by Jon Day, Liu Tian
TOKYO, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) -- Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has struggled to cope with a myriad of problems since a magnitude- 9.0 megathrust earthquake triggered a massive tsunami two and a half years ago.
Recently, the TEPCO admitted that highly toxic water leaked from the plant and into the adjacent Pacific Ocean at a rate around 300 tons per day from makeshift storage tanks on the site.
The current leaks and TEPCO's attempts to conceal the severity of the crisis are the latest in a long-list of cover-ups by the embattled utility that has failed to deliver to the central government, Japanese citizens and the global community, timely and accurate information on the crisis.
"Indications are that there is a second leak at the Daiichi site and this doesn't bode well for TEPCO as they were months in concealing the first leak from the public and the international community," Shoji Tsurumi, an expert from Japan's Marine Science & Technology Institute told Xinhua.
"The fact of the matter is that these leaks have yet to be contained and radioactive water is mixing with groundwater and spreading freely into the soil," Tsurumi confirmed, adding that " unfortunately for Japan and the world at large, TEPCO are not known for giving accurate information to regulatory bodies and the public."
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said that readings just above the ground near a set of tanks at the plant showed radiation as high as 2,200 millisieverts -- a huge spike from the previous high measured four days earlier in areas holding the tanks, at 1,800 millisieverts.
It said that both levels would be enough to kill an unprotected person within hours and added that the new hotspots are showing " highly-concentrated levels of radiation."
The NRA has again blasted TEPCO, saying that measurement and management communication at Fukushima were inadequate and have given the public an impression that the disaster is still out of control and that there have been attempts to hide this from them.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the central government, however, said the situation was under control and that the spread of contamination had been limited to a 0.3 km zone in the bay around the stricken plant in Buenos Aires as Tokyo pitched for its successful bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.
But pundits attest that the government is now glossing over the matter and dragging its heels and only plans to drip-feed funds into TEPCO going forward and oversee its operations, rather than fully taking responsibility.
"I was flabbergasted by Abe's speech," said Hiroaki Koide, an associate professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute. "The problem of contaminated water is far from being solved. This problem has been going on all the time since the reactors were destroyed," Koide said.
And as the highly-intricate and potentially hazardous job of removing spent fuel rods is scheduled to commence in the coming months, the government and TEPCO seem to be at odds as to who is running the show and who is responsible for financing it.
"Clearly the government is using state funds to extend TEPCO's life," said Kazuyoshi Sato, an assembly member in Iwaki City just outside the 30 km exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant.
"So the only way forward is to legally bankrupt the firm and make clear who is responsible, including past directors, financial institutions and shareholders," Sato said on the matter.
But pundits are mindful of the fact that if the government liquidates TEPCO and fully take responsibility of the crisis, it will also be responsible for the massive clean-up and decontamination process in and around the affected areas and also for the compensation due to those displaced or otherwise affected by the nuclear disaster -- a bill too big for the government to foot.
In addition, if the government were to liquidate TEPCO, it would have a huge impact on TEPCO bonds and cause chaos in Japan's corporate bond market.
"With over 4 trillion yen (around 40 billion U.S. dollars) in TEPCO bonds outstanding, the Japanese bond market would suffer a negative impact if TEPCO were to default on its payments. We believe the government has an economic incentive to avoid such a scenario," said Standard & Poor's analyst Hiroki Shibata.
Analysts believe that the government will not want to assume such a hefty financial burden that would also involve a massive shift in the energy sector and as such is opting to keep its distance and drip-feed in funds from a distance and maintain the front that it is "dealing with the crisis."
"On the surface, the government says it will 'take responsibility', but this is just a temporary expedient of using tax money," said Shigeaki Koga, a former trade and industry ministry official who proposed putting TEPCO through bankruptcy in 2011. "They probably don't really intend to take responsibility."
The facts remain thus: "We have a government with a financial imperative to keep TEPCO, an incompetent company, running independently and therefore in-charge of a crisis they clearly cannot handle," said Tsurumi.
"In addition, we have the government stating that the situation is not serious and that the levels of radioactive waste that have leaked into the Pacific are negligible. Yet fish caught more than 140 km from Fukushima have showed extremely high levels of contamination with radioactive cesium traceable to the failed nuclear plant," he added.
"TEPCO can no longer effectively clean, filter and store the massive amounts of radioactive water on its site. At some point in the near future -- and this may have happened already -- the utility will simply resort to emptying its radioactive tanks into the Pacific Ocean," Tsurumi said. "They will simply run out of other options to store such huge quantities of water."
"Perhaps this is another reason the government is keeping its distance. After all, if the government were to take responsibility for dumping toxic water into the ocean, who would it have to blame when the global backlash came?" Tsurumi said.