Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s admission Monday that radioactive groundwater from under the disaster-struck Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has reached the Pacific Ocean came about a month after the problem was confirmed.
Tepco had been taking groundwater samples from wells near the shore at the crippled plant to test for radioactive substances. It claims it only recently realized the water levels in the wells rose when the ocean tides did.
Tepco’s slow action and tardy revelation, coupled with an apparent lack of coordination within the utility in sharing crucial data about the case, is making local fishermen increasingly distrustful of the utility.
At a Tuesday briefing for fishermen in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the day after the groundwater leak was admitted, participants expressed anger at the utility, with one calling for someone to take responsibility.
Following the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns triggered by the massive quake and tsunami, fishermen in the prefecture voluntarily suspended operations.
Finally in June last year, they began trial fishing in a limited area in the north targeting selected types of fish.
Fisheries officials were also considering launching limited operations in waters off Iwaki in the south from September. Then came Tepco’s admission.
“This will pose a significant hurdle to the trial operation. Even if we can catch fish, will we be able to tell consumers with confidence that they can eat them?” said Masakazu Yabuki, 76, head of the Iwaki fisheries cooperative.
The utility announced in mid-June that high concentrations of radioactive materials were detected in groundwater observation wells located by the sea. It kept downplaying its possible impact on the sea, saying it did not detect any changes in concentration levels in nearby seawater.
The utility’s cautious attitude about announcing the radioactive groundwater flow seems to stem from its urgent need to take measures against the ever-increasing amount of nuclear contaminated water.
At the Fukushima No. 1 plant, a huge amount of water has been pumped into the three reactors that suffered meltdowns. The water was tainted with radioactive materials and recycled for cooling the reactors after removing radioactive cesium and salt content.
Also, about 400 tons of groundwater flows into its reactor building basements daily and gets mixed with the water used to cool the reactors, creating a new contamination problem.
As of July 2, about 400,000 tons of contaminated water was stored in tanks.
The utility had planned to pump out the groundwater and release it into the sea before it enters the ground under the buildings. But it has yet to carry out the plan because of opposition from local fishermen.
The fishermen’s distrust grew further after a series of problems surfaced, including an error in the way Tepco checked the radiation levels of the groundwater it seeks to release into the sea.
Tetsu Nozaki, 58, chairman of the fisheries co-op association of the prefecture, said, “It has become emotionally difficult to accept (Tepco’s groundwater release plan) due to the leakage of contaminated water (into the sea).”
The utility acknowledged the contaminated groundwater was reaching the sea after realizing that the water levels in the wells rose when the tides came up.
The data had been collected since January by Tepco’s civil engineering department working to design a sunken wall to prevent the spread of radioactive materials in the local harbor but had not been shared within the company.
The department overseeing contaminated water became aware of the existence of the data around July 17, sources said.
Tepco informed the Nuclear Regulation Authority of the data the following day, but did not make a public disclosure until the following week, considering the impact it would have on the upcoming briefing, they said.