Nuclear Plant's Fuel Rods Damaged, Leaking Into Sea
By Tsuyoshi Inajima and Yuji Okada - Mar 21, 2011 9:34 PM ET
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said fuel rods at its Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant have been damaged, releasing five kinds of radioactive material and contaminating seawater nearby.
The acknowledgements from the utility indicate poisons emanating from the plant may be spreading through the air and sea, raising concern over the safety of seafood from the coast of northeastern Japan and agriculture in the region.
The decay of radioactive fuel rods, composed of uranium and plutonium, was suspected by company officials five days after the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami off the main island of Honshu.
The disclosures on the spread of radiation were made in a press briefing after midnight Tokyo time and in a press release this morning.
Iodine-131 was detected at 127 times normal levels from sample water taken at 2:30 p.m. yesterday, while cesium-134 levels were 25 times normal and cesium-137 was at 17 times normal, Tepco said on its website.
As the battle to prevent a meltdown entered its 12th day, white smoke or steam could be seen wafting above the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors.
Tokyo Electric evacuated engineers and halted work after smoke was seen billowing from the No. 3 unit, Hitoshi Emukai, a spokesman at the utility, said yesterday. White smoke seen later at the No. 2 reactor is likely steam, said Naoki Tsunoda, another spokesman.
Seventy percent of the fuel at the No. 1 reactor may be damaged, as well as 33 percent of that of the No. 2 unit, Tepco said on March 16.
“While we haven’t reached the point where we can say we’ve gotten out of this crisis situation, it can be said that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a meeting of his crisis response team in Tokyo yesterday.
The death toll from the nation’s worst postwar disaster rose to 8,928 as of 9 a.m. local time, with 12,664 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the country’s northern coastline and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.
The Japanese government is risking a food scare by failing to clarify where produce is contaminated and stopping some shipments, said Toshihiko Baba, a spokesman for the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives in Japan, which represents more than 4.8 million farmers. Radiation levels found in food so far aren’t harmful, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the nation will limit distribution of spinach and milk after samples from the area near the plant 135 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo were found to have higher-than-normal radiation levels. Spinach sampled at Hitachi, 97 kilometers south of the plant, contained 27 times the government limits for Iodine-131, according to the health ministry. That spinach won’t enter the food chain.
“Food-borne radiation will last longer than airborne radiation,” Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, said in an interview. “Even smaller amounts of radiation in food could potentially be more dangerous because you ingest it.”
Japan’s limits are based on assumptions about how much contaminated food a person may eat, Edwin Lyman, a specialist on nuclear materials for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said in a press call.
“It will be a dilemma for a lot of consumers in Japan,” Lyman said. “People are going to have to understand the basis for those limits.”
Japanese officials will have to perform triage on farmland -- closing some areas entirely, monitoring some for radiation and labeling some as safe, said Kenneth Bergeron, a former nuclear scientist at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Japan is going to have to put in place a very extensive monitoring system to make sure that every batch of produce that might come out of this area is monitored,” Bergeron said.
Asian countries are screening Japanese imports, and Taiwan yesterday detected radiation on vegetables that was within acceptable limits. Stores and restaurants across Asia dropped Japanese food from shelves and menus.
Radiation containment domes at the reactors are intact and the situation at the plant “is on the verge of stabilizing,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Bill Borchardt said.
“The fact that offsite power is close to being available for use at plant equipment is perhaps the first optimistic sign that things could be turning around,” Borchardt, executive director for operations, said at a meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.