About 100 tons of highly radioactive water leaked from one of the hundreds of storage tanks at the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant, its operator said Thursday, calling it the worst spill at the plant in six months.
The operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the leak, discovered Wednesday and stopped Thursday, happened far enough from the plant’s waterfront that none of the radioactive water was likely to reach the Pacific Ocean, as has happened during previous spills. Still, the incident was an uncomfortable reminder of the many mishaps that have plagued the containment and cleanup efforts at the plant, as well as the hundreds of tons of contaminated groundwater that still flows unchecked into the Pacific every day.
The company, known as Tepco, said it had traced the latest leak to a pair of valves that were left open by mistake.
The leaked water was among the most severely contaminated that Tepco has reported at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since March 2011, when damage caused by an earthquake and a tsunami led to meltdowns in three of the plant’s reactors. Each liter of the water contained, on average, 230 million becquerels of particles giving off beta radiation, the company said. About half of the particles were likely to be strontium-90, which is readily taken up by the human body in the same way as calcium, and can cause bone cancer and leukemia.
That means the water was about 3.8 million times as contaminated with strontium-90 as the maximum allowed under Japan’s safety standards for drinking water. It also showed levels much more radioactive than a worrisome groundwater reading that Tepco announced earlier this month: 5 million becquerels of strontium-90 per liter.
Tepco has struggled to deal with the hundreds of tons of groundwater that seeps each day into the plant’s damaged reactor buildings, where it is contaminated by the melted nuclear reactor cores. To keep the radioactive water from running into the Pacific, the company must pump it out of the reactor buildings and store it in rows of huge tanks it has erected on the plant’s grounds.
So far, Tepco said, about 340,000 tons of water has accumulated in the tanks, enough to fill more than 135 Olympic-size swimming pools.