5:49am

Tue March 22, 2011
Japan In Crisis

Urgent Work Continues At Japanese Nuclear Plant

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:03 am

Workers have restored lighting to the control room of one of the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, the facility's operators say.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, has also succeeded in connecting all six reactors to the external power grid, after power was cut off in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the utility struggled to keep radioactive materials from overheating. But officials say it will take some time to restore all of the cooling functions critical to keeping the reactors under control.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the facility continues to emit radiation, but it says the source of the leak is unclear. The agency says it believes Japanese officials have been unable to get close enough to determine whether the radiation is coming from leaks in the reactor cores themselves or from the pools that contain spent fuel rods.

"We continue to see radiation coming from the site, and the question is where exactly that is coming from — the reactor units, the primary containment vessels or the spent fuel pools," James Lyons, IAEA's director of the division of nuclear installation safety, told reporters Tuesday. "Without the ability to go up there and actually poke around, it's hard to determine."

Radiation May Not Linger Long

Japanese officials say they have detected above-normal radiation levels in seawater downstream from the plant. But a scientist also told NPR's Richard Harris that most of the material released is an isotope called iodine-131. It came from the reactors, not the spent fuel pools, according to Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley.

As Harris reports, this is good news, because iodine-131 decays quickly — it has a half-life of just eight days. That means that over the course of two or three months, virtually all of it will be gone. Because the used fuel has been sitting in its pools for months or even years, it clearly can't be the source of this material.

Earlier Tuesday, a pool holding spent nuclear fuel heated up to around the boiling point, a nuclear safety official said. With water bubbling away, there was a risk that more radioactive steam could spew out.

"We cannot leave this alone and we must take care of it as quickly as possible," said the official, Hidehiko Nishiyama.

'Just No Way For Me To Accept Their Apology'

People at Fukushima city's main evacuation center waited in long lines for bowls of hot noodle soup. A truck delivered toilet paper and blankets. Many among the 1,400 people living in the crowded gymnasium came from communities near the nuclear plant and are worried about radiation and weary of the daily routine of the displaced.

"It was an act of God," said Yoshihiro Amano, a grocery store owner whose house is 4 miles from the reactors. "It won't help anything to get angry. But we are worried. We don't know if it will take days, months or decades to go home. Maybe never. We are just starting to be able to think ahead to that."

Public sentiment is such that Fukushima's governor rejected a meeting offered by the president of TEPCO. "What is most important is for TEPCO to end the crisis with maximum effort. So I rejected the offer," Gov. Yuhei Sato said on national broadcaster NHK. "Considering the anxiety, anger and exasperation being felt by people in Fukushima, there is just no way for me to accept their apology."

The nuclear crisis has added a broader dimension to the disaster unleashed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that pulverized the northeast coast, leaving more than 9,000 dead by official count and twice that in police estimates.

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Japan informed a Midlothian, Va., family that the body of their daughter, 24-year-old Taylor Anderson, had been found in the wreckage. She is thought to be the first American victim found in the Japan disaster.

Anderson had been in Japan for about three years, teaching English to Japanese children, and was due back in the U.S. this August. When the earthquake hit, she reportedly was seen helping people get to higher ground, and later she apparently took off on her bike in the direction of her home. That's when the tsunami hit. Ten days later, rescue workers found her body in Ishinomaki city, a coastal town in Miyagi prefecture.

Radiation, Food Safety Fears

Fears about radiation are reaching well beyond those living near Fukushima and the 430,000 displaced by the earthquake and tsunami to encompass large segments of Japan. Traces of radiation are being found in vegetables and raw milk from a swath of farmland, forcing a government ban on sales from those areas.

Seawater near the Fukushima plant is showing elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium, prompting the government to test seafood.

China, Japan's largest trading partner, has ordered testing of imports of Japanese food. The World Health Organization has urged Japan to adopt stricter measures and reassure the public.

Government officials and health experts say the doses are low and not a threat to human health unless the tainted products are consumed in abnormally excessive quantities. But government measures to release data on radiation amounts, halt sales of some foods and test others are feeding public worries that the situation may grow more dire.

"We acknowledge this situation has caused anxiety among the general public, but even if the accident hadn't happened we would be monitoring and taking action if the government's very conservative standards are exceeded," the government's spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, said at a briefing.

Reactor Cores Damaged, But Containment Intact

In the first five days after the disasters struck, the Fukushima complex saw explosions and fires in four of the plant's six reactors, and the leaking of radioactive steam into the air. Since then, every day that passes without a major accident is a good sign, experts said.

IAEA monitoring stations have detected radiation 1,600 times higher than normal levels — but in an area about 12 miles from the power station, the limit of the evacuation area declared by the government last week.

Radiation at that level, while not high for a single burst, could harm health if sustained. The levels drop dramatically farther from the nuclear complex. In Tokyo, about 140 miles south of the plant, levels in recent days have been higher than normal for the city but still only a third of the global average for naturally occurring background radiation.

With reporting from Doualy Xaykaothao in Aizuwakamatsu, Japan, and Richard Harris in Tokyo. Material from The Associated Press was also used in this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.