Japan has conceded defeat in its frantic three-week battle to save a crippled nuclear plant, with the announcement that four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex will be shut down. In a further blow, tests on seawater near the plant showed radiation levels well above the legal limit, heightening fears of widening nuclear contamination.
The plants' fate was announced on live television yesterday by Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of the operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which has been widely criticised for its handling of Japan's worst nuclear crisis.
"Honestly speaking, work to effectively stabilise the temperature of the reactors has yet to begin," said Mr Katsumata. "Looking at the situation objectively, the company will have no choice but to shut them down for good."
He said that "basic functions have been retained" at two remaining reactors and hinted that they might be saved. The was immediately squashed by top government spokesman Yukio Edano who said the complex would have to be scrapped. "It is very clear, looking at the social circumstances."
At least one of the reactors has been leaking radiation, contaminating food, milk and water and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people within a 30km (19-mile) radius of the complex. Small quantities of the radiation have been detected as far away as Glasgow. Many countries have introduced radiation checks on Japanese produce and several have banned it altogether.
The crisis has wiped more than two-thirds of the share value off Tepco, which has been forced to seek emergency loans of nearly 2 trillion yen to avoid bankruptcy and nationalisation, according to Kyodo News agency. Its Masataka Shimizu, who has largely disappeared from public view since the meltdown began after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant's cooling systems, is reportedly in hospital, suffering from hypertension and overwork.
The state broadcaster NHK said last night that engineers might cover the Fukushima reactors with giant tarpaulins to stem the flow of radiation. Some specialists have suggested that the plant could also be sealed in a "concrete coffin", as used in Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster.
The new measures have been prompted by fears that highly contaminated water in the bowels of the complex is leaking into the sea. Small quantities of plutonium have also been found in soil near the plant, probably from melted fuel rods. Japan's nuclear safety agency said that radioactive iodine 3,555 times safe limits had been detected in seawater about 300 metres from the plant. Engineers and Self-Defence Force troops have been using sandbags and concrete blocks to stop more water leaking into the ocean.
Iodine 131 is widely thought to have caused a sharp spike in thyroid cancers among children after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, probably via contaminated milk. The nuclear safety agency says that the substance deteriorates quickly and poses no long-term risks, but Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, urged the government to widen the 30km evacuation zone around the plant, saying it had detected radiation levels of up to 10 microsieverts-an-hour 40 km away. "The current evacuation zone does not match the reality of the risk," said the organisation's radiation expert Jan van de Putte in Tokyo.
NHK has reported that radioactive cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, has been found at 2,200 times normal levels in soil about 40km from the Fukushima plant, while officials from the United Nations nuclear agency said yesterday that radiation levels outside the exclusion zone were about two times higher than levels at which the agency recommends evacuation. They carried out tests at Iitate village, about 40 kilometres from the nuclear complex.
Tepco's Mr Katsumata yesterday apologised for what he called the "trouble and anxiety" his utility had caused. "It is extremely regrettable that the people in the vicinity of the plant are suffering from the consequences, both physical and psychological," he said. Some local people welcomed the news that the facility would be scrapped. "I think it would be for the best," said Hironobu Matsumoto, who lives about 25km from the plant. "It is difficult to say what affect the radiation might have on our health."
Goldman Sachs denies rumours of sacking threats
US investment bank Goldman Sachs yesterday denied unsourced stories circulating on various websites that it had told staff they would be fired if they decided to leave Tokyo on safety grounds. Several companies have faced the dilemma, however, of whether or not to withdraw staff as concerns over the Fukushima plant increase.
Private equity group Blackstone is one of the few companies to publicly comment on its advice to staff, saying that while its Tokyo office remains open, it has opened a "temporary facility off site for both employees and their families".
Several companies have stuck to their national foreign ministry advice. In France, Areva, the nuclear power group, said several days ago that the French government was advising that nationals leave the Japanese capital. It is not known how many of the group's staff have followed the advice.
Barclays is among the banks taking a sympathetic view of ex-pat employee requests to take limited time off to help their families return home, but it has set up no formal programme of assistance and expects its employees to stay at their posts.
Meanwhile, a number of Japanese companies based overseas are beginning to suffer from the crisis. Toyota and Honda, the carmakers, are facing supply problems as their domestic factories struggle to meet foreign demand.