TOKYO — Two years after a triple meltdown that grew into the world’s second worst nuclear disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has a new crisis: a flood of highly radioactive waste water that workers are struggling to contain.
Ground water is pouring into the plant’s ravaged reactor buildings at a rate of almost 75 gallons a minute. It becomes highly contaminated there, before being pumped out to keep from swamping a critical cooling system. A small army of workers has struggled to contain the continuous flow of radioactive waste water, relying on hulking gray and silver storage tanks sprawling over 42 acres of parking lots and lawns.
But even they are not enough to handle the tons of strontium-laced water at the plant — a reflection of the scale of the 2011 disaster and, in critics’ view, ad hoc decision- making by the company that runs the plant and the regulators who oversee it. In a sign of the sheer size of the problem, the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, plans to chop down a small forest on its southern edge to make room for hundreds more tanks, a task that became more urgent when underground pits built to handle the overflow sprang leaks in recent weeks.
‘‘The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep or work,’’ said Masayuki Ono, a general manager with TEPCO who acts as a company spokesman.
While the company has managed to stay ahead, the constant threat of running out of storage space has turned into what TEPCO itself called an emergency, with the sheer volume of water raising fears of future leaks at the seaside plant that could reach the Pacific Ocean.