Workers began pumping more than 3 million gallons of contaminated water from Japan’s tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean on Monday, freeing storage space for even more highly radioactive water that has hampered efforts to stabilize the reactors.
It will take about two days to pump most of the less-radioactive water out of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, whose cooling systems were knocked out by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
Radioactivity is quickly diluted in the ocean, and government officials said the dump should not affect the safety of seafood in the area.
Since the disaster, water with different levels of radioactivity has been pooling throughout the plant. People who live within 12 miles (20 kilometers) have been evacuated and have not been allowed to return.
The pooling water has damaged systems and the radiation hazard has prevented workers from getting close enough to power up cooling systems needed to stabilize dangerously vulnerable fuel rods.
On Saturday, they discovered that some radioactive water was pouring into the ocean.
The less-radioactive water that officials are purposely dumping into the sea is up to 500 times the legal limit for radiation.
Japan’s effort to contain the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a setback, an official said on Friday, citing evidence that the reactor vessel of the No. 3 unit may have been damaged.
The development, described at a news conference by Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, raises the possibility that radiation from the mox fuel in the reactor — a combination of uranium and plutonium — could be released.
One sign that a breach may have occurred in the reactor vessel, Mr. Nishiyama said, took place on Thursday when three workers who were trying to connect an electrical cable to a pump in a turbine building next to the reactor were injured when they stepped into water that was found to be significantly more radioactive than normal in a reactor. The No. 3 unit, the only one of the six reactors at the site that uses the mox fuel, was damaged by a hydrogen explosion on March 14. Workers have been seeking to keep it cool by spraying it with seawater along with a more recent effort to restart the reactor’s cooling system.
In another development on Friday, the Japanese government said it would help people who wish to leave the area around the crippled plant, a sign that efforts to reassure frightened residents have failed to persuade people to stay.
At a downtown grocery store, a line of anxious mothers cleaned the shelves of bottled water seven minutes after the doors opened. At an organic farm on the city’s outskirts, a group tested spinach with a hand-held radiation detector. And at the prime minister’s headquarters, the chief cabinet secretary announced that Japan is considering importing drinking water.
As emergency crews battled Thursday to contain nuclear fallout from the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant in northeast Japan, a nervous uncertainty spread as far away as Tokyo, 150 miles to the southwest, as radiation was reported in parts of the food chain and millions tried to understand the implications.
In Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Thursday that Japanese scientists have found “measurable concentrations” of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 in samples of seawater collected off the coast from the Fukushima plant.
Radiation injuries to three workers complicated the battle to control Japan’s earthquake-damaged nuclear plant while fear of contamination from the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years grew both at home and abroad.
Engineers trying to stabilize the six-reactor nuclear power station in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, have pulled out of some areas of the plant pending safety checks two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami battered the plant.
About 27,400 people are dead or missing across northeast Japan after the March 11 disasters.
Explosions in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station last week made this the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 and raised fears of a catastrophic meltdown.
While that has not happened, radiation has been leaking and four of the plant’s reactors are still volatile.
Radiation leaking from Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant has caused Tokyo’s tap water to exceed safety standards for infants to drink, officials said Wednesday, sending anxiety levels soaring over the nation’s food and water supply.
Residents cleared store shelves of bottled water after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said levels of radioactive iodine in tap water were more than twice what is considered safe for babies. Officials begged those in the city to buy only what they needed, saying hoarding could hurt the thousands of people without any water in areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"I’ve never seen anything like this," clerk Toru Kikutaka said, surveying the downtown Tokyo supermarket where the entire stock of bottled water sold out almost immediately after the news broke, despite a limit of two, two-liter bottles per customer.
The unsettling new development affecting Japan’s largest city, home to around 13 million people, added to growing fears over the nation’s food supply.
Driving rain on Monday disrupted rescue efforts in Japan and compounded the misery of disaster survivors now fearing radioactive fallout from the smouldering wreck of a nuclear plant.
The bad weather forced Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call off a helicopter flight to the battered northeast coast including a trip to a football training centre about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The centre is now a staging area for emergency personnel working to avert a disastrous radiation release from the atomic plant, whose reactors have been overheating after cooling systems were damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.
Engineers have laid an external electricity supply to reactor number two and may be able to restore power to its control room later Monday, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said.
Crucial efforts to tame Japan’s crippled nuclear plant were delayed by concerns over damaging valuable power assets and by initial passivity on the part of the government, people familiar with the situation said, offering new insight into the management of the crisis.
Meanwhile, a regulator who was inspecting the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex when the quake hit offered The Wall Street Journal one of the first eyewitness accounts of the havoc at the site, describing how the temblor took down all communications in the area, greatly complicating the response.
The plant’s operator—Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco—considered using seawater from the nearby coast to cool one of its six reactors at least as early as last Saturday morning, the day after the quake struck. But it didn’t do so until that evening, after the prime minister ordered it following an explosion at the facility. Tepco didn’t begin using seawater at other reactors until Sunday.
Japan hoped power lines restored to its stricken nuclear plant may help solve the world’s worst atomic crisis in 25 years, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami that also left more than 21,000 people dead or missing.
The Asian nation’s people are in shock at both the ongoing battle to avert deadly radiation at the six-reactor Fukushima plant and a still-rising death toll from the March 11 disaster.
The world’s third largest economy has suffered an estimated $250 billion of damage with entire towns in the northeast obliterated in Japan’s darkest moment since World War Two.
Tokyo’s markets are closed for a holiday on Monday.
Elsewhere, investors will be weighing risks to the global economy from Japan’s multiple crisis, along with conflict in Libya and other unrest in the Arab world.
Easing Japan’s gloom briefly, local TV showed one moving survival tale: an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson rescued from their damaged home after nine days.
At Fukushima, around 300 engineers were working round-the-clock inside an evacuation zone to contain the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.
They have been spraying the coastal complex with sea-water so fuel rods will not overheat and emit radiation. Hopes for a more permanent solution depend on connecting electricity cables to reactivate on-site water pumps at each of the reactors.