A possible breach at Japan's troubled nuclear plant has escalated the crisis anew,
two full weeks after an earthquake and tsunami first compromised the facility.
The development suggested that radioactive contamination may be worse than
first thought, with tainted groundwater the most likely consequence.
Japanese leaders defended their decision not to evacuate people from a wider
area around the plant, insisting that they are safe if they stay indoors. But
officials said that residents may want to voluntarily move to areas with better
facilities, since supplies in the tsunami-devastated region are running short. The
escalation in the nuclear plant crisis came as the death toll from the quake and
tsunami passed 10,000. Across the battered northeast coast, hundreds of
thousands of people whose homes were destroyed still have no power, no hot
meals and, in many cases, no showers for two weeks.
The uncertain nuclear situation delayed efforts to stop the overheated Fukushima
Dai-ichi nuclear plant from leaking dangerous radiation. Work was under way till
Saturday to inject fresh water into one unit, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a
spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA, amid
concerns about dumping large amounts of potentially corrosive seawater onto the
reactors. Low levels of radiation have been seeping out since the March 11 quake
and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling system, but a breach could mean a
much larger release of contaminants. The most likely consequence would be
contamination of the groundwater. "The situation today at the Fukushima Dai-ichi
power plant is still very grave and serious. We must remain vigilant," a somber
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said. "We are not in a position where we can be
optimistic.We must treat every development with the utmost care."
The possible breach in the plant's Unit 3 might be a crack or a hole in the
stainless steel chamber of the reactor core or in the spent fuel pool that's lined
with several feet of reinforced concrete. The temperature and pressure inside the
core, which holds the fuel rods, remained stable and was far lower than what
would further melt the core. Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when
two workers suffered skin burns after wading into water 10,000 times more
radioactive than levels normally found in water in or around a reactor, NISA said.
Water with equally high radiation levels was found in the Unit 1 reactor building,
Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials said.
Water was also discovered in Units 2 and 4, and the company said that it suspects
that, too, is radioactive. Officials acknowledged that the presence of water would
delay work inside the plant. Radioactivity in seawater just outside one unit tested
some 1,250 times higher than normal, probably from both airborne radiation
released from the reactors and contaminated water leaked into the sea,
But the amount posed no immediate health risk. Plant officials and government
regulators say that they don't know the source of the radioactive water
discovered at units 1 and 3 of the six-unit complex. It could have come from a
leaking reactor core, associated pipes or a spent fuel pool. Or it may be the result
of overfilling the pools with emergency cooling water.
The prime minister apologized to farmers and business owners for the toll the
radiation has had on their livelihoods: Several countries have halted some food
imports from areas near the plant after elevated levels of radiation were found in
raw milk, sea water and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and
Elevated levels of radiation have turned up elsewhere, including the tap water in
several areas of Japan. In Tokyo, tap water showed radiation levels two times
higher than the government standard for infants, who are particularly vulnerable
to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said. The scare caused a run on
bottled water in the capital, and Tokyo municipal officials are distributing it to
families with babies. The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a
nation already saddled with a humanitarian disaster.
Much of the frigid northeast remains a scene of despair and devastation, with
Japan struggling to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors,
clear away debris and bury the dead. "It's still like I'm in a dream," said Tomohiko
Abe, a 45-year-old machinist who was in the devastated coastal town of Onagawa
trying to salvage any belongings he could from his ruined car. "People say it's like
a movie, but it's been worse than any movie I've ever seen." The official death
toll stood at 10,151, with more than 17,000 listed as missing, police said. With
the cleanup and recovery operations continuing, the final number of dead was
expected to surpass 18,000. Officials have evacuated residents within 12 miles
(20 kilometers) of the plant and advised those up to 19 miles (30 kilometers)
away to stay indoors to minimize exposure.
The U.S. has recommended that people stay 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from
the plant. Government spokesman Yukio Edano insisted that people living 12 to
20 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) from the plant should still be safe from radiation as
long as they stay indoors. But since supplies are not being delivered to the area
fast enough, he said that it may be better for residents to voluntarily evacuate to
places with better facilities. "If the current situation is protracted and worsens,
then we will not deny the possibility of (mandatory) evacuation," he said.
One Fukushima government official said that some commercial trucks were
refusing to enter the area because of radiation fears, resulting in a shortage of
goods. "We are not ordering people to leave. But we have told residents that we
will help you leave voluntarily," Takeshi Ishimoto said.