IAEA urges Japan’s atomic regulator to explain to public more clearly about latest leak of radioactive water at tsunami-damaged energy plant
Experts inspect contaminated water tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma in the Fukushima prefecture. Photo: AFP
The world’s nuclear watchdog has urged Japan to explain more clearly what is happening at Fukushima and avoid sending “confusing messages”, the country’s atomic regulator revealed.
The International Atomic Energy Agency questioned why last week’s leak of 300 tonnes of highly radioactive water merited a rating on its international nuclear event scale (INES), when no other incident since the March 2011 meltdowns had.
Local regulators yesterday rubber-stamped their earlier assessment of the huge spill, in which one of around 1,000 tanks at the site was found to be holed, as being INES level three on an eight-point scale. It had raised it on Monday from level one.
That made it the single most serious incident since three reactors went into meltdown after being swamped by the earthquake-sparked tsunami.
The initial disaster, which spewed radiation over the countryside and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing, was rated level seven, the same as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Last week’s spill was “the most recent of a number of events that involved leakage of contaminated water”, the IAEA said in a paper to Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority.
“Previous similar events were not rated on the INES scale. The Japanese authorities may wish to prepare an explanation for the media and the public on why they want to rate this event, while previous similar events have not been rated.”
Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) is struggling to deal with the vast – and growing – volume of water it has used to cool the broken reactors.
It said last week that some of the 300 tonnes that leaked from the tank could have made its way through drainage systems into the Pacific Ocean.
That came on top of the admission that groundwater contaminated by water from the plant was flowing into the sea at a rate of 300 tonnes a day, taking its low-level radioactive load with it.
The IAEA cautioned against the frequent use of INES ratings, saying this risked clouding the issue in the public mind.
“One possible communication strategy, rather than using INES as a communication tool to rate each event in a series of similar events, would be to elaborate an appropriate communication plan to explain the safety significance of these types of event,” it said. “This would avoid sending confusing messages to the media and the public on a possibly long series of INES-rated events at the lower levels of the scale, for the duration of the entire recovery operation”, which is expected to take up to 40 years.
The chairman of Japan’s nuclear watchdog said yesterday his committee approved the designation of level three, but things were still unclear. “We don’t know what exactly the situation is, how much has leaked, how radioactive it was, or where it was going,” Shunichi Tanaka said.
But he also accused the international press of not fully grasping the INES designations. “Some foreign news media have reported the situation is serious just because it is scaled at level three.”
Agence France-Presse in Tokyo
A related news:
Fukushima nuclear plant needs international expertise
Tuesday, 27 August, 2013, 3:22am
Japan has struggled for more than two years to control the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. A fresh leak from a storage tank of water contaminated by dangerously high levels of radiation is the latest and most serious mishap since the facility was hit by an earthquake and tsunami. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tepco, has not been transparent and has inadequately handled the growing crisis. Belatedly, it has finally acknowledged its failings and admitted outside help is needed.
Tepco’s years of unwillingness to acknowledge problems and seek outside help has put at risk lives and ecosystems, not just in Fukushima, but around the Pacific. Power outages, contamination of workers and efforts to hide leaks are evidence enough of the company’s failings. There is uncertainty about how much water that was used to cool the reactor cores and then stored in tanks has seeped into the soil and made its way into the nearby sea. Radioactivity has been detected in sea life far from the site, while the threat posed by the three melted-down reactors and a badly damaged fourth one now seems as serious as when the quake struck in March 2011.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing rightly expressed shock about the latest leak. Tokyo and Tepco had implied all was well. Continued storage and drainage problems – and a recent report that removal of spent fuel rods in reactor No. 4 will be dangerous because the building they are housed in is structurally weak – make it plain that serious challenges remain. If there is a fire or explosion, or cleanup work does not go as hoped, Japan and the region, as well as the food chain, could face high levels of radiation. That has made the near-silence from officials and the nuclear industry incomprehensible.
Trusting the safety of Japanese produce, particularly seafood, is in the circumstances difficult. Tourists will be less likely to visit, and the South Korean airline Asiana has already announced it will cut flights to Fukushima in October because of the leaks. The watchdog Nuclear Regulation Authority has upgraded the severity of the crisis to one of the world’s three major accidents involving nuclear plants and the worst since Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.
With so much at stake, Tokyo has to be more forthcoming. There has to be utmost transparency and timely information. Every effort has to be made to prevent circumstances spinning out of control. International help, finally suggested last week by Zengo Aizawa, a Tepco vice-president, holds the key.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Japan nuke plant must seek help