New criticism of operator of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant after latest leak

TOKYO Fri Oct 4, 2013 4:10am EDT

A vending machine, brought inland by a tsunami, is seen in a abandoned rice field inside the exclusion zone at the coastal area near Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A vending machine, brought inland by a tsunami, is seen in a abandoned rice field inside the exclusion zone at the coastal area near Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture September 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear regulator on Friday ordered the operator of the crippled Fukushima power plant to draft in additional workers if needed to plug leaks of radioactive water from its tanks and report within a week on steps taken to fight the crisis.

The warning was the second in as many months issued to Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, after the company found a second escape of contaminated liquids that probably entered the Pacific Ocean.

Recent mishaps have called into question Tepco's ability to oversee a cleanup at the Fukushimi Daiichi site 220 km (130 miles) north of Tokyo, hit by three reactor meltdowns after a major earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

"The latest leak was caused by an elementary lack of checks, which questions the ability of management," Katsuhiko Ikeda, secretary general of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), told Tepco President Naomi Hirose in front of reporters.

Ikeda told Hirose to bring in extra workers from other nuclear plants to tackle the crisis if necessary and said he wanted the utility to report back within a week on steps to be taken to improve its water management.

"We will bring in as many people as possible to help deal with the problems," Hirose said in reply. "This is not a short-term issue."

After months of denials, Tepco acknowledged in July that contaminated water was flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the wrecked reactor buildings.

In the latest incident, 430 liters (113 gallons) of water spilled over up to 12 hours after a worker misjudged the capacity of a tank, Tepco said on Thursday.

Tepco has been relying on hundreds of steel tanks to hold excess cooling water flushed over damaged reactors.

BID TO RESTART LARGE NUCLEAR PLANT

The mis-steps are also undermining Tepco's efforts to restart reactors at its only remaining viable plant - Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world's largest nuclear power station - to cut high fossil fuel costs and restore its finances.

Tepco got some relief this week when banks agreed to extend $5.9 billion of new and refinance loans, a source told Reuters.

But the NRA also this week questioned Tepco's credentials to operate a nuclear plant given its mismanagement of the cleanup.

Japan's government stepped in last month and said it would spend half a billion dollars to improve contaminated water management at the plant.

"This is a project unprecedented in the world, but we will take measures so that the impact from contaminated water will not reach the outside environment," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Friday.

"We must continue to protect people's health."

In his successful final pitch to the International Olympic Committee last month to choose Tokyo to stage the 2020 Olympics, Abe said radiation was confined to a small harbor. He declared the plant stable.

But outside observers have repeatedly questioned the government's assertion that the plant is under control.

In a separate incident, Tepco said on Friday a water treatment system that removes radioactive elements from contaminated water had stopped after an alarm went off.

(Reporting by Mari Saito; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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