JAPAN NUCLEAR OPERATOR SAYS MAY HAVE SLOWED RADIOACTIVE LEAK
By Chizu Nomiyama and Shinichi Saoshiro
** TEPCO says observes decrease in flow of contaminated water -- Govt eyes standards for seafood from reactor region -- India imposes blanket ban on food imports from Japan -- Japan regulator says observes U.N. treaty on water release **
April 5, 2011
TOKYO -- The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant said it had reduced the flow of highly radioactive water out of a reactor, a possible sign of progress in an almost month-long battle to contain the world's biggest nuclear disaster in quarter of a century.
Samples of the water used to cool the damaged reactor No. 2 were 5 million times the legal limit of radioactivity, adding to fears that contaminants had spread far beyond the disaster zone.
The government said it was considering imposing radioactivity restrictions on seafood for the first time in the crisis after contaminated fish were found. India also became the first country to ban food imports from all areas of Japan over radiation fears.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said late on Tuesday that it had slowed the radioactive water flow from reactor No. 2 at its Fukushima Daiichi plant. Earlier, desperate engineers had used little more than home remedies, including a mixture of sawdust, newspaper, and concrete, to stem the flow of contaminated water.
"We can't actually measure the amount but we have visually confirmed that the amount of water flowing out is decreasing, so we have reason to think our measures are working to a certain extent, a TEPCO official told reporters.
Workers are still struggling to restart cooling pumps -- which recycle the water -- in four reactors damaged by last month's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.
Until those are fixed, they must pump in water from outside to prevent overheating and meltdowns. In the process, that creates more contaminated water that has to be pumped out and stored somewhere else or released into the sea.
TEPCO has offered "condolence money" to those affected in the Fukushima region where the plant is based. But one city rejected the money and local mayors who came to Tokyo to meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan demanded far more help.
"We have borne the risks, co-existed, and flourished with TEPCO for more than 40 years, and all these years, we have fully trusted the myth that nuclear plants are absolutely safe," said Katsuya Endo, the mayor of Tomioka town.
He was one of eight Fukushima prefecture mayors who went to Kan to demand compensation and support for employment, housing, and education for the tens of thousands of crisis evacuees.
JAPAN SETS NEW RADIATION SAFETY LEVEL FOR SEAFOOD
By Yuri Kageyama
April 5, 2011
TOKYO -- The government set its first radiation safety standards for fish Tuesday after Japan's tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant reported radioactive contamination in nearby seawater measuring at several million times the legal limit.
The plant operator insisted that the radiation will rapidly disperse and that it poses no immediate danger, but an expert said exposure to the highly concentrated levels near the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant could cause immediate injury and that the leaks could result in residual contamination of the sea in the area.
The new levels coupled with reports that radiation was building up in fish led the government to create an acceptable radiation standard for fish for the first time, and officials said it could change depending on circumstances. Some fish caught Friday off Japan's coastal waters would have exceeded the new limit.
"Even if the government says the fish is safe, people won't want to buy seafood from Fukushima," said Ichiro Yamagata, a fisherman who used to live within sight of the nuclear plant and has since fled to a shelter in Tokyo.
"We probably can't fish there for several years," he said.
India announced Tuesday that it is halting food imports from Japan. Few countries have gone so far, but India's three-month ban reflected the unease the nuclear crisis generates -- both in consumers confused about radiation and among Japan's fishermen fearing collapse of their business.
The coastal areas hit by the March 11 tsunami make up about a fifth of Japan's huge industry, but radiation fears could taint all of the country's catch through guilt by association. Japan imports far more than it exports, but it still sent the world $2.3 billion worth of seafood last year. And in the home of sushi, the worries over contamination could deal a blow to its brand.
Radiation has been leaking into Pacific near the plant on the northeastern Japanese coast 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. They said Tuesday that they had finally found the source of the leak and were injecting coagulant that seemed to be slowing it.
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 the lowest level in its 60-year history -- said Tuesday it would give affected towns 20 million yen ($240,000) each. That would be on top of any legally required compensation.
