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Japan takes over disaster effort after leaks at Fukushima

Agency to draft plan for handling radioactive water

Japan’s trade minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, wore protective gear during a tour Monday of the Fukushima nuclear plant, where leaks of radioactive water have raised new concerns.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Reuters

Japan’s trade minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, wore protective gear during a tour Monday of the Fukushima nuclear plant, where leaks of radioactive water have raised new concerns.

TOKYO — Japan’s government will take emergency action to curb radioactive water spills at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, wresting control of the disaster recovery from the plant’s heavily criticized operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

‘‘From now on, the government will move to the forefront,’’ Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Monday at Fukushima.

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Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is led by Motegi, will work to draw up emergency measures over the next few weeks to deal with the contaminated water, the prime minister’s office said.

More than two years after the March 2011 nuclear disaster, Tokyo Electric’s recovery effort has taken a turn for the worse. Japan’s nuclear regulator last week questioned the company’s ability to deal with the crisis, echoing comments earlier in the month by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Motegi made his visit to the plant a week after a storage tank leaked more then 80,000 gallons of highly radioactive water, which Japan’s nuclear regulator labeled a ‘‘serious incident’’ in its worst assessment of the problems at Fukushima since the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 caused reactors to melt down.

It’s now up to the government to lead management of the contaminated water that is building up in tanks at the plant, and leaking from underground tunnels into the ocean, Motegi said.

The trade minister ordered the utility known as Tepco to monitor its water storage tanks more frequently, and replace the type that leaked, as well as ‘‘thoroughly’’ identify the risks of storing highly contaminated water.

‘From now on, the government will move to the forefront.’

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In its response to questions, the prime minister’s office said the trade ministry, which oversees the world’s biggest fleet of nuclear reactors outside the United States and France, will pump more ‘‘liquid glass,’’ or sodium silicate, into the ground as one measure to block the spread of contaminated water.

Tepco has also admitted that irradiated water is flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

Other steps listed under the government’s emergency measures include removing contaminated water from trenches at the site, and using a subterranean bypass to stop ground water from reaching the reactors, according to the prime minister’s office.

Measures under consideration for the next one to two years include fencing off the reactors with what would be the world’s longest underground ‘‘ice walls.’’

These comprise coolant pipes, sunk as deep as 40 yards underground, to turn soil into permafrost. One wall would prevent water flowing from adjacent hillsides from coming into contact with reactors, the other would block radiated water from entering the ocean. The government is still working out how much this would cost, according to the prime minister’s office.

Motegi also gave Tepco until mid-September to restart a water filtration system known as Alps, which was taken offline on Aug. 8 due to corrosion.

The loss of Alps, one of two systems for filtering the water being used to cool the reactor’s fuel, adds to the contamination levels of water in the plant’s storage tanks, hundreds of which may be susceptible to leaks. Alps is designed to strip out radioactive contaminants such as strontium, linked to bone cancer.

Tepco said Monday that it set up a headquarters to deal with the storage of contaminated water; it will be led by the company’s president, Naomi Hirose, it said in a statement.

The tank that leaked had levels of beta radiation 8 million times the limit for drinking water under health ministry guidelines.

There are about 350 tanks of similar design to the leaky unit. Two others have had radioactive hot-spots detected on their seams. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has called the possibility of other tanks leaking the biggest concern at the Fukushima site.

An inspection of the leaking tank was inconclusive, according to utility official Noriyuki Imaizumi on Aug. 24. Imaizumi said the tank had been built in a different location before shifting earth forced it to be disassembled and moved to its current site. He said it isn’t known whether this contributed to the leak.

The nuclear regulator is also concerned about hundreds of smaller tanks, Shinji Kinjo, who leads a disaster task force formed by the agency, said Monday.

Unlike the large tanks that hold most of the plant’s stored water, the smaller tanks aren’t surrounded by protective concrete barriers. Last week’s leak reached the soil because a drainage valve on one such barrier was open.

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