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Nuke-plant water tanks flawed, Japanese workers say

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 6:33 p.m.

TOKYO — When tons of radioactive water leaked from a storage tank at Fukushima's crippled nuclear power plant and other containers hurriedly put up by the operator encountered problems, Yoshitatsu Uechi was not surprised. He wonders if one of the tanks he built will be next.

He's an auto mechanic. He was a tour-bus driver for a while. He had no experience building tanks or working at a nuclear plant, but for six months last year, he was part of the team frantically trying to create new places for contaminated water to go.

Uechi and co-workers were under such pressure to build tanks quickly that they did not wait for dry conditions to apply anti-rust coating over bolts and around seams as they were supposed to; they did the work even in rain or snow. Sometimes the concrete foundation they laid for the tanks came out bumpy. Sometimes the workers saw tanks being used to store water before they were even finished.

“I must say our tank assembly was slipshod work. I'm sure that's why tanks are leaking already,” Uechi, 48, told The Associated Press from his hometown on Japan's southern island of Okinawa. “I feel nervous every time an earthquake shakes the area.”

Officials and experts and two other workers interviewed by the AP say the quality of the tanks and their foundations suffered because of haste — haste that was unavoidable because there is so much contaminated water leaking from the wrecked reactors and mixed with ground water inflow.

“We were in an emergency and just had to build as many tanks as quickly as possible, and their quality is at bare minimum,” said Teruaki Kobayashi, an official in charge of facility control for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Leaks and other flaws found in several tanks have raised concerns about further and more damaging failures, particularly if another big earthquake, tsunami or typhoon hits. The plant suffered a triple meltdown after Japan's devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The plant has substantially stabilized, but decommissioning is expected to take decades, and TEPCO has suffered what Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has described as a “whack-a-mole” succession of mishaps.

The company is in the process of replacing rubber-seam tanks with more permanent welded tanks.

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