Setbacks mount in Japan at leaking nuclear plant

Setbacks mounted on Wednesday in the crisis over Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear facility, with nearby seawater testing at its highest radiation levels yet and the president of the plant operator checking into a hospital with hypertension.

Nearly three weeks after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami slammed and engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, knocking out cooling systems that keep nuclear fuel rods from overheating, Tokyo Electric Power Co. is still struggling to bring the facility in northeastern Japan under control.



The country's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko reached out to some of the thousands displaced by the twin disasters — which have killed more than 11,000 people — spending about an hour consoling a group of evacuees at a Tokyo center.



"I couldn't talk with them very well because I was nervous, but I felt that they were really concerned about us," said Kenji Ukito, an evacuee from a region near the plant. "I was very grateful."



At the crippled plant, leaking radiation has seeped into the soil and seawater nearby and made its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far as Tokyo, 140 miles (220 kilometers) to the south.



The stress of reining in Japan's worst crisis since World War II has taken its toll on TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, who went to a hospital late Tuesday.



Shimizu, 66, has not been seen in public since a March 13 news conference in Tokyo, raising speculation that he had suffered a breakdown. For days, officials deflected questions about Shimizu's whereabouts, saying he was "resting" at company headquarters.



Spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said Wednesday that Shimizu had been admitted to a Tokyo hospital after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure.



The leadership vacuum at TEPCO — whose shares have plunged nearly 80 percent since the crisis began — comes amid growing criticism over its failure to halt the radiation leaks. Bowing deeply, arms at his side, Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata announced at a news conference that he would step in and apologized for the delay.



"We must do everything we can to end this situation as soon as possible for the sake of everyone who has been affected," said Yuhei Sato, governor of Fukushima prefecture. "I am extremely disappointed and saddened by the suggestion that this might drag out longer."



Although experts have said since the early days of the crisis that the nuclear complex will need to be scrapped because workers have sprayed it with corrosive seawater to keep fuel rods cool, TEPCO acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that at least four of the plant's six reactors will have to be decommissioned.



"After pouring seawater on them ... I believe we cannot use them anymore," Katsumata said. Japan's government has been saying since March 20 that the entire plant must be scrapped.



On Wednesday, nuclear safety officials said seawater 300 yards (meters) outside the plant contained 3,355 times the legal limit for the amount of radioactive iodine — the highest rate yet and a sign that more contaminated water was making its way into the ocean.



The amount of iodine-131 found south of the plant does not pose an immediate threat to human health but was a "concern," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official. He said there was no fishing in the area.



Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of just eight days, and in any case was expected to dissipate quickly in the ocean. It does not tend to accumulate in shellfish.



"We will nail down the cause, and will do our utmost to prevent it from rising further," he said.



Highly toxic plutonium also has been detected in the soil outside the plant, TEPCO said. Safety officials said the amounts did not pose a risk to humans, but the finding supports suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods. There have been no reports of plutonium being found in seawater.



The latest findings on radioactive iodine highlighted the urgent need to power up the power plant's cooling system. Workers succeeded last week in reconnecting some parts of the plant to the power grid.



But as they pumped in water to cool the reactors and nuclear fuel, they found pools of radioactive water in the basements of several buildings and in trenches outside.



The contaminated water has been emitting many times the amount of radiation that the government considers safe for workers, making it a priority to pump the water out before electricity can be restored.



Complicating matters, the tanks storing the contaminated water are beginning to fill up. Pumping at one unit has been suspended since Tuesday night while workers scramble to drain a new tank after the first one reached capacity. And the water just kept coming Wednesday, when a new pool was found.



In another effort to reduce the spread of radioactive particles, TEPCO plans to spray resin on the ground around the plant. The company will test the method Thursday in one section of the plant before using it elsewhere, Nishiyama said.



"The idea is to glue them to the ground," he said. But it would be too sticky to use inside buildings or on sensitive equipment.



The government also is considering covering some reactors with cloth tenting, TEPCO said. If successful, that could allow workers to spend longer periods of time in other areas of the plant.



Meanwhile, white smoke was reported coming from a plant about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the troubled one. The smoke quickly dissipated and no radiation was released; officials were looking into its cause. The Fukushima Daini plant also suffered some damage in the tsunami but has been in cold shutdown since days after the quake.



The spread of radiation has raised concerns about the safety of Japan's seafood, even though experts say the low levels suggest radiation won't accumulate in fish at unsafe levels. Trace amounts of radioactive cesium-137 have been found in anchovies as far afield as Chiba, near Tokyo, but at less than 1 percent of acceptable levels.



Experts say the Pacific is so vast that any radiation will be quickly diluted before it becomes problematic. Citing dilution, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has played down the risks of seafood contamination.



As officials seek to bring an end to the nuclear crisis, hundreds of thousands in the northeast are trying to put their lives back together. The official death toll stood at 11,257 on Wednesday, with the final toll likely surpassing 18,000.



The government said damage is expected to cost $310 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.



In the town of Rikuzentakata, one 24-year-old said she's been searching every day for a missing friend but will have to return to her job at a nursing home because she has run out of cash.



Life is far from back to normal, she said.



"Our family posted a sign in our house: Stay positive," Eri Ishikawa said. But she said it's a struggle.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker