Crippled Japan Plant Faces Water Issues

In Japan, workers trying to fix a damaged nuclear power plant are being hampered by radioactive water.

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It has been two steps forward, one step back at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Technicians say they're making progress in their efforts to restore fresh water and much-needed electricity to the cooling systems there, but dangerously radioactive water is now sloshing through tunnels near the reactors.

NPR's Richard Harris has the latest.

RICHARD HARRIS: Last week, three workers at the power plant were sent to the hospital after they waded into water that turned out to contain hazardous levels of radiation. The workers went home from the hospital today and will need regular medical follow-up. But the radioactive water at the reactor complex has become only more vexing with time. It's in tunnels that run between the reactors in adjoining buildings, and it's even in trenches that workers need to access in order to string new wiring.

The source of the water remains a mystery. The radiation comes from the reactors themselves. But Graham Andrew at the International Atomic Energy Agency says that doesn't mean the steel and concrete shielding around the reactors has been compromised.

Mr. GRAHAM ANDREW (Senior Official, International Atomic Energy Agency): We cannot make a definitive statement. But I think that from pressure readings, our feeling is that the main - there probably is not a major breach of the reactor pressure vessel or the primary containment vessel. But we don't know that for certain.

HARRIS: His colleague, Denis Flory, notes that pipes could be carrying the radioactive water or steam from the damaged reactors into the turbine halls where it has been pooling.

Mr. DENIS FLORY (Deputy Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency): There are a number of openings for steam to go to the turbine for water to come into, re-circulating, et cetera. So there are a number of openings, which start from the pressure vessel, the reactor vessel, so this is one of the possible pathways.

HARRIS: Officials plan to meet with engineers from the utility on Tuesday to see if they can figure out where the water is coming from. They also have to figure out what to do with it. Some can be pumped back into holding tanks under the reactors, but not all of it, so they're worried that some will end up in the ocean.

Indeed, some radiation has already made its way to the sea. Last week, radiation levels just offshore spiked. The IAEA says those levels have now come back down significantly. But Hartmut Nies from the international agency says it's too soon to say that everything is okay.

Dr. HARTMUT NIES (Director, Radiometry Laboratory, International Atomic Energy Agency): The concentrations could be still very variable. But we think that the concentration factors do not expect into marine food, for example, that we will have extremely high levels which might be above any limits.

HARRIS: The radioactive material is diluting rapidly as the ocean waters mix around, and most of the radiation is short-lived, so those isotopes will be gone in a matter of months.

Officials also report that radiation levels at and around the plant are continuing to fall. The wrinkle there is that the Tokyo Electric Power Company has now found tiny traces of plutonium on the grounds of the power plant. That's grabbed headlines, but Denis Flory at the IAEA says that's exactly what you'd expect to find in the mix of material that has escaped from the reactors.

Mr. FLORY: It means that there is degradation of the fuel, which is not news. We have been saying that consistently for so many days.

HARRIS: Officials said the levels are not hazardous. In fact, TEPCO says they're comparable to the traces of plutonium that were scattered at the site and, indeed, scattered around the world during the U.S. and Soviet nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and '60s.

Richard Harris, NPR News, Washington.

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