Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

State of the Fukushima Reactors

Nearly two and a half years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster first began to unfold, Japan’s central government said this week that it will take charge of the growing water management crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The move comes in response to last week’s report of a 300 ton leak of highly radioactive water from a storage tank on the plant premises, which the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) deemed level 3 (“serious incident”) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The water contained 80 million Bq/liter of radioactive materials, or more than 8 million times the amount legally allowed in drinking water. The leak has garnered international attention and highlighted, once again, TEPCO’s inability to manage a steadily worsening crisis.

TEPCO is still trying to determine both the cause and location of the leak, but now believes that it stemmed from deteriorating rubber seams in a tank that was constructed with bolts, rather than welded together. Out of 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi compound, 350 are of the bolted variety, which the company chose because they were cheaper and faster to construct. The tank in question was originally installed at a different site on the compound in June 2011, but it began to sink into the ground there, so workers dismantled it and rebuilt it in its current spot in October 2011. Now, some analysts say that reusing the tank may have caused it to be deformed. Two other tanks that were moved for similar reasons have shown high levels of radiation near their bases, and although no water was found leaking from them, they have been emptied. This is the fifth leak in tanks of this type.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga blasted TEPCO’s handling of the situation, calling the situation “deplorable” and saying that the leak occurred “largely because of [TEPCO’s] sloppy valve operation and patrols.”  He added, “The leak of contaminated water from the tank is extremely regrettable. Failing to manage tanks properly is a big problem. As a government, we will do whatever we can to resolve the problem.” Suga ordered Toshimitsu Motegi, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), to deal with the issue, possibly using emergency reserve funds from the government’s budget for this fiscal year. That money—350 billion yen ($3.55 billion)— was supposed to be set aside to deal with natural disasters. “We’ve allowed TEPCO to deal with the contaminated water situation on its own, and they’ve essentially turned it into a game of ‘Whac-A-Mole.’ The urgency of the situation is very high. From here on, the government will take charge,” he said, adding, “Water control is a very important issue. We have to prevent contaminated water from reaching the sea.” Prime Minister Abe’s office said that the government will have a concrete plan ready by the end of September, if not earlier.

The government’s decision to intervene is likely to be popular. A new poll conducted by the Mainichi Daily News reveals that a whopping 91% of Japanese do not believe that TEPCO is capable of dealing with the nuclear disaster on its own, and want the government to oversee decommissioning and decontamination efforts at the plant, as well as to handle the current water crisis.

Many analysts are also strongly urging Japan to allow international experts to provide technical assistance. Russia has reiterated an offer it extended when the crisis first began, and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has also said it will assist if the Japanese government asks it to do so. Motegi indicated that he will request international expertise. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kushida is already in the Ukraine this week, in order to learn lessons from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. “I directly saw that the battle to contain the accident still continues 27 years after the disaster. Ukraine’s experience and knowledge serves as a useful reference for workers coping with the Fukushima nuclear crisis,” he said.

Meanwhile, a team of NRA officials traveled to the plant on Friday to investigate the worsening water situation there.NRA Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa blamed TEPCO for “sloppy” maintenance of the tanks. TEPCO claims that the tanks were inspected twice a day, but there were only two inspectors for 1,000 tanks. They walked around them and performed visual checks, but in most cases, did not check for rising radiation levels, which probably would have alerted them to the leaks earlier. They kept no records of their checks. “The company has not left any record of inspections of the tanks. I have to call this sloppy,” Fuketa said. The NRA has ordered TEPCO to check all tanks for leaks, and to find a solution to dealing with the contaminated water. As of August 20, 430,000 tons of radioactive water were being stored at the compound, with 300,000 of it in the aboveground tanks. The lifespan of those tanks is only five years. TEPCO’s President, Naomi Hirose, noted, “We cannot keep making tanks endlessly.”

TEPCO had originally planned to dump lower-level radioactive water into the ocean, after treating it with its Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which removes most radioactive materials save tritium. However, the ALPS system was forced to shut down on August 8 because the very water it was designed to treat was so radioactive that it caused the system’s tank to corrode. Workers are now lining the tank with resin, and hope to have it back online sometime in September. But in the meantime, radioactive water continues to build up at a rate of 400 tons per day.

Even when the ALPS system is back up and running, dumping the contaminated water into the ocean will be an uphill battle for the utility. Local fisheries cooperatives have protested vociferously, expressing concern about the safety of their catch. The fishing industry in northeastern Japan has largely been decimated by the nuclear crisis. In addition, the 1972 London Convention prevents Japan or any other country from dumping radioactive water into international waters.

The NRA is now raising alarm bells about hundreds of smaller tanks that dot the facility. These tanks only hold 100 tons of water, compared to 1,000 tons in larger tanks. However, protective cement barriers do not surround them. If leaks occur—for instance, if they are damaged during a major earthquake—the highly radioactive water within would flow out freely.

Also concerning is the fact that radioactive tritium levels in samples of seawater from TEPCO’s port have risen up to 18 times in just one week, indicating that contaminated water is continuing to flow into the ocean. Officials are not sure whether the rise is due to water from the tank leak, from contaminated groundwater, or from radioactive water flowing directly from trenches connected to reactors #1 and #2.

Other Nuclear News in Japan

Despite the ongoing issues at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which have garnered international attention and criticism, Suga said this week that the crisis would not affect Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Last week, Mitsuhei Murata, former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland, called for the withdrawal of Tokyo’s bid. Madrid and Istanbul are also competing for the honor.

Decontamination Efforts

Japan’s Environment Ministry has informed officials in Fukushima Prefecture that decontamination plans for 11 municipalities are being revised. Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato, who angrily pointed out that reconstruction plans will also now need to be revised, criticized the announcement. “We’re drawing up reconstruction plans based on the decontamination plan,” he said. “We want the government to come up with a solid decontamination program through consulting with each of our municipalities,” and then stick to it.

Contractors and subcontractors have already decontaminated many of the areas in question once, but their efforts failed to reduce contamination levels below the established goal of 1 millisievert per year, and some instances, left them higher than before. Those efforts were fraught with scandal; some workers were instructed to dispose of contaminated debris by throwing it into forests and rivers, rather than treating it according to government guidelines. Initially, the government said that it would only treat areas within 20 km of residential living quarters, but that meant that many forests remained highly radioactive. “We’re ready to decontaminate wherever people’s lives are affected, even beyond 20 meters. We will also take care of areas that are still contaminated or were newly found to have high radiation levels,” said Shinji Inoue, Senior Vice Minister of the Environment. Experts blame the high radiation levels on rain and falling leaves, which have redistributed radioactive materials. Decontamination efforts were originally scheduled to be completed in March 2014, but that deadline will now be delayed. Ministry officials plan to announce a revised schedule by the end of the week.