Japan’s government will announce plans to take control of the Fukushima crisis as early as tomorrow as radiation levels spike 18-fold.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, said over the weekend that radiation near a tank holding highly contaminated water at the plant had spiked to 18 times the initial reading, a level that could kill an unprotected person in four hours.
The government will present a "comprehensive package of measures" on the water problem as soon as Tuesday, a senior official said, as some outside the government call for a break-up of Tepco and amid proposals to create a government agency devoted to decommissioning the plant.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government "will step forward and implement all necessary policies" to deal with the flood of radioactive water from the plant, a legacy of the world's worst atomic disaster in a quarter century.
"The government has stayed in the background and extended support for Tokyo Electric's effort to tackle the problem of contaminated water. But we've now decided that Tokyo Electric's patchwork response has reached its limit, and the government needs to come forward and quickly respond, even by using budget reserves," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
The package of measures will be presented to a taskforce dealing with the contaminated water problem, officials said, with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) reiterating that it may have to consider discharging water with radiation below regulatory limits into the ocean.
Tepco has been pumping water over the wrecked reactors to keep them cool and storing the radioactive waste water as well as contaminated ground water in ever-growing numbers of above-ground tanks.
Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters there was no evidence of new water leaks at the Fukushima plant, following the discovery of high radiation levels in recent days.
He said: "The people at the Fukushima plant have been dealing with the post-accident situation with haphazard, stop-gap measures for several years." Tanaka said the NRA has instructed plant officials to foresee possible risks and take action as quickly as possible to mitigate them.
More broadly, policymakers may be moving toward even greater intervention in the on-going response to the nuclear disaster, with Yasuhisa Shiozaki, deputy policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and head of its project team on nuclear regulation, calling for the creation of a "decommissioning agency".
He also urged the merging of the NRA with the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organisation, a body that provides engineering experts and inspects Japan's nuclear facilities.
Giving Tokyo direct oversight of Fukushima, a decommissioning agency could resemble Britain's National Decommissioning Authority, a public body charged with managing the dismantling of the nation's atomic power and research stations.
"It is an urgent task to promptly restructure our overall nuclear power policies under a resolute system and revive domestic and international trust," Shiozaki said in comments posted on his website.
Debate has also emerged over nationalising or breaking up Tepco to put the Fukushima reactors directly under official control.
Tepco, Japan's largest utility, last year got a 1 trillion yen (£6.5bn) injection of tax money in exchange for giving the government a de facto controlling stake, but management has been left to the company.