'Suicide squads' paid huge sums amid fresh fears for nuclear site

The radioactive core in one reactor at Fukushima's beleaguered nuclear power plant appeared to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel, an expert warned yesterday, sparking fears that workers would not be able to save the reactor and that radioactive gases could soon be released into the atmosphere.

Richard Lahey, who was a head of reactor safety research at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, said the workers, who have been pumping water into the three reactors in an attempt to keep the fuel rods from melting, had effectively lost their battle. "The core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell," he said.

The damning analysis came as it emerged that workers at Japan's stricken nuclear plant are reportedly being offered huge sums to brave high radiation in an attempt to bring its overheated reactors under control. The plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is hoping to stop a spreading contamination crisis which could see another 130,000 people forced to leave their homes.

Radiation has already found its way into milk, vegetables and tap-water and is leaking into the sea around the complex. Government tests found yesterday that small quantities of plutonium, one of the world's most dangerous elements, have seeped into soil outside the plant.

State broadcaster NHK said underground tunnels linked to reactors 1, 2 and 3 are flooded with water containing radiation measured in some spots at a highly dangerous 1,000 millisieverts an hour. Workers in protective gear are shoring up the tunnel shafts with sandbags to stop the water – which reportedly contains concentrations of long-lived caesium-137 – from seeping into the sea about 55 to 70 metres away.

Japan's Nuclear Safety Agency said that the plutonium was "not at levels harmful to human health", but the government's top spokesman Yukio Edano called the situation "very grave", and confirmed fears that at least one reactor had suffered a partial meltdown.

The admission added to pressure on Prime Minister Naoto Kan to widen an exclusion zone around the plant, possibly forcing another 130,000 people to evacuate. Yesterday, a tired-looking Mr Kan faced withering criticism from opposition MPs, who called him "irresponsible" and "incompetent".

Engineers at the Fukushima Daiichi complex struggling to restart cooling systems for reactors are being hampered by the radiation and lack of electricity, forcing them to work in the dark and regularly withdraw.

Subcontractors to several companies connected to the plant have reportedly been offered 80,000 to 100,000 yen a day (£608 to £760) to join the operation, according to one former plant worker. The team of men inside the complex have been dubbed "samurai" and "suicide squads" in the popular press.

The company chief who disappeared from view

It has been a bad fortnight for Masataka Shimizu. Tepco's beleaguered president has watched the value of the utility giant plummet by $29 billion since 11 March after investors wiped over 70 per cent off its stock.

Its share price of 696 yen is the lowest it has been since 1977 as it battles to stop nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. The company's problems have just turned existential now that the government has begun openly discussing nationalisation.

Mr Shimizu, 67, has been largely absent from public view since the crisis detonated, appearing briefly on 13 March to issue a boilerplate apology for "causing trouble", then disappearing totally on 16 March, reportedly suffering from overwork.

Rumours in the Japanese press suggest he has suffered a breakdown or even left the country. The Washington Post noted this week that he has been missing crucial appointments with leading politicians. Other reports say he has holed up in his office and refused to join a joint government-Tepco crisis management team.

According to the Asahi newspaper, prime minister Naoto Kan told Mr Shimizu in his office on 15 March that it was "ridiculous" for him to have left his post. In another now famous outburst, a frustrated Mr Kan shouted at Tepco executives demanding to know "what the hell is going on".

Most observers believe it is only a matter of time before Mr Shimizu steps down, leaving the company he took over two years ago a smouldering ruin.

David McNeill

Hamish McRae: The Fukushima effect

Viewspaper, page 4

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there