitch disagrees with this argument saying this is a false pretense that Japan is using to keep US and British firms out of the cleanup: "Nuclear physics is the same regardless of the end use."

'Unrealistic hopes'

The nuclear expert believes that Tokyo has no choice but to take some tough decisions and inform the Japanese public and the rest of the world of what it has to do. Snitch says the government needs to tell the fisherman that contaminated water will be dispersed into the ocean. They also need to tell the residents of some of the towns within the 20 km zone that they are never going back to their homes, he added. "These people have been given unrealistic hopes for 30 months that things can go back to what they were on March 10, 2011. This is simply not true and will not happen."

Furthermore, experts emphasize that decisions have to be made on where to store the 1,533 spent fuel rods and warehouses full of thousands of protection suits, gloves, respirators and other equipment that has become contaminated with radiation, he said.

Snitch is of the opinion that if the Japanese had taken effective steps on from the start and dealt with the water issue, they would not have used Areva filters which did not work, would not have purchased the ALPS [Multi-nuclide Removal Equipment], which broke, and they would not have hundreds of leaky metal tanks, bolted together on uneven ground and leaking.

"In life, when facing a crisis, people must first admit that they have a problem," he added. "Only then can they ask for help."