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At Japan Plant, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata (second from right) and other executives bow prior to a press conference at the company's headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Kazuhiro Nogi
AFP/Getty Images
Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata (second from right) and other executives bow prior to a press conference at the company's headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Nearly three weeks after the earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on an aging nuclear power plant on Japan's Pacific coast, officials handling the crisis face multiplying hurdles, making the end goal of a stable facility with a functioning cooling system seem further from reach.

The cores that house nuclear fuel are damaged in several of the plant's six reactors, and radioactive material continues to trickle from them, forcing officials to consider increasingly extreme ways to take back control. Their goal is to prevent further contamination of the air and ocean, while continuing the so-called feed-and-bleed approach to cooling the heated nuclear rods inside reactor Units 1, 2, and 3.

The idea behind the feed-and-bleed approach is to feed the cores with water to bleed away the heat. This week, workers made some progress in restoring regular cooling systems, so they will require less manual feeding. The return of electricity to some parts of the plant meant workers could abandon the firetrucks they had been using to spray water on the reactors in favor of temporary electric pumps.

But the week has also brought new setbacks: the discovery of pools of highly radioactive water. Officials still aren't sure why the contaminated water is leaking, but high levels of isotopes present in the water suggest it came from the reactors' cores.

High Radiation Detected Outside Evacuation Zone

Though radiation readings in most areas around the plant have been slowly dropping in recent days, a U.N. official noted at a Wednesday briefing that one village outside the evacuation zone around the nuclear plant showed an initial reading that exceeded recommended evacuation levels.

Elena Buglova of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the reading in Iitate village was about two times higher than levels at which the agency recommends that people evacuate.

Iitate is about 25 miles from the plant. The Japanese government instituted a mandatory evacuation zone within 12 miles of the plant and told residents between 12 and 17 miles of the plant to stay indoors.

Separately on Wednesday, Japanese officials reported the highest radiation readings near Fukushima Dai-ichi. Officials say seawater outside the facility contains more than 3,300 times the normal amount of radioactive iodine. The country's nuclear safety agency says it's a "concern" — but not necessarily an immediate threat. Officials say they are exploring a variety of new ways to contain the radioactive water seeping out of the plant.

The IAEA has said that it expects radiation levels in seawater to drop as it dilutes and that radiation in seafood will most likely not reach levels above established limits for consumption if Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the plant, can stop the discharges of contaminated seawater.

TEPCO President Falls Ill

On Wednesday, Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of TEPCO, said the company's president, Masataka Shimizu, who has not been seen in public since a March 13 news conference in Tokyo, had fallen ill and last night was checked into a hospital.

Shimizu's disappearance has created speculation that he suffered a breakdown. For days, officials deflected questions about his whereabouts, saying he was "resting" at company headquarters.

Katsumata also said the Units 1 through 4 reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi will have to be scrapped because of damage and radiation risks. A government spokesman later said Units 5 and 6, which have been in cold shutdown, will also have to be decommissioned.

Managing Water Woes

On Monday, water was found in underground tunnels and trenches that run below and outside of the nuclear reactors, near three buildings that house massive steam turbines at the coastal nuclear complex. Highly radioactive water has also flooded the basements of the turbine buildings.

Complicating matters, officials have had to scramble to figure out what to do with the water. Nearby tanks that could house the 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 woes compounded Wednesday, when workers discovered a new location where it is pooling.

At a news conference Wednesday, a spokesman for the government described several possible measures to deal with the tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water accumulating in the basements, tunnels and trenches.

The plan for Thursday is to use an unmanned, remote-controlled vehicle to spray resin over debris "on a trial basis." The water-soluble resin would ideally prevent the spread of radiation leaks.

Another idea under consideration to manage the radioactive water leaking out of the reactors is to pump it into a tanker offshore. Officials are also considering temporarily storing the water in a waste disposal facility at the plant.

The spokesman mentioned another idea intended to keep radioactive particles from getting into the atmosphere: Workers would cover damaged reactor buildings with a special fabric that would act as a filter.

Radiation Hinders Search For The Dead

The ongoing nuclear crisis is hampering efforts to find the dead and missing near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Fukushima city.

Three coastal villages near the plant used to be home to more than 30,000 people. The tsunami wiped out entire neighborhoods in them, yet only five people from the towns closest to the facility have been confirmed dead.

Residents have been ordered to stay at least 12 miles away from the leaking nuclear complex. Japanese soldiers and police in protective clothing have launched limited searches into the nearby towns, but their work has been hampered by elevated levels of radiation. At times they've had to pull out of the area altogether.

Radiation around the crippled nuclear plant has been fluctuating. On Tuesday officials reported that radiation levels in both the air and the sea were going down.

With reporting by NPR's Jon Hamilton in Tokyo and Jason Beaubien in Fukushima city. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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