Friday, April 1, 2011

Japan nuke plant leaks radiation into groundwater

Members of Japan Self-Defense Force search missing people along a
devastated coastal area in Ishinomaki, northeastern Japan, Friday,
April 1, 2011. The March 11 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast
triggered a tsunami that barreled onshore and disabled the Fukushima
Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT,

Radiation exceeding government safety limits has seeped into
groundwater under a tsunami-crippled Japanese nuclear plant, according
to the operator, but experts said Friday that it was unlikely to
contaminate drinking supplies.

The leak is, however, a concern and an indicator of how far the Tokyo
Electric Power Co. is from stabilizing dangerously overheating
reactors after cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11

TEPCO has increasingly asked for international help in its uphill
battle, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that were to
arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.

The groundwater contamination was found in concentrations 10,000 times
higher than the government standard for the plant. The iodine-131, a
radioactive substance that decays quickly, was nearly 50 feet (15
meters) below one of the reactors, according to TEPCO spokesman
Naoyuki Matsumo.

Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku
University, said the radioactive substances were unlikely to affect
drinking water, noting that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in
the ground, as it does in the ocean.

But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking
water if concentrations were high enough. One is if it were to seep
into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius
around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are
growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been
sneaking back to check on their homes.

The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep
into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for
drinking water. Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of
Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that was
"extremely unlikely" since groundwater would flow toward the ocean,
and the plant is right on the coast.

There are two nearby filtration plants for drinking water, and both
have been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.
One takes water from the Kido River, to the south, and another takes
it from groundwater below Odaka, to the north. Both are several miles
(kilometers) from the coast, and therefore on higher ground.

"When people return to the area we will test the water to make sure it
is safe," said Masato Ishikawa, an official with the Fukushima
prefecture's food and sanitation division.

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already
struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami
pulverized hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the northeastern coast.
Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries
in the world, 260,000 households still do no have running water and
170,000 do not have electricity.

In the latest report of food becoming tainted, the government said
Friday that a cow slaughtered for beef had slightly elevated levels of
cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat
was never put on the market.
Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are
thought to be a risk for various cancers. It is still found in wild
boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making
the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.
Contamination has also affected work at the plant itself, where
radioactive water has been pooling, often thwarting the vital work of
powering up the complex's cooling systems.

Despite the leaks, TEPCO hasn't had enough dosimeters to provide one
for each employee since many were destroyed in the earthquake. Under
normal circumstances, the gauges, which measure radiation, would be
worn at all times.
Officials said Friday that more meters had arrived and there are now
enough for everyone.

"We must ensure safety and health of the workers, but we also face a
pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," said
nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. Until now, sharing
meters "has been an unavoidable choice."

TEPCO has repeatedly relaxed safety standards during the crisis in
order to prevent frequent violations. That is not uncommon during
Though the company has acknowledged that it was initially slow to ask
for help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, experts from around the
world are now flooding in. French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied
fuel to the plant, is helping figure out how to dispose of
contaminated water, and American nuclear experts are joining Japanese
on a panel to address the disaster.

Japan has also ordered two giant pumps, typically used for spraying
concrete, from the U.S. They are being retrofitted to spray water
first, according to Kelly Blickle, a spokeswoman at Putzmeister
America Inc. in Wisconsin. At least one similar pump is already in
operation at the plant.

U.S. troops also are involved in the search for the dead. Japan's
defense ministry said that, starting Friday, the two militaries will
create joint teams to look for bodies from the air. So far 11,500
people have been confirmed dead. Another 16,400 are missing, and many
may never be found.

Hundreds of thousands more people are living in evacuation centers,
most because they lost their homes in the tsunami. But others have
been forced to leave their houses near the plant because of radiation

Some residents are growing angry and frustrated with the government
and are increasingly violating the bans to return to their homes to
gather whatever they can find.

Fukushima officials have put up posters in all evacuation centers
urging residents not to violate the cordon, but also are pressing
Tokyo to arrange trips in for the residents as soon as possible.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it is dangerous in there," said
Kazuko Hirohara, a 52-year-old nurse from Minami Soma. "I just wish
they would have thought about safety before they ruined our lives."

Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Fukushima, Mari Yamaguchi
and Mayumi Saito in Tokyo, and Jeff Martin in Atlanta, Georgia,
contributed to this report.

Associated Press

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