Japan's Tepco may run out of space for radioactive water

TOKYO Mon Apr 8, 2013 7:10am EDT

An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo

An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture March 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kyodo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Co said on Monday it does not have enough tank space should it need to move contaminated water from storage pits that started leaking over the weekend at its wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Two years after the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of a century, Tepco is struggling with breakdowns and glitches in its jerry-rigged cooling system to keep reactors and spent fuel pools in a safe state known as cold shutdown.

About 120,000 liters (32,000 gallons) of water contaminated with radiation leaked from two giant pits over the weekend. The cooling system has broken down twice over the past three weeks.

The utility does not have enough sturdy, above-ground tanks it is building to take the water from the pits, a Tepco general manager, Masayuki Ono, said at a news conference at the company's headquarters.

Tepco engineers have not decided whether to transfer the water to above-ground tanks, Ono said. The plant's seven storage pits are lined with water-proof sheets meant to keep the contaminated water from leaking into the soil.

An earthquake triggered tsunami waves that crashed into the power plant north of Tokyo on March 11, 2001, setting off a chain of events that caused three reactors to melt down and forcing 160,000 people to flee from their homes.

In the immediate aftermath of explosions at the plant, Tepco released some radioactive water into the sea nearby, prompting protests from neighboring countries. Many nations put restrictions on imports of Japanese food after the disaster.

It was the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

"It is extremely regrettable that incidents keep occurring at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. "The government has instructed Tepco to carry out a fundamental review of how it's dealing with the problems."

Tepco's president, Naomi Hirose, was summoned to the Industry Ministry to explain the leaks in the temporary storage pits and got a public dressing down from the minister, Toshimitsu Motegi.

Tepco said on Friday it lost the ability to cool radioactive fuel rods in one of the plant's reactors for about three hours, the second cooling system failure at the plant in three weeks.

Last month, a senior Tepco executive told Reuters in an interview that the company was struggling to stop groundwater flooding into the damaged reactor buildings and may take as long as four years to fix the problem.

(Reporting by Mari Saito and Antoni Slodkowski; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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