Workers at stricken Japan nuclear plant make little progress

Workers are a step closer to emptying highly radioactive water from reactor.

Updated: Apr 13, 2011, 14:10 PM IST

Tokyo: Workers on Wednesday were a step closer to emptying highly radioactive water from a crippled reactor, which would allow them to start repairing the cooling system crucial to bringing one of the world`s worst nuclear crises under control.

US Nuclear safety regulator Gregory Jaczko described the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant as "static" rather than stable, because of the continuing struggle to cool the reactors badly damaged by a 15-meter tsunami on March 11, which was triggered by the biggest quake in Japan`s recorded history.

New data shows much more radiation leaked from the plant in the early days of the crisis than first thought, prompting officials to rate it on a par with the world`s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, though experts were quick to point out the two crises were not comparable in terms of radiation contamination.

There have been fears of contamination in the region, but neighbouring China said the impact there had been small, noting the amount of radiation was just one percent of what it had experienced from Chernobyl.

The toll of the triple disaster is starting to rise, with the government cutting its outlook for the economy, in recession for almost 15 years, for the first time in six months and prices rising due to power disruptions.

"It will take several months to (resolve) the supply of parts, and several years for stricken areas to recover. And we really have no idea about (future developments of the) nuclear problems," Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano told a press briefing.

It is expected to take months before the damaged reactors at Fukushima are cooled down. Until the coolers are repaired, the plant`s operator has been forced to pump water over them which just creates more radioactive water.

"We are continuing to transfer water in the tunnels outside the No 2 reactor turbine building into the condenser ... We will be doing this round the clock," said an official with Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).

Samples collected on Monday from around 15 km (9 miles) off the coast of Minamisoma city, which was devastated by last month`s quake and tsunami, showed radiation in the water rose to 23 times the legal limit from 9.3 times on April 07, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA).

"At one point, we had detected high levels of radiation on the coast so I think it is drifting somewhat as one chunk of water. While we think it`s not harmful to human health, we will continue to monitor closely," he said.

Tuesday, the Science Ministry said small amounts of strontium, one of the most harmful radioactive elements, had been found in soil near Fukushima Daiichi.

The total cost of the triple disaster has been estimated at USD 300 billion, making it the world`s most costly natural disaster.

The company has begun looking into how it will store and transport the spent fuel from the reactors, though work cannot start until they are in cold shutdown, TEPCO official Mitsuo Matsumoto told reporters.

It is expected to take months before the damaged reactors will be cool enough. Some officials have speculated that the authorities may have to entomb the plant if the crisis drags on too long, the solution that was eventually used to close off Chernobyl.

Nishiyama said Tuesday`s decision to raise the severity of the incident from level 5 to 7 -- the same as the Chernobyl disaster -- was based on cumulative quantities of radiation released.

No radiation-linked deaths

No radiation-linked deaths have been reported since the earthquake struck, and only 21 plant workers have been affected by minor radiation sickness, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

He said he realised the upgrading of the severity classification would worry people, although the top US nuclear regulator backed the move.

"The efforts continue to ... transition from static to stable to ensure long-term ultimate ability to cool the reactors and to provide cooling to the spent fuel pools," Jaczko told a Senate committee hearing in Washington.

Still, the increase in the severity level heightens the risk of diplomatic tension with Japan`s neighbours over radioactive fallout. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Kan on Tuesday he was "concerned" about the release of radiation into the ocean.

China has so far been sympathetic rather than angry, though it and South Korea have criticised TEPCO`s decision to pump radioactive water into the sea, a process it has now stopped.

"Its impact on our country`s environment has been small, equivalent to about one percent of the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on our country," China`s nuclear safety body said on Wednesday.

"There is no need to adopt protective measures."

Bureau Report