Wednesday, March 30, 2011

High radiation levels found in seawater near Fukushima plant

Tokyo (CNN) -- Radioactive iodine at more than 3,000 times the normal level has been found in ocean water near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where workers are struggling to keep reactors cool and prevent radioactive water from entering the Pacific.

Monitoring data collected Tuesday afternoon detected the I-131 isotope at 3,355 times the normal level, according to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. The sample was taken 330 meters (1,080 feet) away from one of the plant's discharge points, the agency said.

"I do not believe there's an immediate threat to fishery products, as no fishing is being conducted within 20 kilometers of the nuclear power plant," said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the agency.

Officials did not pinpoint a particular cause for the higher readings, and it was unclear whether a leak had already occurred or if the elevated levels resulted from airborne radiation. Readings from seawater outside the plant have fluctuated. They spiked Sunday, then dropped a day later. The impact on marine life is unknown.

Water has been a key weapon in the battle to stave off a meltdown at the facility. Workers have pumped and sprayed tons of water to keep the plant's radioactive fuel from overheating, and the plant is running out of room to store the now-contaminated liquid.

"They have a problem where the more they try to cool it down, the greater the radiation hazard as that water leaks out from the plant," said Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A French nuclear group, Areva, is providing five experts -- one of whom is an expert in treating contaminated water -- to Japan to assist, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. said. Two French engineers were already on site and three more were on the way.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric said Wednesday its president had been hospitalized due to "fatigue and stress."

Masataka Shimizu was hospitalized Tuesday and was expected to remain in treatment for several days, company Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata told reporters.

Shimizu was last spotted in public at a news conference March 13, two days after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the plant.

The company chairman said Wednesday that he would temporarily take over crisis management at the plant while Shimizu was away. He also apologized for the damage caused by the situation at the six-reactor facility in northeastern Japan, and said Tokyo Electric was doing its best to contain it.

The company's stock has plunged as it comes under fire for its handling of the crisis, which has taken a significant toll beyond the plant complex.

That was one issue that drew about 80 demonstrators Wednesday to Tokyo Electric's headquarters. The protesters were also against the use of nuclear power.

Authorities have banned the sale and transport of some vegetables grown in the area after tests detected radiation. Signs of contaminated tap water prompted officials to tell residents in some areas to stop giving it to infants. And the government has advised residents within a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius of the plant to evacuate.

Meanwhile, new concerns surfaced Wednesday after smoke was spotted at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, Tokyo Electric said. The company owns both plants.

Smoke was detected in the turbine building of reactor No. 1 at Daini about 6 p.m. (5 a.m. ET), but could not be seen an hour later, the company said. After the earthquake and tsunami, Japanese authorities also found cooling-system problems at Daini, and those living with a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius were ordered to evacuate as a precaution. But since then, officials have not expressed any concerns about a possible meltdown there.

The growing damages could have a steep price for Tokyo Electric as farmers and others impacted by the disaster ask for compensation.

Reporters peppered company officials with questions about the president's whereabouts Sunday. A spokesman told them Shimizu had been staying inside the company's Tokyo headquarters, and that the president's physical condition had been in decline from overwork.

Amid news of Shimizu's hospitalization, Katsumata said the company was improving conditions for workers at the plant and had created a resting place for hundreds of employees in a gym at the Daini plant, about 10 kilometers away.

An inspector for Japan's nuclear safety agency described austere conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant Tuesday.

Workers were sleeping in conference rooms, corridors, and stairwells on leaded mats intended to keep radiation at bay, safety inspector Kazuma Yokota said Tuesday.

He said they were also eating only two meals each day -- including a carefully rationed breakfast of 30 crackers and vegetable juice -- while facing risks of high radiation and intense personal pressure.

"My parents were washed away by the tsunami, and I still don't know where they are," one worker wrote in an e-mail that was verified as authentic by a spokesman for Tokyo Electric.

"Crying is useless," said another e-mail. "If we're in hell now, all we can do is crawl up towards heaven."

In a statement released March 18, Shimizu said the company was taking the situation seriously.

"We sincerely apologize to all the people living in the surrounding area of the power station and people in Fukushima Prefecture, as well as to the people of society for causing such great concern and nuisance," he said.

Fresh concerns emerged Wednesday about whether the government was doing enough to enforce an evacuation area around the plant -- and whether that area should expand.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the federal government was weighing a proposal from officials in Fukushima Prefecture, who asked authorities to tighten their restrictions in the evacuation zone.

Proposed rules would stop residents from returning to their homes and force any who remain to leave. So far, residents have been advised -- but not forced -- to evacuate.

Meanwhile, the Greenpeace environmental advocacy organization said the government's evacuation zone was not large enough, claiming it had detected high radiation in Iatate, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the plant. Levels detected "would give someone living there ... the maximum annual dose in about 100 hours," if they're outside, according to Greenpeace.

"We see no contradiction between our data and the official data from the local government, however we see a contradiction between those figures and the lack of action by authorities to protect the people," said Jan Van de Putte, a radiation safety specialist for Greenpeace.

Kobayashi Takashi, Iatate's manager for general affairs, said radiation levels of soil and water there were decreasing. Residents temporarily evacuated, but later returned to take care of livestock, he said.
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