The Japanese government has refrained from meddling in the management of power utility Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, even though it has been the company's primary shareholder for a year.
The company was left to itself to deal with the damaged Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima and the compensation payments for the losses incurred on account of the radioactive contamination in the region. This lax attitude now haunts the government, which has had to admit that contaminated groundwater under the plant has been leaking into the Pacific for two years now.
And it has been no small amount - according to the latest estimates, around 300 tons of water have been flowing into the ocean every day. According to media reports, that is enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in around a week.
A research group from the Institute for Industrial Sciences at the University of Tokyo has recently published findings on the consequences this has had on the seabed off the Fukushima coast. Japanese media has quoted Dr. Blair Thornton, head of the research group, as saying: "We have detected over 20 spots around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with levels of radiation five to ten times higher than the surrounding areas, with diameters ranging from tens to hundreds of meters."
Too much to handle
After the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the Japanese government gave the utilities operator two contradictory directives: One, that TEPCO should bear all the costs resulting from the nuclear catastrophe, as the company had not been properly prepared for the tsunami; and second, that the company get back to making money as quickly as possible by introducing cost-saving measures and restructuring so it could repay state aid that it received.'
In reality, TEPCO will never be able to foot the bill of the Daiichi disaster alone; earlier this year, TEPCO chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe warned of an impending insolvency should the state fail to pitch in. The cost of dismantling the damaged reactors was initially estimated to be over 10 billion US dollars. TEPCO has already spent 3 billion dollars and expects to pay five times that for clean-up. That means the company would need needs 10.6 billion dollars of fresh capital by March, 2014.
To put it plainly, TEPCO does not have enough money to cover all of these costs. And the recent reports of the extent of the radioactive leakage have appeared to have led the Japanese government to accept that. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Economy to support the company in its efforts to contain and clean up the radioactive water.
Now, tax payers' money will be used to help - something to the tune of 400 million US dollars as a first tranche. TEPCO will use that money to build an underground wall of frozen soil to isolate the groundwater and prevent seepage using a technology that has never before been tested. And it will be a pricey endeavor - it will consume large amounts of electricity over the years and thus be quite expensive to maintain.
The financial intervention of the government has sparked fresh doubts about the company's ability to clean up the site of the stricken nuclear plant. Critics point to the collapse of reactor cooling systems early this year, which was caused by an electric short-circuit triggered by a rat.
The groundwater leakage could also be a reflection of the company's incompetence; the construction of a new underground barrier made groundwater levels rise. "These leakages are out of our control," according to TEPCO General Manager Masayuki Ono.
The quantity of the contaminated water is rising fast. In the end, the only solution could be to release the water into the Pacific Ocean. "The situation lies outside TEPCO's capabilities," said critic and former nuclear engineer Masashi Goto, adding that while the company was doing all in its power, the simply were no perfect solutions.