(adds dropped word in second para)
By Hideyuki Sano
TOKYO, Jun 18 (Reuters) - An operation to clean up radioactive water at Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant was suspended on Saturday, hours after it got underway, when radiation levels began rising dramatically, the plant’s operator said.
Tokyo Electric Power Company had undertaken the operation at the plant, disabled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, to avert spillage into the sea of large, growing pools of radioactive water.
A statement issued by the company, known as TEPCO, said the suspension, five hours after the operation began, was prompted by a sharp rise in radiation in a part of the system intended to absorb caesium.
“At the moment, we haven’t specified the reason,” a TEPCO spokesman told a news conference. “So we can’t say when we can resume the operation. But I’d say it’s not something that would take weeks.”
The official said teams working at the plant believed the radiation rise could be linked to sludge flowing into the machinery intended to absorb ceasium. Another cause could be pipes surrounding it.
But a resumption, he said, was critical to deal with the highly radioactive watter -- officials say 110,000 tonnes, the equivalent of 40 Olympic swimming pools -- is stored there.
“Unless we can resume the operation within a week, we will have problems in disposing of the contaminated water,” the official said.
“But if this is caused by the reasons we are thinking, we can resume the opeartion within a week.”
The official said TEPCO foresaw no delay in its overall plan to bring the Fukushima Daiichi plant fully under control by the end of the year. The plan calls for a shutdown of its three unstable reactors by January 2012.
The cleanup operation had got underway on Friday after being delayed by a series of glitches at the plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
Officials had said earlier this week that large and growing pools of radiactive water at the plant were in danger of spilling into the sea within a week unless action was taken quickly.
The company has said the decontamination process could produce large amounts of radiation sludge, causing a further problem for its long-term storage.
Tepco has pumped massive amounts of water to cool three reactors at the plant that went into meltdown after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disabled cooling systems.
But managing the radioactive water has become a major headache as the plant runs out of places to keep it. (Reporting by Hideyuki Sano, Tokyo bureau +81 3 6441 1827; Editing by Ron Popeski)