Japan's government is moving to take a more direct role in the clean-up of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, as concerns grow over the ability of embattled operator Tokyo Electric to handle the legacy of the worst atomic disaster in a quarter century.
The concerns have also revived debate about the future of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) itself, including early-stage proposals to put its toxic nuclear assets under government control and leave the rest of the company as a provider of power to the nation's biggest economic region.
"I want the government to have a responsible framework - not just for checking what Tokyo Electric is doing to deal with Fukushima - but for the government to commit to dealing with the Fukushima problem itself and conduct this as a joint operation, including the water problem and decommissioning," said Tadamori Oshima, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's task force on post-disaster reconstruction.
"Concerning the question of what the government will pay for and what Tepco will pay for, I think we need to debate and redraw the line," Oshima told Reuters in an interview.
Public worries about Fukushima, revived by news of leaks of radiated water at the plant, have threatened to further delay the restart of other off-line reactors - a key element of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recipe for economic revival and a pillar of the turnaround plan Tepco has given its creditor banks.
Japan's nuclear industry, which once provided a third of the nation's power, has nearly ground to a halt since a massive quake and tsunami struck the coastal Fukushima plant in March 2011, causing reactor meltdowns. Tepco has been pumping water over the reactors to keep them cool, storing the radioactive waste water as well as contaminated ground water in ever-growing numbers of above-ground tanks.
"What is clear by now and can hardly be ignored is that Tepco as a private company is overwhelmed by the containment work in Fukushima," said Martin Schulz, a senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.
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"The discussion about nationalizing or breaking up Tepco and at least putting the stabilization of the Fukushima reactors under direct government control is back."
Japanese officials also fear the glare of international attention could threaten Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Olympics, a decision on which will be made by the International Olympics Committee on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires.
Japan's foreign ministry has begun issuing English language updates on the plant and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government now carries the latest radiation data on its website showing that radiation levels in the capital, some 230 km (140 miles) from Fukushima, are on par with or lower than London and New York.
Tepco said on the weekend that radiation near a tank holding highly contaminated water at the plant had spiked 18-fold, to a level that could kill an exposed person in four hours. It said no new leak had been detected at the tank, but another leak was found from a pipe connecting two other tanks.