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March 28, 2011

Japan on 'Maximum Alert' as Workers Try to Stem Leaks of Toxic Water

by Martyn Williams

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday the country is on "maximum alert," adding that the situation at the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant is "unpredictable."

Kan made the comments in an appearance before parliament Tuesday to answer questions about the nuclear crisis.

Political theater?

The prime minister said his government is giving its complete attention to the problem of halting radiation leaks more than two weeks after a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant's cooling systems. And he pointed out that a trip he made to the Fukushima plant in the first 24 hours of the emergency was necessary and not political theater.

Later, in a budgetary meeting, Kan said his ruling Democratic Party may have to delay some of its campaign pledges so it can funnel money toward the rebuilding effort.

Meanwhile, workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continued to remove highly radioactive water from buildings at the facility, hours after plant operator TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) said trace amounts of plutonium had been detected in soil samples.

Radioactive leaks

The discovery of plutonium in minute amounts, revealed Monday night, raised new worries about the leakage of radioactive materials from Japan's crippled nuclear complex. The plutonium provides new evidence of a meltdown in one of the reactors, but the levels are not expected to harm human health.

Lake Barrett is a nuclear engineer who led the cleanup operation after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the United States.

"As far as the plutonium is going, that is to be expected. There is plutonium from atmospheric weapons testing in the environment that has been there for decades," Barrett said. "So as far as the isotopes being released from the stricken plant there, plutonium is the least of the worries."

Toxic water

Of more pressing concern to TEPCO is the toxic water found in the basements of three turbine buildings and adjoining tunnels that approach the sea.  The tunnels terminate in shafts that are less than 100 meters from the shore and the water level is close to the top.

Workers are putting sandbags and concrete blocks around the shaft openings to stop water reaching the sea, in case it overflows. They are also pumping water from the tunnels, but the operation is slow because they lack tanks to store it all.

Barrett says he thinks Tokyo Electric Power will get the job done.

"I think the operators there are looking to get electricity to establish cooling and they are cooling the pools.  We have the capability, as we proved at Three-Mile Island, to clean up messes," he said. "Now this mess, this challenge there at Fukushima is much, much greater.  There is much more contaminated water in the basement of the building, but I think the TEPCO people are making progress on the challenge they have ahead."

The detection of plutonium bothered Japan's stock market and led to a sell-off in energy, fish and forestry stocks. TEPCO shares sank by their maximum daily limit after a newspaper reported the company may be nationalized.

The government says it is not currently considering that.