By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - The operator of the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant said on Friday that more radioactive water could begin spilling into the sea later this month if there is a glitch in setting up a new decontamination system.
Tokyo Electric Power Co also said that two workers may have been exposed to radiation at more than twice the limit set by the government, the most serious case so far of exposure among hundreds of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Nearly 110,000 tonnes of highly radioactive water -- enough to fill about 40 Olympic-size swimming pools -- are stored at the plant, the utility said in a report to Japan's nuclear regulator presented on Friday.
Tokyo Electric, known as Tepco, has pumped massive amounts of water to cool three reactors where meltdowns occurred after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disabled cooling systems.
Managing the growing pools of radioactive water is a major challenge with the start of Japan's month long rainy season, and the plant, on the Pacific coast 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, is running out of storage space.
"By sealing relevant areas ... we plan to prevent contaminated water from leaking into the sea," Tepco said in its report handed to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Engineers have begun installing equipment supplied by French reactor maker Areva to decontaminate the radioactive water and Tepco wants to start operating it by June 15.
But if the treatment system does not work, one of the reactors could run out of space to store contaminated water as early as June 20, and it could then spill into the sea. The same could happen to a second reactor a day later, Tepco said.
Environmental activists have accused the government and Tepco of downplaying the risk of water leaks. [ID:nL3E7GQ1FN]
"This is a scenario that Tepco could have anticipated ... It is a serious problem that the firm has yet to take measures against this," said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. "If a big amount leaks continuously, then maritime contamination will spread even more."
In early April the utility dumped about 10,000 tonnes of water with low-level radioactivity into the ocean, prompting criticism from neighbors China and South Korea.
Tepco, criticized for its poor communication about radiation doses sustained by workers, also confirmed that two workers suspected of having exceeded the government's radiation exposure limit of 250 millisieverts had indeed surpassed that figure. [ID:nL3E7GU0BQ]
The unidentified workers were exposed to up to 580 millisieverts during cleanup efforts at the plant, Tepco official Junichi Matsumoto told a news conference. Exposure to 250 millisieverts is equivalent to more than 400 stomach X-rays.
Health checks of the two have not shown any abnormalities, but experts say higher levels of exposure correspond to higher cancer risks. Officials said it was possible that other workers had also exceeded the legal limit.
"We did not have a system in place to manage radiation risks as part of the early response," said Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
The earthquake and tsunami left 24,000 dead or missing and triggered the radiation crisis at Fukushima, resulting in some 80,000 residents around the plant being evacuated.
Kan, criticized for his handling of the disaster and already unpopular before the earthquake struck, survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday with an offer to resign after the worst of the nuclear crisis is past and the devastated northeast coastal region begins to recover.
But the fractious ruling party resumed its bickering on Friday after Kan hinted he wanted to keep his job into the new year, with hopes that a stable shutdown of the damaged reactors can be achieved by then.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Michael Watson)