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Mishaps Underscore Weaknesses of Japanese Nuclear Plant via The New York Times

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At the same time, the country’s new nuclear regulator remains woefully understaffed. It announced Wednesday that it would send a ninth official to the site — to monitor the work of about 3,000 laborers.

“The Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in an unstable condition, and there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident,” Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said at a news conference. “We have instructed Tepco to work on reducing some of the biggest risks, and we as regulators will step up monitoring.”

The biggest scare at the plant in recent days has been the discovery that at least three of seven underground storage pools are seeping thousands of gallons of radioactive water into the soil. On Wednesday, Tepco acknowledged that the lack of adequate storage space for contaminated water had become a “crisis,” and said it would begin emptying the pools. But the company said that the leaks will continue over the several weeks that it will likely take to transfer the water to other containers.

Plant workers dug these underground ponds about six months ago to store the ever-growing amount of contaminated water at the plant. There is about 400 tons daily from two sources: runoff from a makeshift cooling system rigged together after the site’s regular cooling equipment was knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, and a steady stream of groundwater seeping into damaged reactors.

Tepco stores more than a quarter-million tons of radioactive water at the site and says the amount could double within three years.

But as outside experts have discovered with horror, the company had lined the pits for the underground pools with only two layers of plastic each 1.5 millimeters thick, and a third, clay-based layer just 6.5 millimeters thick. And because the pools require many sheets hemmed together, leaks could be springing at the seams, Tepco has said.

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