Japanese workers stop radioactive water from entering sea
Workers scored a key victory Wednesday in their struggle to gain the upper hand in the weeks-long crisis at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power facility, though a top Japanese official cautioned that the fight was far from over.
At daybreak, authorities with the Tokyo Electric Power Company noticed that water was no longer gushing into the Pacific Ocean from the turbine building of the No. 2 reactor, one of six operated by the utility at its plant..
Radiation levels in the water tested 7.5 million times the legal limit on Saturday. On Tuesday, it was still 5 million times above the norm.
An initial attempt to pour concrete to fill up the 8-centimeter (20-inch) crack, through which this water was gushing, failed. And there were no immediate indications that the injection Sunday of a silica-based polymer dubbed “liquid glass” worked either — until Wednesday morning.
The apparent success in plugging up the cracked concrete shaft means that, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were no known major radioactive emissions into the air, water or ground.
Still, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano soon thereafter told reporters that the crisis — which has been marked by leaks, explosions and apologies since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the systems used to cool the plant’s nuclear fuel — is not over.
“Is it completely stopped? Are there any other areas where (radioactive) water is being released?” Edano said. “We cannot be optimistic, just because we were able to plug this one.”
Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official with Japan’s nuclear and industrial safety agency, said Wednesday that authorities are aware that other problems could arise, especially as excess water may still be flooding the No. 2 unit’s turbine building basement.
“(We) are aware that water build-up may lead to more leakage somewhere else,” he said.
Meanwhile, the same official said that almost all of the roughly 10,000 tons of radioactive water from the plant’s waste water treatment facility had been dumped into the Pacific Ocean as of noon Wednesday.
This was done to make room in the waste water building for the much more radioactive water that will be pumped from in and around the No. 2 unit.
Edano explained that it was a trade-off, with authorities reasoning that dumping water that, on the whole, had 1/200,000ths the amount of radiation, was “unavoidable” and a way to minimize harm to the environment.
Edano conceded that authorities did not a good enough job explaining the plan — announced and begun Monday — to toss a total of 11,500 tons (including some from in and around the Nos. 5 and 6 units) into the Pacific Ocean.
Officials in nearby countries, as well as in Japan itself, “have pointed out that we have not been reporting fully,” he said Wednesday.
“We should have reported (more information) to the people who may be concerned, especially to the neighboring countries,” Edano said, amid reports from South Korean media that officials in Seoul were among those upset.
“It was a measure to prevent more serious marine contamination, but we needed to explain the reasoning better.”
Local fishermen were among those riled by the deliberate release of toxic materials into the sea, potentially adding to levels of radiation measured several hundred-thousand times the legal limit at monitoring posts a few dozen meters from the nuclear facility.
Members of Japan’s fishery association voiced their ire in a Wednesday morning meeting with Tokyo Electric officials. The fishing industry trade group’s officials claimed they felt totally ignored after they asked the utility not to dump radioactive water into the sea — only to find out, hours later, the process began.
Moreover, the association called out Tokyo Electric for the company’s previous claims that nuclear power is safe and that such accidents would never happen.
Fishermen’s angst has intensified with the discovery, announced Tuesday, of abnormally high levels of radioactive iodine “in one sample of fresh fish.” This led Japanese authorities to regulate the radiation in seafood for the first time.
Edano acknowledged on Wednesday the difficulties facing the fishing industry and the need to keep them abreast of major developments that might affect the safety, and quality, of seafood.
The Japanese government is considering “provisional compensation” to give a more immediate boost to fishermen, ahead of a more final payment plan that may be established in the future.
Some farmers, too, are expected to get pay-outs following the imposition of restrictions of certain produce and milk due to radiation concerns tied to the nuclear crisis.
The concerns notwithstanding, experts said the release of radiation in seawater — given the current plan, and particularly if there are no further leaks of the most toxic substances — likely won’t pose any long-term health risks to humans or sea life. It also helps that most of the radiation detected is iodine-131, which loses half its radiation every eight days.
The dump of the 11,500 tons of radioactive water equates to about five swimming pools full, compared to “about 300 trillion swimming pools of water” that fill the Pacific Ocean, said Timothy Jorgensen, chairman of the radiation safety committee at Georgetown University Medical Center.
“So hopefully the churning of the ocean and the currents will quickly disperse this so that it gets to very dilute concentrations relatively quickly.”
After a tumultuous first few weeks, utility and government officials have described conditions recently in the plant’s reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools as generally stable. Levels of airborne radiation nearby and further away, meanwhile, steadily have been declining.
Still, the existence of significant amounts of collected radioactive water around the facility suggests that there may be other leaks — and other problems. Moreover, there’s still a major issue in that workers still must inject massive amounts of water in order to keep nuclear fuel cool.
Michael Friedlander, a former senior U.S. nuclear engineer, told CNN’s “AC 360” that authorities will continue to have problems related to excess radioactive water — and the need to dump some of it — as long as they infuse huge amounts in to prevent fuel rods from overheating in reactors’ cores and spent fuel pools.
“This is not a one-off deal,” Friedlander said of dumping radioactive water into the ocean. “This issue of water and water management is going to plague them until they can get (fully operating) long-term core cooling.”