Japan's efforts to ease nuke crisis hit setback

March 20, 2011 6:01:31 AM PDT
An unexpected rise in pressure inside a troubled reactor set back efforts to bring Japan's overheating, leaking nuclear complex under control Sunday as concerns grew that as-yet minor contamination of food and water is spreading. The pressure increase meant plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive gas, prolonging a nuclear crisis that has consumed government attention even as it responded to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that savaged northeast Japan on March 11.

A teenage boy's cries for help led police to rescue an 80-year-old woman from a wrecked house in a rare rescue after so many days.

Beyond the disaster area, an already shaken public grew uneasy with official reports that traces of radiation first detected in spinach and milk from farms near the nuclear plant are turning up farther away in tap water, rain and even dust. In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate risk to health. Still, Taiwan seized a batch of fava beans from Japan found with faint -- and legal -- amounts of iodine and cesium.

"I'm worried, really worried," said Mayumi Mizutani, a 58-year-old Tokyo resident shopping for bottled water at a supermarket to give her visiting 2-year-old grandchild. "We're afraid because it's possible our grandchild could get cancer." Forecasts for rain, she said, were an added worry.

All six of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex's reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. But officials Saturday reported headway in reconnecting two units to the electric grid and pumping seawater to cool reactors and replenish bubbling or depleted pools for spent nuclear fuel.

A buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3' reactor rose, forcing officials to consider the dangerous venting. The tactic produced explosions during the early days of the crisis.

"Even if certain things go smoothly there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. "At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."

Nuclear safety officials said one of the options could release a cloud dense with iodine as well as the radioactive elements krypton and xenon.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., temporarily suspended the plans Sunday after it said the pressure inside the reactor stopped climbing, though at a high level.

"It has stabilized," Tokyo Electric manager Hikaru Kuroda told reporters.

Kuroda, who said temperatures inside the reactor reached 572 Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius), said the option to release the highly radioactive gas inside is still under consideration if pressure rises.

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake. The quake spawned a tsunami that ravaged the northeastern coast, killing more than 8,100 people, leaving 12,000 people missing, and displacing another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by an enormous disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

Bodies are piling up in some of devastated communities and badly decomposing even amid chilly rain and snow.

"The recent bodies -- we can't show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose," says Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process bodies in Natori, on the outskirts of Sendai. "Some we're finding now have been in the water for a long time, they're not in good shape. Crabs and fish have eaten parts."

Before the disasters, safety drills were seldom if ever practiced and information about radiation exposure rarely given in Futuba, a small town in the shadow of the nuclear plant, according to 29-year-old Tsugumi Hasegawa. In the aftermath, she is living in a shelter with her 4-year-old daughter and feeling bewildered.

"I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It's all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren't playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don't know who to trust," said Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of Fukushima city, 80 miles (50 miles) away from the plant.

Another nuclear safety official acknowledged Sunday that the government only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the nuclear complex.

The pills help reduce chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure, by preventing the body from absorbing radioactive iodine. The official, Kazuma Yokota, said the explosion that occurred while venting the plant's Unit 3 reactor last Sunday should have triggered the distribution. But the order came only three days later.

"We should have made this decision and announced it sooner," Yokota told reporters at the emergency command center in the city of Fukushima. "It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared."

The higher reactor pressure may have been caused by a tactic meant to reduce temperatures -- the pumping of seawater into the vessel, said Kuroda, the Tokyo Electric manager.

Using seawater to douse Unit 3 and the plant's other reactors or storage pools -- Unit 4 was sprayed again Sunday -- was a desperate measure. Experts have said for days that the corrosive seawater was bound to damage the plant's finely milled machine parts beyond repair.

Edano, the government spokesman, recognized the inevitable Sunday: "It is obviously clear that Fukushima Dai-ichi in no way will be in a condition to be restarted."

Contamination of food and water compounds the government's difficulties, heightening the broader public's sense of dread about safety. Consumers in markets snapped up bottled water, shunned spinach from Ibaraki -- the prefecture where the tainted spinach was found -- and overall expressed concern about food safety.

Experts have said the amounts of iodine detected in milk, spinach and water pose no discernible risks to public health unless consumed in enormous quantities over a long period of time. Iodine breaks down quickly, after eight days, minimizing its harmfulness, unlike other radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137 or uranium-238, which remain in the environment for decades or longer.

Rain forecast for the Fukushima area also could further localize the contamination, bringing the radiation to the ground closer to the plant.

The governor of Fukushima, where milk contaminated with iodine was found at one farm Friday, urged dairy farmers across the prefecture to halt all sales -- just short of a ban in consensus-driven, polite Japan.

Edano, the government spokesman, tried to reassure the public for a second day running Sunday. "If you eat it once, or twice or even for several days, it's not just that it's not an immediate threat to health, it's that even in the future it is not a risk," Edano said. "Experts say there is no threat to human health."

No contamination has been reported in Japan's main food export -- seafood -- worth about $1.6 billion a year and less than 0.3 percent of its total exports.

- More coverage of the earthquake/tsunami


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