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Thousands of gallons of radioactive water leaked from a large underground storage pool at Japan’s crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima, and thousands more gallons could seep out before workers can empty the faulty pool, the plant’s operator said Saturday.

Almost 32,000 gallons of highly contaminated water breached the inner protective lining of the pool at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, said the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). It was unclear how much of the water had made it through two additional layers of lining to reach soil, but radiation levels outside the pool have risen, a sign that some water is getting out, TEPCO officials said.

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The leak is an example of the huge challenges facing TEPCO on what to do with the huge amounts of contaminated water created by makeshift cooling systems at the plant, after a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out its regular cooling systems two years ago in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Since then, TEPCO has essentially been pouring water onto the damaged reactor cores and storage ponds to keep them from overheating.

Since workers use it for cooling, the water becomes contaminated and it must safely end up stored at the plant. TEPCO said it was already storing more than a quarter-million tons of radioactive water in hundreds of large silver or blue tanks that seem to fill every available space at the plant, or in underground pools like the leaking one. With the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant likely to take decades, TEPCO said it expects the amount of radioactive water to keep growing, and possibly more than double within three years. The company has said it is building more storage space and new filtering facilities to clean the water.

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The company said the leak appeared to be the biggest since the early months after the March 2011 disaster, when leaks allowed contaminated water to flow into the nearby Pacific Ocean. TEPCO said this time it did not expect any of the toxic water to reach the sea, since the pool is half a mile from the coast.

TEPCO did say it was beginning to pump the remaining 13,000 tons of water out of the faulty pool and into a similar pool. The pools are like large ponds dug into the ground, protected by multiple layers of plastic sheets and covered with dirt.

Emptying the damaged pool could take five more days, the company said, during which time an additional 47 tons, or about 12,000 gallons, could leak.

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