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.
The company said in a statement that even those large amounts would have "no immediate impact" on the environment but added that it was working to stop the leak as soon as possible.
The readings released Tuesday 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 more than four times that last week.
Experts agree that radiation dissipates quickly in the vast Pacific, but direct exposure to the most contaminated water measured would lead to "immediate injury," said Yoichi Enokida, a professor of materials science at Nagoya University's graduate school of engineering.
He added that seawater may be diluting the iodine, which decays quickly, but the leak also contains long-lasting cesium-137, which can build up in fish over time. Both can build up in fish, though iodine's short half-life means it does not stay there for very long. The long-term effects of cesium, however, will need to be studied, he said.
"It is extremely important to implement a plan to reduce the outflow of contaminated water as soon as possible," he said.
Fukushima is not a major fishing region and no fishing is allowed in the immediate vicinity of the plant, but fishermen in the prefecture fret that demand will collapse for catches elsewhere -- whether or not they are contaminated.
"Our prefecture's fisherman have lost their lives, fishing boats, piers, and buildings" in the earthquake and tsunami and now must suffer the added effects of radioactive runoff from the plant, local fishermen's federation head Tetsu Nozaki said in a letter faxed to the company.
Some government assurances of safety have done little to quell panic. In Tokyo, for instance, there were runs on bottled water after officials said radiation in tap water there was above the level considered safe for infants, though insisted it was still OK for adults.
On Tuesday, officials decided to apply the maximum allowable radiation limit for vegetables to fish, according to Edano.
"We will conduct strict monitoring and move forward after we understand the complete situation," he said.
The move came after the health ministry reported that fish caught off Ibaraki prefecture -- at a spot about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the plant -- contained levels of radioactive iodine that would have exceeded the new provisional limit. Cesium also was found, at just below the limit. The fish were caught Friday, before the new provisional safety limits were announced.
Such limits are usually very conservative. After spinach and milk tested at levels far exceeding the safety standard, health experts said you would have to eat enormous quantities of tainted produce or dairy before getting even the amount of radiation contained in a CT scan.
India's Health Ministry said Tuesday it had banned food imports from Japan for fear of radiation contamination. A ministry state said the ban took effect Tuesday and will last three months or until credible information shows the hazard has subsided. The situation will be reviewed weekly.
Radioactivity is pouring into the ocean near Fukushima, 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.
The government on Monday gave the go-ahead to pump more than 3 million gallons of less-contaminated water into the sea -- in addition to what is leaking -- to make room at a plant storage facility to contain more highly radioactive water.
TEPCO's reputation has taken a serious hit in the crisis. 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.
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.
--Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster, Ryan Nakashima and Noriko Kitano in Tokyo contributed to this report.
JAPAN SETS RADIATION STANDARDS FOR FISH
By Andrew Pollack, Ken Belson, and Kevin Drew
New York Times
April 5, 2011
TOKYO -- Japan’s government announced on Tuesday its first radiation safety standards for fish, hours after the operator of a crippled nuclear power plant said that seawater collected near the facility contained radiation several million times the legal limit.
The new standards were announced after a sample of kounago fish, or sand lance, that was caught last Friday off the coast halfway between the plant and Tokyo was found to have high levels of radioactive iodine 131.
The small fish had 4,080 becquerels of iodine 131 per kilogram (2.2 pounds). The new standard allows up to 2,000 becquerels of iodine 131 per kilogram, the same standard used for vegetables in Japan.
The fish also contained cesium 137 — which decays much more slowly than iodine 131 — at a level of 526 becquerels per kilogram.
“Clearly the fish are consuming highly radioactive food,” Paul Falkowski, professor of marine, earth and planetary Sciences at Rutgers University, said. But he emphasized that even those levels were not likely to present health hazards in Japan or farther away, since fishing is restricted in Japan and these levels of radiation are not likely to travel far.
Nicholas Fisher, a professor of marine sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that according to some radiation safety guidelines people could eat 35 pounds of fish per year containing the level of cesium 137 detected in the Japanese fish.
