Issei Kato / Reuters
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka is seen in front of a screen showing a diagram of water leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. He spoke at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday.
TOKYO - Japan's government plans to spend nearly $500 million to deal with mounting amounts of radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, the country's industry minister said Tuesday.
The government will spend most of that building a wall of frozen earth around wrecked reactors to prevent groundwater mixing with water being used to cool melted fuel rods, industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.
The rest will be spent on upgrading water treatment systems to reduce the amount of contaminated water that is building up at the site and threatening to overwhelm clean up efforts after the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
Tokyo Electric, known as Tepco, said Monday it found another spike in radiation levels near a contaminated water tank at the plant, which was destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
Tepco is rushing to contain contaminated water that continues to increase at a rate of 400 tonnes a day, with floods of groundwater mixing with highly radioactive water that is constantly poured over the destroyed reactors to keep melted fuel rods cool.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which faces a decision Saturday by the International Olympic Committee on Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 summer Olympics, is rushing to address criticism that Tepco has bungled the response to the nuclear disaster.
"Tokyo Electric has been playing a game of whack-a-mole with problems at the site," Motegi said in a televised interview late Monday, referring to a popular amusement park game.
He said the Fukushima problems should not have any impact on the Olympic bid, in which Tokyo is competing with Madrid and Istanbul.
After a recent spike in overseas alarm at the problems at Fukushima, the Japanese government is "trying to cool the international media off prior to the Olympics decision," Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear energy analyst based in Paris who frequently visits Japan, said by email.
"No cause ... to worry"
Measurable radiation from leaking water is confined to the harbor around the plant, Motegi said, and there should be no impact on other countries because the radiation will be so diluted by the ocean that it is not an environmental threat.
"There is no cause for athletes or visitors to Tokyo to worry," the minister said.
Tepco is storing enough contaminated water to fill more than 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools, mostly in hastily built tanks that officials have said may spring further leaks.
The planned measures are daunting. Freezing earth to block water flows is a technology commonly used in digging subway tunnels, but it is untested on the Fukushima scale and the planned duration of years or decades. The decontamination technology has repeatedly suffered from glitches.
The planned government intervention still represents only a tiny slice of the response to the Fukushima crisis, which is expected to take decades and rely on unproven technology.
The water-containment measures do not address the full problem of water management at the crippled plant, do not remove uncertainty about the fate of Tepco, Japan's largest power company, and do not address the much bigger problem of decommissioning the plant. The most sensitive job of removing spent fuel rods is to start in coming months.
The government's announcement Tuesday at a meeting of a disaster task force came just hours after Tepco said workers found a new area of high radiation near storage tanks. Those tanks are holding water that became contaminated after it was washed over melted fuel rods.
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant north of Tokyo was devastated by a tsunami on March 11, 2011, that resulted in fuel-rod meltdowns at three reactors, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Tepco has been pumping water into the reactors to keep the damaged cores and stored fuel from overheating. That emergency step has created a secondary crisis of how to manage the contaminated water that is pumped back out.
Workers had found no signs of fresh radiation leaks but the company said a radiation reading on the ground near the newly found hot spot would expose a worker in just one hour to the safety limit Japan has set for exposure over five years.
Tepco said last week radiation near a different tank spiked 18 times higher than the initial reading, a level that could kill an unprotected person in four hours.Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.