Ex-US regulator: Fukushima cleanup complicated

In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 aerial photo, workers stand on storage tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan. The Japanese nuclear watchdog proposed Wednesday to define a fresh leakage of highly radioactive leak from one of the hundreds of storage tanks at Japan’s crippled atomic power plant this week, its worst leak yet from such a vessel. The operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant said Tuesday said about 300 tons (300,000 liters, 80,000 gallons) of contaminated water have leaked from a steel storage tank at the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. TEPCO hasn’t figured out how or where the water leaked, but suspects it did so through a seam on the tank or a valve connected to a gutter around the tank. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
In this Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 aerial photo, workers stand on storage tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan. The Japanese nuclear watchdog proposed Wednesday to define a fresh leakage of highly radioactive leak from one of the hundreds of storage tanks at Japan’s crippled atomic power plant this week, its worst leak yet from such a vessel. The operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant said Tuesday said about 300 tons (300,000 liters, 80,000 gallons) of contaminated water have leaked from a steel storage tank at the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. TEPCO hasn’t figured out how or where the water leaked, but suspects it did so through a seam on the tank or a valve connected to a gutter around the tank. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

TOKYO (AP) — A former U.S. nuclear regulator says cleaning up Japan’s wrecked Fukushima plant is a bigger challenge than the work he led at Three Mile Island and that ongoing radioactive water leaks are a minor part of that task.

Lake Barrett was appointed this month by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. as an outside adviser for the decades-long decommissioning process. He led the Three Mile Island accident cleanup for nearly a decade as part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

He said that the meltdowns in three of the reactors, massive radiation leaks and the volume of contaminated water at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, on Japan’s northeast coast, make it a more complicated clean-up.

“In comparison to Three Mile Island, Fukushima is much more challenging, much more complex a job,” Barrett told a Tokyo news conference.

The 1979 core melt accident at Three Mile Island involved one reactor. All the radioactivity was contained in one building, where 8,000 tons of contaminated water were trapped.

In Fukushima, the catastrophe was precipitated by a massive earthquake and tsunami, whose aftermath are further adding to the difficulties of containing and cleaning up after the meltdowns of the three reactors. Moreover, buildings at the Japanese plant were destroyed or damaged by hydrogen explosions, which released massive radioactive elements into the air and to the sea.

Japanese officials have acknowledged that radioactive ground water has been leaking from the plant since soon after the nuclear disaster. Recent leaks from storage tanks holding radioactive water have added to the concerns.

But despite worries over the massive quantities of water needed to cool the melted reactors, the risk of radiation-contaminated water to public health is minimal, Barrett said.

Improved communication would help calm those fears, which likely persist since huge amounts of radiation-tainted water will have to be released into the Pacific after it is processed to bring it below legal limits.

TEPCO on Thursday acknowledged that samples of underground water from near a tank where a major leak occurred last month showed high levels of radioactive tritium.

Massive amounts of contaminated water — a combination of water leaking from the three damaged reactors and inflows of underground water — have also accumulated inside reactor and turbine basements and threaten to leak into the Pacific.

Hours before the Sept. 7 vote by the International Olympic Committee awarded Tokyo the hosting rights for the 2020 games, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphatically declared that the leaks were under control.

The government has promised to become more directly involved in the plant’s water management and to fund costly projects to contain the leaks.

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