Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TOKYO — Cool water powered by diesel generators or firetruck pumps continued to circulate around nuclear fuel rods in reactors at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Tuesday, limiting the potential for new releases of toxic particles, as workers struggled to contain the spread of radioactive

Crews piled sand bags and concrete blocks around the mouths of flooded tunnels to keep contaminated water from spilling out into the sea and slowly pumped stagnant radioactive water out of darkened turbine rooms.

At the same time, scientists — under orders from nuclear regulators — painstakingly increased their documentation of the environmental damage that explosions from the malfunctioning reactors and a probable leak from the reactor’s core have begun to inflict on the country’s food and water supply and its environment.

“Monitor,” “measure,” “follow,” “study,” have become the mantras of government officials who have only the earliest glimpses of how the disaster will evolve.

At a meeting of the Japanese parliament, Prime Minister Naoto Kan criticized plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. for failing to adequately protect the facility from disaster. The plant was flooded by a wave that easily swept over its 20-foot-high protective wall.

“It’s undeniable,” Kan said, in language unusually harsh by Japanese standards, that Tokyo Electric’s “assumptions about tsunamis were greatly mistaken.”

When asked about the whether contaminated water on the site is continuing to spread, Hidehiko Nishiyama, director general for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said at a news conference that he had no data to show that it was.

But Tokyo Electric should “strengthen surveillance and monitoring,” Nishiyama said. The same goes for tracking the extent of plutonium found in five soil samples taken on the plant, or the path of radioactive iodine that’s been traced in the ocean.

The highly contaminated water was first discovered outside the reactor in giant turbine rooms last week; three men suffered radiation burns while working in one of the rooms. And on Monday, the utility reported underground tunnels outside the building were also filled with water.

Levels of radiation in both buildings near the second reactor had radioactive levels measuring in excess of 1,000 millisieverts per hour, a potentially fatal dose greater than four times the lifetime allowance for a nuclear worker, and enough to cause serious illness.

Nuclear regulators and Tokyo Electric officials say they still do not know the precise source of the leak. They believe it is seeping from a broken pipe or a crack in a condensation chamber near the base of the reactor building, and that it has come into contact with partially melted nuclear fuel rods in the reactor’s core.

Hishiyami said that the presence of plutonium in soil at the plant, first reported late Monday in Japan, should not pose a safety risk, because its levels are consistent with those found around Japan as a result of above-ground nuclear testing. Nuclear experts and government officials have also said the plutonium could be traced to emissions from the reactors.

As officials begin to fill spreadsheets with new data points, they have tracked contamination to farms, stirring consumer fears and financial anxieties among farmers.

The government last week banned the shipment of 11 vegetables from three prefectures and recommended that people in Japan do not eat them. The blow to agricultural life is seen as contributing to the death of a 64-year-old farmer in Sukagawa City, who reportedly hanged himself last Thursday.

The farmer’s two adult children told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that their father had grown distraught over the future of his cabbage farm after the government banned the shipment of leafy vegetables in Fukushima prefecture that were found to have elevated levels of radiation.

“I think he felt like he lost everything he built, devoting his life,” the man’s 35-year-old son said, according to the newspaper.

Hiroshi Miura, 51, whose Fukushima farm was destroyed by the tsunami, said in an interview Tuesday that he did not know the farmer who took his own life, but he empathized with the man’s plight. Even if the level of radiation in the produce declines, Miura said, the government has tainted the Fukushima brand by banning their sales.

“Vegetables in Fukushima won’t be sold anymore, and I cannot foresee a bright future,” said Miura, who moved with his wife to live with his adult daughter in a Tokyo apartment.


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