Fukushima Visited by IAEA as Tepco Faces Risk of Dumping Claims

United Nations atomic monitors began a weeklong mission to Japan’s wrecked Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant to review how contaminated water is being stored at the disaster site and assess decommissioning risks.

The 13-member International Atomic Energy Agency team will meet with Japanese regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials, the Vienna-based body said in a statement today. IAEA officials will visit the site where three Tepco reactors melted down in 2011 to see what is being done to stop radioactive-water leaks.

“We are going to deal with the important problem of the management of water at the site,” IAEA team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo said at a press briefing in Tokyo. “We need to get some more information, and have some specific discussion with our counterparts to have an appropriate idea on the scope of this issue.”

Two years after an earthquake and accompanying tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, nuclear engineers are still grappling with how to bring the facility under control. Power outages and water leaks have hampered the clean-up. The complications have raised the risk that Tepco may release radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

Dumping radioactive waste has been internationally outlawed since 1994, when Russia released radioactive liquids into the Sea of Japan. The practice may expose Tepco, which has already relied on the Japanese government to fund the Fukushima clean-up to additional compensation claims.

Fisherman Losses

A “fishermen claim for losses resulting from people not buying their fish” may be feasible depending on the level of radioactivity from water released into the Pacific, said Martyn Day, the senior partner at London-based Leigh Day & Co., who has sought compensation on behalf of oil-spill victims. People exposed to tainted seafood may also be eligible for claims, he wrote in an e-mail.

Currently, about 280,000 tons of highly radioactive water are stored at the Fukushima plant, according to Tepco’s latest data. That’s enough to fill about 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to Bloomberg News calculations.

Tepco officials, including President Naomi Hirose, have said the company won’t “easily” release radiated water into the ocean. Fishermen are against the move because it may trigger public concern over the safety of their catch, said Kenji Nakada, an official at the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations.

While the utility is trying to remove some radioactive elements like cesium from stored wastewater, the company will require more time to scrub other elements, like tritium, from the liquid. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that fuses with atoms in water.

‘Radioactive Releases’

“It’s still unclear how they will deal will this issue,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Aslihan Tumer in an interview. “Radioactive releases may have been understandable in the immediate aftermath of the accident but aren’t any longer.”

Fish and mollusks within 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of the Fukushima plant have surpassed baseline measures of radioactivity, Tepco said in its most recent environmental monitoring report published April 12. One specimen tested near the port entrance to Fukushima Dai-Ichi was 4,300-times more radioactive than what Japanese officials consider standard and which may pose health risks.

Human exposure to radiation at moderate to high levels can lead to cancers, such as leukemia, according to United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, or UNSCEAR, which is next month expected to publish an assessment of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The IAEA has made irregular visits to the Fukushima site since the March 11, 2011, disaster occurred. It’s the agency’s first visit to the area since the it convened a meeting on nuclear safety in Fukushima Prefecture in December.