Japan's Tokyo Electric Power Company has begun dumping 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean in a last-ditch attempt to make room for even more highly radioactive runoff from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The company started releasing the water – contaminated with radioactive iodine at 100 times the legal limit – into the ocean at around 7:00 on Monday evening. One power company official grew emotional at a press conference announcing the intent to start dumping the water as he apologized to the Japanese people.
The embattled power company is trapped in a cycle that will only produce more and more radioactive runoff until cooling systems at each of the Fukushima reactors are back online.
Since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, Tokyo Electric workers have had to pour water onto the reactors and spent fuel pools to keep the fuel from melting down. Even so, at least partial meltdowns in multiple reactors may have taken place.
Workers cannot stop pouring water onto the damaged reactor cores or spent fuel pools until the electric cooling systems are repaired – but all of the runoff created by that process has no place to go.
The release of contaminated water into the Pacific comes as Tokyo Electric has been unable to stop a leak of very highly radioactive runoff spilling directly into the ocean from an area near Reactor 2 known as the pit.
Over the past two days, workers have poured cement, an extremely absorbent polymer, sawdust, and even newspaper into the pit to try to stop the leak, but so far nothing has worked.
Efforts to trace the leak using a milky, white dye have also failed.
Japan's government has agreed to the release of the less radioactive water into the ocean only as a last option for dealing with the runoff. The goal is to clear more space for storing the highly contaminated water by emptying the less radioactive water into the sea.
"We are already aware that the water at the Number 2 unit is highly radiated," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. "So as to prioritize to stop the leakage of the water into the sea at the earliest timing, we will release the water stored in the exterior building of the unit, which also unfortunately contains radioactivity, but far lower than the highly contaminated water."
To try to contain the contaminated water near the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Tokyo Electric says it will place so-called silt barriers in the ocean around the area where the contaminated water is located. While the barriers cannot stop radioactive particles from leaking out, the hope is they may help control the current enough to minimize such leakage.
Experts say the radioactive runoff will be diluted enough by the Pacific Ocean that it will not pose a threat to humans, but it is not yet known what impact the contamination is having on marine life in the area. Elevated levels of iodine – measuring 4,385 times the legal limit -- were already found near the plant late last week.