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Japan criticizes utility’s actions after disaster

Government reveals series of missteps

By Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi
Associated Press / March 27, 2011

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SENDAI, Japan — Japan’s government revealed a series of missteps by the operator of a radiation-leaking nuclear plant yesterday, including sending workers in without protective footwear in its faltering efforts to control a monumental crisis.

The US Navy, meanwhile, rushed to deliver freshwater to replace corrosive saltwater now being used in a desperate bid to cool the plant’s overheated reactors.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano urged Tokyo Electric Power Co. to be more transparent, two days after two workers at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered skin burns when they stepped in water that was 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found near the reactors.

“We strongly urge TEPCO to provide information to the government more promptly,’’ Edano said yesterday.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA, said the utility was aware there was high radiation in the air at one of the plant’s six units several days before the accident. And the two workers injured were wearing boots that only came up to their ankles — hardly high enough to protect their legs, agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

“Regardless of whether there was an awareness of high radioactivity in the stagnant water, there were problems in the way work was conducted,’’ Nishiyama said.

NISA warned TEPCO to improve and ensure workers’ safety, and the company has taken measures to that effect, Nishiyama said, without elaborating.

The government’s admonishments came as workers at the plant struggled to stop a troubling rise in radioactivity and remove dangerously contaminated water from the facility, which has been leaking radiation since a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the plant’s key cooling systems.

Officials have been using sea water to try to cool the plant, but fears are growing that the corrosive salt in the water could further damage the machinery inside the reactor units. TEPCO is now rushing to inject the reactors with freshwater instead, and to begin extracting the radioactive water, Nishiyama said.

Defense Minister Yoshimi Kitazawa said late Friday that the US government had made “an extremely urgent’’ request to switch to freshwater. He said the US military was sending water to nearby Onahama Bay and that water injections could begin in the next few days.

The US Seventh Fleet confirmed that barges loaded with 500,000 gallons of freshwater supplies were on their way.

The situation at the crippled complex remains unpredictable, Edano said yesterday, adding that it would be “a long time’’ until the crisis ends.

“We seem to be keeping the situation from turning worse,’’ he said. “But we still cannot be optimistic.’’

Efforts to get the plant under control took on fresh urgency last week when officials said they suspected a breach in one or more of the plant’s units — possibly a crack in the stainless steel chamber around a reactor core containing fuel rods or the concrete wall surrounding a pool where spent fuel rods are stored.

Such a breach could mean a much larger release of radioactive contaminants.

Radioactivity was on the rise in some units, Nishiyama said yesterday.

“It is crucial to figure out how to remove contaminated water while allowing work to continue,’’ he said, acknowledging that the discovery would set back delicate efforts to get the plant’s cooling system operating again.

Workers have begun pumping radioactive water from one of the units, Masateru Araki, a TEPCO spokesman, said yesterday.

Plant officials and government regulators say they don’t know the source of the radioactive water. It could have come from a leaking reactor core, connecting pipes, or a spent fuel pool. Or it may be the result of overfilling the pools with emergency cooling water.

But a breach in the chamber surrounding the reactor core seemed more likely, Nishiyama said.

TEPCO said late yesterday that a trace of radioactive water had leaked from the Unit 2 reactor building into a sewage line. The company said officials were investigating.

Radiation has been seeping from the plant since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck. Since then, it has made its way into milk, sea water, and 11 kinds of vegetables.

Tap water in several areas of Japan, including Tokyo, has shown higher-than-normal levels of radiation. In the capital, readings were at one point two times higher than the government safety limit for infants, who are particularly vulnerable.

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