TOKYO First, a rat gnawed through exposed wiring, setting off a scramble to end yet another blackout of vital cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Then, hastily built pits for a flood of contaminated water sprung leaks themselves. Now, a new rush of radioactive water has breached a barrier built to stop it, allowing heavily contaminated water to spill daily into the Pacific.
As the scope of the latest crisis became clearer Wednesday, Japan's popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe, ordered his government to intervene in the cleanup of the plant taking a more direct role than any government since the triple meltdowns in 2011 qualified Fukushima as the world's second worst nuclear disaster.
Abe, a staunch defender of the country's nuclear program, appears to have calculated that he needed to intervene to rebuild public trust and salvage a pillar of his economic revival plan: the restarting of Japan's many idled nuclear plants. That trust has been eroded not only by the original catastrophe, but also by 2 1/2 years of sometimes dangerous missteps by the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, and what many Japanese see as the company's continuing attempts to mislead the public and cover up deteriorating conditions at the plant.
"This is not an issue we can let TEPCO take complete responsibility of," Abe told a group of Cabinet ministers as they gathered to discuss the water problem that has swiftly emerged as the biggest challenge at the plant and that appears to be spiraling out of control. "We must deal with this at the national level."
But taking a bigger role in a vast and unprecedented cleanup may also be a political gamble for Abe, especially if the government proves as unable as TEPCO to contain the unending leaks of radioactive materials from the devastated plant.
Many analysts said Abe's move was an admission that previous governments had erred by entrusting the 40-year, $11 billion cleanup to the same company that many blame for allowing the catastrophe to happen in the first place. TEPCO's leadership has been particularly worrisome, critics say, since it remains enmeshed in the ties between the government and the industry that many say made the plant vulnerable.
"This is an admission by the government that TEPCO has mismanaged the cleanup and misinformed the public," said Eiji Yamaguchi, a professor of science and technology policy at Doshisha University in Kyoto. "The government has no choice but to end two years of TEPCO obfuscating the actual condition of the plant."
The groundwater problems at the plant started soon after the disaster, when TEPCO realized that tons of water flowing from the mountains and toward the sea were pouring into the contaminated reactor buildings, filling their basements with water that had to be pumped out. But the company was slow to come up with longer-term solutions, like digging wells to draw out the water before it reached the buildings.
Then, in May, TEPCO realized it had a new problem, with contaminants apparently leaking from a maze of conduits near the wrecked reactors causing a spike in radiation levels in groundwater elsewhere in the plant. It began to build an underground "wall" created by injecting hardening chemicals into the soil even as it denied there was a threat to the ocean but the barrier created a dam and water pooled behind it eventually began to flow over.
On Wednesday, government officials said they believed 300 tons, or 75,000 gallons, of the tainted water was entering the ocean daily.
Whether the government intervention will help remedy the groundwater issue is an open question, Yamaguchi and others said. The government's expanded role will likely be led by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, which has been criticized for its close ties to TEPCO.
Other aspects of the Fukushima plant's decommissioning have also been dominated by other members of Japan's collusive "nuclear village," as the close-knit industry is called, including reactor makers and politically connected large construction companies. Experts have long worried that the government erred early on by refusing to bring in other Japanese and foreign companies in leading roles despite their expertise, such as U.S. companies with experience in nuclear cleanups from Three Mile Island.