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In Japan, confidence slips amid nuclear peril

A man was tested yesterday for radiation exposure in northern Japan, 44 miles from the tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor. A man was tested yesterday for radiation exposure in northern Japan, 44 miles from the tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
By Ken Belson and Hiroko Tabuchi
New York Times / March 30, 2011

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TOKYO — After workers switched on the first set of control room lights at Japan’s crippled power plant in Fukushima last week, the Japanese government offered its strongest assurances yet that its nuclear crisis was close to being under control.

Heroic workers and firefighters continued to cool the volatile reactors by pumping in hundreds of tons of water a day. Much-awaited electricity had reached the plant after a rush to extend new power lines, ready to hook up to vital cooling systems and engineer a long-term “cold shutdown’’ of the plant.

But less than a week later, a deluge of contaminated water, plutonium traces in the soil and an increasingly hazardous environment for workers at the plant have forced government officials to confront the reality that the emergency measures they have taken to keep nuclear fuel cool have themselves had a variety of dangerous side effects. And the prospect of restoring automatic cooling systems anytime soon has now faded.

The recent flow of bad news from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has undermined the drumbeat of optimistic statements by government and company officials who have at times tried to reassure a nervous public that significant progress is at hand — only to come up short.

“The earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear accident may be Japan’s largest-ever crisis,’’ the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, told Parliament yesterday, in his most sober message to date on the nuclear crisis. “We find ourselves in a situation where we can’t let down our guard. We will continue to handle it in a state of maximum alert.’’

The setbacks have raised questions about how long, and at what cost, Japan can keep up what experts call its “feed and bleed’’ strategy of cooling the reactor’s fuel rods with emergency infusions of water from the ocean and now from freshwater sources.

That cooling strategy, while essential to prevent full meltdowns, has released harmful amounts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere and triggered leaks of highly contaminated water, making it perilous for some of the hundreds of workers at the plant to complete critical repair work.

Moreover, the discovery of radioactive elements that experts say could only come from the core of a reactor suggests that the government’s strategy may not be working and that partial fuel melting has not been completely halted.

The events have been a quick turn for the worse for the Japanese government.

Just last week, officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s operator, repeatedly hailed the extension of electrical wires to the plant, spoke of resuming electrically operated cooling systems and offered assurances that the situation would not get worse.

But late last week, three workers in a building next to Reactor No. 3 were injured when they stepped in contaminated water, which sloshed over their protective boots and badly burned their skin.

Highly radioactive water was later discovered at another reactor, making some areas of the reactor building dangerous for workers to approach.

Some of that water in the reactor structures also appears to be leaking out through damaged pipes or vessels, forming highly contaminated pools at the bottom of the turbine buildings adjacent to the reactors.

Yesterday, workers were forced to divert their attention to readying sandbags and pumps after the contaminated water was discovered in a tunnel leading close to the sea. It is unclear whether Tokyo Electric Power workers had inspected the reactor buildings and neighboring structures to see if they contained such hazards before proclaiming that they were just steps away from plugging in cooling systems again.

Compounding the matter, the government said yesterday that the recent discovery of plutonium in the soil at the plant provided new evidence that at least one of the plant’s reactors had experienced renewed melting of its nuclear fuel, as happened in the early days of the crisis.

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