Highly radioactive iodine seeping from Japan’s damaged nuclear complex may be making its way into seawater farther north of the plant than previously thought, officials say, adding to radiation concerns as the crisis stretches into a third week.
Mounting problems, including badly miscalculated radiation figures and no place to store dangerously contaminated water, have stymied emergency workers struggling to cool down the overheating plant and avert a disaster with global implications.
The coastal Fukushima Daiichi power plant, 220 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, has been leaking radiation since a magnitude-9.0 quake on March 11 triggered a tsunami that engulfed the complex. The wave knocked out power to the system that cools the dangerously hot nuclear fuel rods.
On Monday, workers resumed the laborious yet urgent task of pumping out the hundreds of tons of radioactive water inside several buildings at the six-unit plant. The water must be removed and safely stored before work can continue to power up the plant’s cooling system, nuclear safety officials said. That process alone could take weeks, experts say.
The contaminated water, discovered last Thursday, has been emitting radiation that measured more than 1,000 millisieverts per hour in a recent reading at Unit 2 – some 100,000 times the normal amounts, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
Airborne levels outside the unit are more than four times the level that the government deems as safe for humans.
Crews also found traces of plutonium in the soil outside the complex on Monday. Plutonium – a key ingredient in nuclear weapons – is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for over two weeks, so experts had expected some to be found once crews began searching for evidence of it this week. As such, its presence is no threat to public health, officials insisted. Only some of the plutonium samples were from the leaking reactors, they said. The rest came from earlier nuclear tests. Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.
Highly radioactive seawater has also been detected at a turbine building and inside a deep trench outside the reactor buildings. The trench is used as a pathway to allow workers to lay out drainage pipes or electrical wires.
As officials scrambled to determine the source of the radioactive water, chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeated Monday that the contaminated water in Unit 2 appeared to be due to a temporary partial meltdown of the reactor core. He called it “very unfortunate,” but said the spike in radiation appeared limited to the unit. (CBC) “Somehow, we understand water is being moved from one place to another,” Edano said. “We need to hear an explanation from experts.” (CNN)
However, new readings show contamination in the ocean has spread about 1.6 kilometres farther north of the nuclear site than before. Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered just offshore from Unit 5 and Unit 6 at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters Monday. He had said earlier there was no link between the radioactive water leaking inside the plant and the radiation in the sea. On Monday, though, he reversed that position, saying he does suspect that radioactive water from the plant may indeed be leaking into the ocean.
“While it’s not the level harmful to human health, I am not optimistic,” Nishiyama was quoted as saying by Jiji news agency. (Reuters)
Environmental group Greenpeace said its experts had confirmed dangerous radiation of up to 10 microsieverts per hour in Litate village, 40 km northwest of the plant. It called for the extension of a 20-km evacuation zone. “It is clearly not safe for people to remain in Litate, especially children and pregnant women, when it could mean receiving the maximum allowed annual dose of radiation in only a few days,” Greenpeace said in a statement. It urged Tokyo to “stop choosing politics over science.” (Reuters)
Police stationed in the area have noticed more people returning to gather belongings and “there is a risk” of returning home now, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. Many families fled quickly after the earthquake and tsunami with only the clothes they were wearing. (Washington Post)
Closer to the plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal last week and climbed to 1,850 times normal over the weekend. Nishiyama said the increase was a concern, but also said the area is not a source of seafood and that the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health.
Confusion in the plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will last weeks, months or years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far as Tokyo.
On Sunday, TEPCO officials said radiation in leaking water in the Unit 2 reactor was 10 million times above normal – an apparent spike that sent employees fleeing the unit. The day ended with officials saying the huge figure had been miscalculated and offering apologies.
“The number is not credible,” TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita said. “We are very sorry.” (CBC)
A few hours later, TEPCO vice-president Sakae Muto said a new test had found radiation levels 100,000 times above normal – far better than the first results, though still very high. “We will work hard to raise our precision in our work so as not to repeat this again,” he said, but he ruled out having an independent monitor oversee the various checks despite the errors. (CBC)
“Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. (BBC)
Muto acknowledged it could take a long time to clean up the Fukushima complex. “We cannot say at this time how many months or years it will take,” he said. (CBC) Up to 600 people are working inside the plant in shifts. Nuclear safety officials say workers’ time inside the crippled units is closely monitored to minimize their exposure to radioactivity, but two workers were hospitalized Thursday when they suffered burns after stepping into contaminated water. They were to be released from the hospital Monday.
Cham Dallas, an expert on radiation and public health at the University of Georgia, told CNN’s “American Morning” that the level suggests operators are facing “a deteriorating situation” at the No. 2 reactor. “Fortunately, that’s in the reactor area, not outside and not in Tokyo or even in the area in Fukushima province,” Dallas said. “But in the reactor area itself – that’s concerning to me. We’re starting to see levels now that are dangerous to reactor workers if they’re in those contaminated areas.” (CNN)
The chairman of the United States Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, was in Tokyo on Monday meeting with senior Japanese government officials and representatives from Tokyo Electric. Mr. Jaczko reiterated that the commission is prepared to provide assistance but did not provide details. “the unprecedented challenge before us remains serious and our best experts remain fully engaged to help Japan address the situation,” he said in a statement. (New York Times)
Mr. Jaczko’s visit came as Japan asked the French nuclear industry for help. A spokeswoman for the French nuclear power company Areva said the firm was providing support to TEPCO. “The whole French nuclear industry has received a request for help from TEPCO,” said Fleur Floquet-Daubigeon in Paris. “We’re not sending people at this time; we are just sharing technical expertise… We’re basically in a brainstorming phase right now.” (New York Times)
The French energy minister, Eric Besson, said the call for help had also come from the Japanese government, Reuters reported. “Japan explicitly asked EDF, Avera and France’s nuclear research body (CEA) to help them,” Mr. Besson said. (New York Times)
U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called a summit, possibly in June, to coordinate the international response to mounting concern over nuclear safety in the wake of Japan’s crisis.
Meanwhile, a strong earthquake shook the region and prompted a brief tsunami alert early Monday, adding to the sense of unease across Japan. The quake off the battered Miyagi prefecture coast in the northeast measured magnitude 6.5, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.
No damage or injuries were reported, and TEPCO said the quake would not affect work to stabilize the plant. Scores of strong earthquakes have rattled Japan over the past two weeks. The death toll for the March 11 disasters officially surpassed 11,000 on Monday. More than 17,000 people are still missing and more than 190,000 people are living in temporary shelters.
The BBC’s Roland Burek in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, said prefabricated houses are being wired for electricity, but there is initially room for only 150 of the 1,000 survivors there.
In Miyagi prefecture – another of the worst-hit areas – the authorities estimate it will be three years before all of the rubble and debris has been cleared.
Some 20,000 US troops are bolstering Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, delivering aid in what is said to be the biggest bilateral humanitarian mission the US has conducted in Japan.
As well as shortages of food, water and fuel, survivors are also having to endure frequent aftershocks.
For the first time since the disaster, the government has permitted a foreign medical team to enter the country to treat victims, the Japan Times reports. The health ministry has lifted a ban on holders of foreign medical licenses from practicing in Japan, allowing a team of 53 medical aid workers from Israel, including 14 doctors and seven nurses, to work.