The government said it will step in and take "firm measures" to combat leaks of radioactive water at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant, including possibly funding a costly containment project.
The announcement Wednesday came a day after the operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant said some of the water was seeping over or around an underground barrier it created by injecting chemicals into the soil that solidified into a wall.
"There is heightened concern among the public, particularly about the contaminated water problem," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a government nuclear disaster response meeting at his office. "This is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed. The government will step in to take firm measures."
The latest problem involves water that accumulated over the last month since the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., began creating the chemical barrier to stop underground leaks after detecting radiation spikes in water samples in May.
Government officials said Wednesday that an estimated 300 tons of radioactive water has been leaking into the sea each day since early in the crisis, which was caused by the March, 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
Admitted radioactive water leaks in July
Since a major leak occurred from a maintenance pit a month after three reactors at the plant melted following the disasters, TEPCO had denied any further leaks of radioactive water into the sea, despite repeated warnings by experts, until finally acknowledging them last month.
The underground barrier on the coastal embankment has slowed the leaks somewhat, but has caused underground water to swell. To prevent an overflow above the surface, which is feared to happen within weeks, TEPCO will start pumping out about 100 tons of underground water from coastal observation wells this week. Later this month, TEPCO will remove old contaminated water from trenches near the coast — a time bomb that it had left untouched despite repeated prodding from the government.
Shinji Kinjo, an official at the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said faster-than-expected swelling of the underground water following the installation of the chemical barriers accelerated the emergency caused by TEPCO's delays.
Alarmed by the leaks, a fisheries co-operative in nearby Iwaki city decided to indefinitely postpone a test catch planned for September.
Government officials said Wednesday they were considering funding a separate, multibillion-dollar project to surround the reactor buildings with a wall of frozen ground to block underground water from entering the contaminated buildings. The project, announced in May, is scheduled for completion in July 2015.
Wall around reactors 'unprecedented'
Similar methods have been used to build tunnels, but building a wall that surrounds four reactor buildings and their related facilities is "unprecedented anywhere in the world," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
"We believe it is necessary that the country steps forward to support its construction," he said.
Tatsuya Shinkawa, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, said government officials were discussing funding details for the frozen ground wall project, which reportedly could cost 30 billion to 40 billion yen (Cdn $320 million to $420 million).
That would be in addition to an 8.7 billion yen budget this year for decommissioning projects including development of robots to locate and remove debris from the melted reactors.
The plant is also constructing an offshore wall of steel panels along the coast to keep contaminants from spreading further into the sea. TEPCO says radioactive elements have mostly remained near the embankment inside the bay, but experts have reported offshore "hot spots" of sediments contaminated with high levels of cesium.