Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Japan sets first radiation standard for fish

TOKYO (AP) -- For the first time, Japan is setting a standard for the amount of radiation allowed in fish.

The decision comes after radiation more than 7.5 million times the legal limit for seawater was found just off a tsunami-damaged nuclear plant.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says the government will apply the maximum allowable radiation limit for vegetables to fish.

The move came after the health ministry reported that fish caught off Ibaraki prefecture - which is about halfway between the plant and Tokyo - contained levels of radioactive iodine that exceeded the new legal limit. Cesium was also found just below the limit. The fish were caught Friday, before the safety limit was announced Tuesday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TOKYO (AP) - Radiation in seawater at the shoreline off Japan's tsunami-ravaged nuclear power plant has measured several million times the legal limit over the past few days, though officials contended Tuesday that the contamination still does not pose an immediate danger.

Radiation has been pouring in to the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake spawned a massive tsunami that inundated the complex. Over the weekend, workers there discovered a crack where highly contaminated water was spilling directly into the ocean.

The tsunami pulverized about 250 miles (400 kilometers) of the northeastern coast, flattening whole towns and cities and killing up to 25,000 people. Tens of thousands more lost their homes in the crush of water, and several thousand were forced from the area near the plant because of radiation concerns.

Many of those "radiation refugees" have grown frustrated with the mandatory 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone, and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. - whose stock value has plunged to its lowest level ever - said Tuesday it would give affected towns 20 million yen ($240,000) each.

Also Tuesday, TEPCO announced that samples taken from seawater near one of the reactors contained 7.5 million times the legal limit for radioactive iodine on April 2. Two days later, that figure dropped to 5 million.

Experts have said that radiation dissipates quickly in the vast Pacific, but they have also said that it's unclear what the long-term effects of large amounts of contamination will be. No fishing is allowed in the vicinity of the complex.

TEPCO said in a statement that even the large amounts would have "no immediate impact" on the environment but added that it is working to stop the leak as soon as possible.

The readings were taken closer to the plant than before - apparently because new measuring points were added after the crack was discovered - and did not necessarily reflect a worsening of the contamination. Other measurements several hundred yards (meters) away from the plant have declined to levels about 1,000 times the legal limit - down from 4,385 times the legal limit last week.

Radiation measurements from TEPCO were called into question last week, and the nuclear safety agency ordered the utility to reanalyze its samples. As a result, some figures were held back and several days worth of measurements were released Tuesday.

Radioactivity is pouring into the ocean, in part, because workers at the plant have been forced to use a makeshift method of bringing down temperatures and pressure by pumping water into the reactors and allowing it to gush out wherever it can. It is a messy process, but it is preventing a full meltdown of the fuel rods that would release even more radioactivity into the environment.

It also means means highly radioactive water is pooling throughout the plant, and some of it is making its way to the ocean. Workers are now desperately trying to find a place to store it because it is preventing them from restoring normal cooling systems.

Starting late Monday, they have been pumping more than 3 million gallons of less contaminated water into the sea in order to make room in a storage facility for the more highly radioactive water. That process is expected to take two days.

The building is not meant to hold water, but it's also not leaking, so engineers have decided that once it's empty, they can pump in the more-radioactive water.

Japan is seeking another method of decontamination from Russia. On Monday, a spokesman for the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, Sergei Novikov, told reporters that Japan had requested Russia send it a vessel used to dispose of liquid nuclear waste from decommissioned submarines.

Novikov said Moscow was awaiting the answers to some questions before granting the request.

There are more than 15 million gallons of contaminated water pooling around the plant, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said Tuesday. It's not clear how much storage space is left at the plant, but the latest move should make room for about 2.6 million gallons in the waste storage building.

Though TEPCO has said the decision to deliberately release some less-contaminated water is a mark of progress on solving a major problem, each day seems to bring a new setback, and the company's reputation has taken a serious hit.

On Tuesday, its stock dropped 80 yen - the maximum daily limit, or 18 percent - to just 362 yen ($4.3), falling below its previous all-time closing low of 393 yen from December 1951.

Since the quake, TEPCO's share price has nose-dived a staggering 80 percent. The Tokyo Stock Exchange said investors have dumped TEPCO shares worth 1.06 trillion yen since March 11.

The stress of announcing all the bad news also appears to be taking a toll. One official teared up and his voice began shaking as he gave details at a news conference near the plant this week.

In what could be an effort to counter the bad publicity, Takashi Fujimoto, TEPCO's vice president, said it was offering 20 million yen ($240,000) to each town or city affected by a mandatory evacuation zone. He called the cash "apology money" and noted that one town had refused it because it disagreed with the approach. He did not give further details.

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