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Japan raises Fukushima radioactive water leaks to 'emergency' status

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Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant (Credit: Tokyo Electric Power)
Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant (Credit: Tokyo Electric Power)

The troubles at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are far from over. On Monday, the nation's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) told Reuters that an "emergency" has arisen after it found that highly radioactive water had leaked from the plant and into the Pacific Ocean. The NRA said that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the Fukushima plant, has put in place temporary countermeasures to try and contain the leaks. But the scale of the problems posed by the Fukushima leaks are too big for TEPCO to handle on its own, the agency said. Shinji Kinjo, the head of the NRA, told Reuters that TEPCO's "sense of crisis is weak" and that "this is why you can't just leave it up to Tepco alone."

Just two weeks ago, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced that its Fukushima plant — which was the site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the facility — was leaking contaminated water into the ocean. At that point, TEPCO said that the radioactive water TEPCO is struggling appeared to be confined to a man-made harbor around the plant, and that the leak had not yet made its way into the open ocean. The NRA said in the Reuters report that TEPCO was "struggling" to contain the leak. While the NRA had a lot of harsh words for TEPCO in the report, the government agency didn't say what actions it would take to rein in the problem, or what the consequences of the leak would be.

So far, TEPCO has injected chemicals into the shoreline that harden the soil around the No. 1 reactor building, where the leak is taking place, Reuters said. The idea here is to turn the soil near the reactor into a barrier that will keep the contaminated water from leaking into the ocean or up to the plant's ground-level surface. But there are worries that the radioactive water will eventually flow over the top of the hardened soil, or even break through the barriers, and leak further into the ocean and even into nearby communities. Reuters said that Japanese newspapers have reported a timeline of about three weeks before such an expanded leak takes place. The NRA said that such estimates didn't line up with its calculations. However, the agency also declined to tell Reuters what its timeline for such a breach is.