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Worst spill in 6 months at Japanese nuclear plant

About 100 tons of highly radioactive water leaked from one of the hundreds of storage tanks at the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant, its operator said on Thursday, calling it the worst spill at the plant in six months.

The operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said the leak, discovered on Wednesday and stopped on Thursday, happened far enough from the plant's waterfront that none of the radioactive water was likely to reach the Pacific Ocean, as has happened during some previous spills.

(Read more: Japan may propose break-up of Fukushima operator)

One of Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) nuclear power plants.
Koichi Kamoshida - Getty Images
One of Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) nuclear power plants.

Still, the incident was an uncomfortable reminder of the many mishaps that have plagued the containment and cleanup efforts at the plant, as well as the hundreds of tons of contaminated groundwater that still flows unchecked into the Pacific every day.

The company, known as Tepco, said it had traced the latest leak to a pair of valves that were left open by mistake.

The leaked water was among the most severely contaminated that Tepco has reported in the aftermath of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, when damage caused by an earthquake and a tsunami led to meltdowns in three of the plant's reactors.

(Read more: Japan ponders Fukushima options, but Tepco too big to fail)

Each liter of the water contained, on average, 230 million becquerels of particles giving off beta radiation, the company said. About half of the particles were likely to be strontium-90, which is readily taken up by the human body in the same way as calcium, and can cause bone cancer and leukemia.

That means the water was about 3.8 million times as contaminated with strontium-90 as the maximum allowed under Japan's safety standards for drinking water. It also showed levels much more radioactive than a worrisome groundwater reading that Tepco announced earlier this month.

That reading — five million becquerels of strontium-90 per liter — which was detected at a location closer to the ocean than the latest spill, prompted criticism of Tepco because the company waited five months to report it publicly.

Critics have assailed the company since the accident, saying it has been slow to acknowledge problems at the stricken plant and has disclosed too little information about the conditions inside. Even so, the government has left the company largely in charge of the cleanup work there.

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Tepco has struggled to deal with the hundreds of tons of groundwater that seeps each day into the plant's damaged reactor buildings, where it is contaminated by the melted nuclear reactor cores. To keep the radioactive water from running into the Pacific, the company must pump it out of the reactor buildings and store it in rows of huge tanks it has erected on the plant's grounds.

So far, Tepco said, about 340,000 tons of water has accumulated in the tanks, enough to fill more than 135 Olympic-size swimming pools. A ton of water is equivalent to about 240 gallons.

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