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22 Aug, 2013 22:21

Fukushima operator pleads for international help as radiation crisis deepens

Fukushima operator pleads for international help as radiation crisis deepens

TEPCO, operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, admits it needs overseas help to contain the radioactive fallout, after 18 months of trying to control it internally. It comes after the latest leak at the facility was deemed a “serious incident.”

"Many other countries outside of Japan have experienced decommissioning reactors, so we hope we can consult them more and utilize their experience,” TEPCO’s vice president, Zengo Aizawa, said at a news conference on Wednesday night.

"In that sense, we need support, not only from the Japanese government but from the international community to do this job."

The call comes after one of the 1,060 temporary tanks used to store highly contaminated water sprang a leak on Wednesday, discharging as much as 300 tons of radioactive liquid containing large amounts of cesium. Further tests revealed excessive radiation levels elsewhere in the facility.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) rated the incident 3 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, which spans from 1 to 7.

"The current situation is at the point where more surveillance won't be enough to keep the accidents from happening," declared Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that it is “taking this matter seriously and remains ready to provide assistance on request."

In the past, Japan has been averse to letting foreign entities help with eradicating the nuclear fallout from the Tohoku Disaster of March 2011. The vast majority of clear-up tenders were won by local companies, and outside experts have observed from afar.

The leak is the latest - and most serious - in a string of accidents that have kept the station in the headlines throughout the summer.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) workers work on waste water tanks at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in the town of Okuma, Fukushima prefecture (AFP Photo / Pool/ Noboru Hashimoto)

TEPCO admitted that groundwater that floods the damaged basements of the destroyed reactors is becoming contaminated and flowing out into the ocean.  Three-hundred tons of the radioactive liquid reached the open water each day, even as TEPCO continued to deny the existence of the problem.

The financially-troubled company is attempting to construct a chemical and steel double barrier to stop this outflow, but the obstacle is not impermeable and  only covers a limited area - requiring water to be pumped away to stop it from building up and bursting through.

Its tanks, which are used to keep the coolant that prevents the damaged reactors from overheating dangerously, are considered to be unsuitable because they were made for other industrial purposes. They were adapted following the emergency, but they are nearly full. TEPCO estimates that it has already reached 85 percent capacity, although plans to create a more permanent facility have so far not materialized. The latest leak was the fifth time that toxic water escaped from a basin.

TEPCO has been slow in measuring the levels of radioactive elements that have flowed out of the station, as well as publishing its data.  The company finally revealed this month that highly unsafe tritium and cesium levels had been detected in the seawater near the plant. A concentration of these elements could damage the marine environment and build up in marine life, possibly endangering humans further up the food chain.

"The contaminated water remains a problem that could lead to a crisis," Aizawa conceded during the press call.

“Unfortunately, TEPCO waited until a severe emergency arose to finally report how bad things really are. Historically, everything TEPCO says always turns out to be much worse than they initially admit,” nuclear accident researcher Christina Consolo told RT.

Most experts say that it could take between four decades and a century to eliminate the impact of the Fukushima disaster.