TOKYO -- Tanks containing runoff from the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant are likely reach capacity as early as the summer of 2022, a new forecast shows, putting pressure on Japan's government to dispose of the wastewater.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has leaked water laced with radioactive isotopes since its reactors suffered meltdowns after a crippling March 2011 tsunami.
Various solutions have been proposed, but one that a panel of experts called in 2016 the fastest and least costly -- releasing water into the ocean -- is opposed by locals who fear it will hurt the image of the region's seafood.
The 960 tanks located at the site now hold roughly 1.15 million tons of water. Plant administrator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings, or Tepco, expects to secure enough tanks to hold 1.37 million tons by the end of 2020.
An average 170 tons of contaminated water was produced each day during fiscal 2018, mostly as the result of groundwater flowing into the ruined plant.
Tepco, which counts a government-backed fund as its top shareholder following a 2012 bailout, aims to reduce the volume to 150 per day next year. Even at that reduced level, the tanks would reach full capacity in either the summer or fall of 2022, Tepco estimates.
This marks the first projection that storage at the plant will reach its limit. The findings will be presented at an expert panel meeting on Friday.
Tepco installed equipment to pump out and decontaminate the water. But the treated water still contains tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope that also occurs in minute amounts in nature.
The utility has been criticized for its handling of the plant after the disaster, with its so-called ice wall, a costly, complex technique of freezing the soil to keep the leaks from reaching the ocean, questioned over its effectiveness.
A panel commissioned by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry considered a plan to dilute and release the water into the ocean. Toyoshi Fuketa, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, described the approach "most logical."
But with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo approaching, the government is worried about a potential blow to its international reputation by releasing the water into the sea. It appears to be dragging its feet on a decision.
In his final pitch to secure the Games six years ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had told the International Olympic Committee that the situation at Fukushima was "under control."
A number of Japan's trading partners banned imports of seafood from Fukushima and other areas after the nuclear disaster. These restrictions added to the economic pain for the region's fisheries industry, which was recovering from the physical damage of the tsunami.