Abe to End ’Ad Hoc’ Response to Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to end the country’s “ad hoc” response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster as the government announced plans to spend 47 billion yen ($473 million) to stop leaks of radioactive water.

The government is intervening after repeated leaks in the last month indicated the operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. is losing control of the site. The company, known as Tepco, said in one incident about 300 tons of highly radioactive water had escaped from a storage tank.

“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 said at a meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters in Tokyo. “The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved.”

Abe said he’ll set up a ministerial level commission to develop a solution to the water-management problem. The 47 billion yen will be spent on an underground frozen wall to block groundwater from flowing into basements at the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant and an improved water treatment plant, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters today.

Plant Restarts

After coming to power in December, Abe’s administration seemed to have deemphasized the Fukushima cleanup while concentrating on the restart of Japan’s other idled reactors, Gregory Jaczko, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said today in a phone interview

All but one of Japan’s 50 functioning nuclear reactors are shut for safety checks after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns at the Fukushima power station. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was set up after the disaster to independently review Japan’s nuclear power, is monitoring Tepco’s safety measures during the cleanup while evaluating restart applications at other reactors.

The government now appears to have recognized the importance of bringing the crisis at the Fukushima plant under control, Jaczko said.

“I think there was a lot of attention on trying to restart reactors,” he said. “People put this issue on the back burner and didn’t give it as much attention and focus as it probably needed.”

Toxic Water

The Fukushima site now has more than 338,000 metric tons of water stored in more than 1,000 tanks, with additional water remaining untreated in reactor basements and service tunnels.

That’s enough to fill a very large crude oil tanker or 132 Olympic-size swimming pools. Levels of toxic water are rising at a rate of 400 tons a day as groundwater seeping into basements mixes with cooling water that has been in contact with highly radioactive melted reactor cores.

Abe said last month that Tepco isn’t able to handle the disaster recovery after the company acknowledged contaminated groundwater at the plant was seeping into the ocean. Japanese government officials estimated that leak at 300 tons of irradiated water a day.

The government plans to spend 32 billion yen on an ice wall to help stem that flow, Japan’s trade ministry said in a statement. The rectangular subterranean wall around the reactor buildings would be completed in stages, with the seaward side portion completed by Sept. 2014 and the landward portion finished before March 2015.

Filtration System

The government also plans to increase the capacity of the Fukushima plant’s water-purification plant, which can currently handle about 750 tons a day, ministry official Tatsuya Shinkawa said at a briefing. The ministry was still deciding on the processing capacity of the new 15 billion yen facility, which the government plans to have operating in 2014, Shinkawa said.

The system for filtering out strontium and other radioactive elements, known as ALPS, was partially taken off line in June and shut completey owing to corrosion on Aug. 8, just months after beginning operation. The system, which was manufactured by Toshiba Corp., filters out many remaining contaminants after a separate unit removes most of the cesium. The contract for the new facility will be awarded through open bidding, Shinkawa said.

Fukushima residents today filed criminal complaints against 32 current and former Tepco executives, including current President Naomi Hirose, claiming the toxic water leaks occurred because the utility delayed taking measures to prevent them, according to national broadcaster NHK and Kyodo News.

“The government stepping in is a fairly strong statement that they’re trying to restore confidence in the Japanese nuclear industry,” Jaczko said. “It’s a response I think to what is a failing confidence in Tepco’s ability to manage this project successfully.”

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