, TOKYO, Aug 7 – Japan’s prime minister on Wednesday said Tokyo would get more involved in the clean up at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, describing as “urgent” an ongoing battle to stop radioactive water from leaking into the ocean.
The government’s more prominent role comes as critics slam plant operator Tokyo Electric Power and its handling of the more than two-year-old atomic crisis, the worst nuclear accident in a generation.
The embattled utility — which has been kept afloat from a government bail out — admitted last month for the first time that radioactive groundwater had leaked outside the plant, confirming long-held suspicions of ocean contamination from its shattered reactors.
The leaks triggered fresh fears over Fukushima’s precarious state and TEPCO’s ability to deal with a growing list of problems after the plant was swamped by a tsunami in March 2011, sending reactors into meltdown.
The company has also faced widespread criticism over its lack of transparency in making critical information public since the disaster.
On Wednesday, premier Shinzo Abe said his government would beef up efforts to help with the expected decades-long clean up, which has largely been left to TEPCO to handle.
“Stabilising the Fukushima plant is our challenge,” Abe said at a meeting of the government’s disaster task force.
“In particular, the contaminated water is an urgent issue which has generated a great deal of public attention.”
Abe — whose Liberal Democratic Party wants to restart the country’s switched-off reactors if their safety can be assured — said the clean up would no longer be left to TEPCO alone, as he called for “swift and steady measures” on the toxic water issue.
Tokyo would now help foot the bill, Abe said, the first time that it has committed extra funds to deal with the growing tainted water problem.
The vast utility is already facing billions of dollars in clean-up and compensation costs over the accident.
TEPCO had previously reported rising levels of cancer-causing materials in groundwater samples at Fukushima. But officials had long insisted they had halted toxic water from leaking beyond its borders.
In May, Tokyo ordered the company to build new barriers around the reactors to contain tainted water which is used to keep the reactors cool, a measure that could cost up to 40 billion yen ($410 million).
There are growing fears that existing safeguards will soon be overwhelmed by the highly radioactive water, as TEPCO scrambles to fine ways to store it.
“The worsening leaks of contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant prove TEPCO is incapable of dealing with the disaster,” Greenpeace said in a statement Tuesday.
“Japan’s authorities must now step in and ensure action is finally taken to stop the leaks,” it added.
The country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has said it plans to pull together two dedicated teams to probe water contamination and its impact on the ocean’s ecosystem, which has largely remained a question mark.
The agency has focused on conducting safety checks for the country’s other nuclear reactors, which were switched off in the wake of the crisis. But on Friday, it ordered TEPCO to accelerate its containment plan at Fukushima.
More than 18,000 people died when the tsunami slammed into Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011.
While no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the meltdowns at Fukushima, large areas around the plant had to be evacuated with tens of thousands of people still unable to return to their homes.