Japan nuclear plant crisis: Plutonium found in soil

The Vancouver Sun: YOKO NISHIKAWA, MARCH 29, 2011

REUTERS: TOKYO — Plutonium found in soil at the Fukushima nuclear complex heightened alarm on Tuesday over Japan's battle to contain the world's worst atomic crisis in 25 years, as pressure mounted on the prime minister to widen an evacuation zone around the plant.

Some opposition lawmakers blasted Naoto Kan in parliament for his handling of the disaster and for not widening the exclusion zone. Kan said he was seeking advice on such a step, which would force 130,000 people to move in addition to 70,000 already displaced.

The drama at the six-reactor facility has compounded Japan's agony after an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 left more than 28,000 people dead or missing in the devastated northeast.

In a gesture of support, France said it had sent two nuclear experts to Japan to help contain the accident and Japan's foreign ministry said French President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit on Thursday for a meeting with Kan.

France relies heavily on nuclear power generation and Sarkozy will be the first foreign leader to visit since the earthquake.

In the latest blow to hopes authorities were gradually getting the plant under control, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co said plutonium was found at low-risk levels in two out of five soil samples at the facility.

A by-product of atomic reactions and also used in nuclear bombs, plutonium is highly carcinogenic and one of the most dangerous substances on the planet, experts say.

They believe some of the plutonium may have come from spent fuel rods at Fukushima or damage to reactor No. 3, the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix.

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said while the plutonium levels were not harmful to human health, the discovery could mean the reactor's containment mechanism had been breached.

"Plutonium is a substance that's emitted when the temperature is high, and it's also heavy and so does not leak out easily," agency deputy director Hidehiko Nishiyama told a news conference.

"So if plutonium has emerged from the reactor, that tells us something about the damage to the fuel. And if it has breached the original containment system, it underlines the gravity and seriousness of this accident."

Sakae Muto, a Tokyo Electric vice-president, said the traces of plutonium-238, 239 and 240 were in keeping with levels found in Japan in the past due to particles in the atmosphere from nuclear testing abroad.

"I apologize for making people worried," Muto said.

With towns on the northeast coast reduced to apocalyptic landscapes of mud and debris following the quake and tsunami, more than a quarter of a million people are homeless. The event may be the world's costliest natural disaster, with estimates of damage topping $300 billion.


Workers at Fukushima may have to struggle for weeks or months under extremely dangerous conditions to re-start cooling systems vital to control the reactors and avert total meltdown.

On Monday, highly contaminated water was found in concrete tunnels extending beyond one reactor, while at the weekend radiation hit 100,000 times over normal in water inside another.

That poses a major dilemma for Tokyo Electric, which wants to douse the reactors to cool them, but not worsen the radiation spread, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

"On the issue of pumping in water, we must avoid a situation in which the temperature (of fuel rods) rises and the water boils off. So this cooling is a priority. On the other hand, on the standing water, under the circumstances work must proceed to remove it as quickly as possible," he said.

Japan says a partial meltdown of fuel rods inside reactor No. 2 has contributed to the radiation levels.

The crisis, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, has contaminated vegetables and milk from the area, as well as the surrounding sea. U.S. experts said groundwater, reservoirs and the sea all faced "significant contamination".

A Tokyo Electric official told a Tuesday briefing he could not rule out the possibility that radioactive water could still be entering the sea, though there was no continuous flow.

Tokyo Electric has sought help from French companies including Electricite de France SA and Areva SA .

French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said on Tuesday that experts from Areva and nuclear research body CEA had been sent to Japan "to share our experience on pumping and the treatment of radioactive water."

As well as seeking help from France, Japan is also consulting the United States.

The head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, met Japanese officials in Tokyo on Monday and he later said the "unprecedented challenge" remained serious.

Experts have said the lack of information and some inconsistent data made it hard to understand what was happening at Fukushima, which appears to have moved from a core-meltdown phase to one in which management of released radioactivity is paramount.


Another pressing concern has been the well-being of people living near the plant.

More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from within 20 km of the facility.

But opposition MP Yosuke Isozaki blasted Kan for not ordering people living between 20 km and 30 km from the plant to also leave.

"Is there anything as irresponsible as this?" Isozaki asked.

The 130,000 people living inside the wider zone have been encouraged — but not ordered — to leave.

Environmental group Greenpeace has urged an extension of the 20-km evacuation zone while the United States has recommended its citizens who live within 80 km (50 miles) of the plant to leave or shelter indoors.

Kan, leading Japan during its worst crisis since World War Two, was already deeply unpopular and under pressure to resign when the crisis began.

He repeatedly defended his decision to fly over the stricken nuclear site a day after the quake, saying it had been important to see it for himself. His top spokesman on Monday denied the visit had delayed operations to cool the reactors, as some media had reported.

The crisis has also put enormous pressure on Tokyo Electric, criticized for safety lapses and a slow disaster response. Its boss, Masataka Shimizu, has barely been seen.

The government might discuss nationalizing Tokyo Electric to deal with the crisis, National Strategy Minister Koichiro Gemba said. Its shares have tumbled more than 70 per cent since the quake.

Beyond the evacuation zone, traces of radiation have been found in tap water in Tokyo and as far away as Iceland.

Japanese officials and international experts have generally said the levels away from the plant were not dangerous for human beings, who in any case face higher radiation doses on a daily basis from natural sources, X-rays or flying.


UPDATE 1-Japan says plutonium at plant not harmful levels

Reuters: Terril Jones - March 29, 2011

The amount of plutonium detected at the quake-stricken plant in Japan is similar to that which would occur at a location far from an atmospheric nuclear test but is not harmful to people, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said on Tuesday.

In the latest blow to hopes that authorities were gradually getting the Fukushima Daiichi plant under control, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co said plutonium had been found at low-risk levels in soil samples at the facility.

"It (the amount of plutonium discovered) was the same level as normally found in the atmosphere as radioactive fallout after an atmospheric nuclear test, but a test done far away that would not directly affect someone," Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said at a news conference.

The detection of plutonium at the site was further evidence that fuel rods in at least one of the six reactors may have melted down considerably before they were cooled, and that there is damage to the structures containing the nuclear core.

Only trace amounts of the toxic substance have been detected. The level of up to 0.54 becquerals per kg of soil is not considered harmful.

Plutonium-239, used most in reactors, has a half-life of 24,200 years. It is not readily absorbed by the body but what is absorbed, stays put, irradiates surrounding tissue and is carcinogenic.