“So you’re not going to die from eating it right away, but we’re getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it,” he said, noting that Japanese consume far more seafood than Americans.
Still, experts on radiation in seafood said it was nearly impossible to get a full sense of the scope of the environmental and health risks until the Japanese released information on radiation levels in more species of fish and seaweed and in a greater number of locations.
Measurements in the seawater are often not a good indication of how much radiation may be entering the food chain, scientists say.
Fish and seaweed both have the capacity to concentrate radioactive elements as they grow, leading to levels that are higher -- sometimes far higher -- than in the surrounding water. Seaweed can concentrate iodine 131 10,000-fold over the surrounding water; fish concentrate cesium 137 modestly.
The announced standards for fish came hours after the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, said it had found iodine 131 in seawater samples at 200,000 becquerels per cubic centimeter, or five million times the legal limit. The samples were collected Monday near the water intake of the No. 2 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
The samples also showed levels of cesium 137 to be 1.1 million times the legal limit, according to the public broadcaster NHK. Cesium remains in the environment for centuries, losing half its strength every 30 years.
The Monday sampling of seawater was collected before Tokyo Electric began dumping more than 11,000 tons of low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. It showed a drop of radioactive iodine levels since Saturday, when the company said the level of iodine 131 was 300,000 becquerels per cubic centimeter.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the March 11 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami rose to 12,341 on Tuesday, the country’s National Police Agency said. More than 15,000 people remain missing, and more than 160,000 are staying in temporary shelters across the country, the agency said.
The crisis at the power station, now in its fourth week, has shaken public confidence in Tokyo Electric Power. Its share prices plunged to an all-time low on Tuesday over concern by investors about the financial burden of the work being carried out at Daiichi.
A government panel on Tuesday suspended work revising the country’s policy platform on nuclear power, according to local news media reports, saying the crisis needed to be resolved before Japan could publicly assess its nuclear power policies.
“We have to admit that there has been an error in the criteria of judgment in promoting the country’s nuclear power policy,” Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, said in a report by the Kyodo news agency.
Most of the low-level radioactive water being dumped from the Daiichi plant is to be released by Tuesday evening, mainly to make room in storage containers for increasing amounts of far more contaminated runoff, including highly radioactive water that has flooded the turbine building of Reactor No. 2. The water being released contains about 100 times the legal limit of radiation, Tokyo Electric said. The more contaminated water has about 10,000 times the legal limit.
The effort would help workers clearing radioactive water from the turbine buildings at other damaged reactors as well, making it less dangerous to reach some of the most crucial controls for their cooling systems, which were knocked out by the quake and tsunami. The hope is that the cooling systems can be revived and bring the plant back under control.
The pumping effort is not expected to halt a leak from a large crack in a six-foot-deep concrete pit next to the seawater intake pipes near the No. 2 reactor. The leak has been spewing an estimated seven tons of highly radioactive water an hour directly into the ocean.
Government officials said Tuesday that they were able to slow, but not stop, the leak by using sodium silicate, sometimes called water glass, which acts like a cement. The country’s trade and industry minister, Banri Kaieda, said on Tuesday that 60,000 tons of radioactive water was thought to be flooding the basements of the plant’s reactor buildings and underground tunnels, according to a report by the Kyodo news agency.
Tokyo Electric is rushing tanks to the plant, though they may not arrive until mid-April, a company spokesman said. The company also plans to moor a giant barge off the coast to store contaminated water, though getting the barge in place will take at least a week, he said.
Japan has asked Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, to send a radioactive waste-disposal facility to help get rid of the contaminated water. A Rosatom spokesman, Sergei Novikov, said talks were being held to send the floating facility to Japan, according to RIA Novosti news service.
--Andrew Pollack and Ken Belson reported from Tokyo, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong. Reporting was contributed by Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Ijichi, Yasuko Kamiizumi and Moshe Komata in Tokyo, and by Elisabeth Rosenthal in New York.
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