Tokyo (CNN) — The drip, drip, drip of bad news about Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant keeps going.
Several tanks and pipes at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant are suspected of leaking toxic water, the chairman of the Japanese nuclear watchdog, Shunichi Tanaka, said Monday.
His comments come after the much-criticized plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, said over the weekend that it had detected a sharp spike in radiation levels in some of the pipes and huge containers that hold the vast quantities of contaminated water accumulating at the site.
That issue is the latest setback at the plant, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has vowed to step in to deal with the toxic water crisis that has deepened concerns in Japan and abroad about the daunting scale of the problem.
Since the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011 set off meltdowns at three of the reactors at the nuclear plant, TEPCO has been storing the enormous volumes of water contaminated at the site in a steadily growing collection of containers.
Some of the water tanks were constructed hastily as temporary storage units in the aftermath of the natural and nuclear disasters. Those makeshift containers are the ones where problems have arisen recently.
Checking problem areas
TEPCO said over the weekend that only a small amount of the highly contaminated water escaped from a tank this time around. But the disclosure comes just weeks after it admitted that about 300 tons of radioactive water leaked from another tank.
The latest leak doesn’t appear to be as big as that, Tanaka said Monday, and it doesn’t seem to have reached beyond the barriers that surround the rows of water tanks.
“Nevertheless, we are moving the contaminated water to other tanks and checking the bolts and seams of the tanks in order to be thorough,” he said.
The tanks where the high radiation levels were detected are of the same design as the one that leaked heavily last month — a crisis that prompted the nuclear regulator to declare it a Level 3 serious incident, its gravest assessment since the meltdowns at the plant in 2011.
TEPCO said it found high radiation readings at the storage tanks and pipe Saturday. The four locations are the bottom of three tanks and a pipe connecting tanks in a separate area.
The highest reading was 1,800 millisieverts per hour at the bottom fringe of the tank. Readings of 220 and 70 millisieverts per hour were measured at the bottom of other two tanks. And TEPCO said it found a dried stain under the pipe with 230 millisieverts per hour radiation measurement.
A person in an industrialized country is naturally exposed to 3 millisieverts a year. Experts say that after a single acute exposure of 1,000 millisieverts, people tend to start feeling nauseated and vomiting. Exposure at 5,000 millisieverts over the course of a few hours can be fatal.
One drop of liquid fell when a staff member pressed on insulation material around the pipe. But TEPCO said no contaminated water leak is expected, as there were no changes in the water levels in the tanks.
The company, whose efforts to deal with the toxic water crisis were recently compared to a game of whack-a-mole by a government minister, said it was trying to determine the cause of the latest problem and promised to take measures to resolve it while ensuring worker safety.
But Tanaka seemed unimpressed by the company’s handling of the problems at the plant.
“TEPCO has been dealing with these accidents in a stopgap manner, so I believe there must have been many things they have missed in their overall countermeasures,” he said.
In July, TEPCO admitted that radioactive groundwater was leaking into the Pacific Ocean from the site, bypassing an underground barrier built to seal in the water.
About 400 tons of groundwater flow into the site each day, and TEPCO also pumps large amounts of water through the buildings to keep the crippled reactors cool.
The Japanese government has pledged to come up with emergency measures to tackle the growing toxic water problem.
“A package of comprehensive countermeasures” will be presented at a ministerial meeting headed by the prime minister on Tuesday, the local news agency Kyodo reported Monday.
Dump it in the ocean?
One approach flagged by experts to deal with the massive volume of toxic water at the plant is to dump some or all of it into the Pacific Ocean.
“We might have to consider the option of discharging tainted water that is below regulatory levels into the ocean,” Tanaka said Monday.
But he stressed that he would not allow the discharge of “tainted water that is above accepted levels.”
Tanaka also warned that the toxic water is not the only big challenge at the site — there’s also the decommissioning of the reactors, which is likely to take 30 to 40 years.
“We have a long road ahead of us,” he said.