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'No quick fix' at Fukushima nuclear plant

Restoring power to all six units at the Japanese power station is vital – but some of the cooling system’s key pumps now need to be replaced entirely.

Smoke rises from Unit 3 of the Fukushima plant today and workers were temporarily evacuated from the station
Smoke rises from Unit 3 of the Fukushima plant today and workers were temporarily evacuated from the station
Image: PA Images

JAPANESE OFFICIALS RACED to restore electricity to Japan’s leaking nuclear plant today, but getting the power flowing will hardly be the end of their battle.

With its mangled machinery and partly melted reactor cores, bringing the Fukushima complex under control is a monstrous job.

Restoring the power to all six units at the tsunami-damaged complex is key, because it will, in theory, power up the maze of motors, valves and switches that help deliver cooling water to the overheated reactor cores and spent fuel pools that are leaking radiation.

Ideally, officials believe it should only take a day to get the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear under control once the cooling system is up and running. In reality, the effort to end the crisis is likely to take weeks.

The deputy director general of Japan’s nuclear safety body this evening suggested to reporters why there is so much uncertainty about when the job will be finished. Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said:

We have experienced a very huge disaster that has caused very large damage at a nuclear power generation plant on a scale that we had not expected.

The nuclear plant’s cooling systems were wrecked by the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11. Since then, conditions at the plant have been volatile; a plume of smoke rose from two reactor units today, prompting workers to evacuate.

In another setback, the plant’s operator said today it had just discovered that some of the cooling system’s key pumps at the complex’s troubled Unit 2 are no longer functional — meaning replacements have to be brought in. Tokyo Electric Power Company said it had placed emergency orders for new pumps, but how long it would take for them to arrive was unclear.

If officials can get the power turned on, get the replacement pumps working and get enough seawater into the reactors and spent fuel pools, it would only take a day to bring the temperatures back to a safe, cooling stage, said Ryohei Shiomi, an official with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

And if not?

“There is nothing else we can do but keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Shiomi said.

In other words, officials would continue dousing the plant in seawater — and hope for the best.

An official of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in Washington that Units 1, 2 and 3 have all seen damage to their reactor cores, but that containment is intact. The assessment dispels some concerns about Unit 2, where an explosion damaged a pressure-reducing chamber around the bottom of the reactor core. The commission’s executive director of operations, Bill Borchardt, said:

I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilising.

Traces of radiation are tainting vegetables and some water supplies, although in amounts the government and health experts say do not pose a risk to human health in the short term. That has caused the government to ban sale of raw milk, spinach and canola from prefectures over a swath from the plant toward Tokyo. The government has just started to test fish and shellfish.

Tokyo Electric said radioactive iodine about 127 times normal levels and radioactive cesium about 25 times above the norm were detected in seawater 100 meters (yards) off the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The Health Ministry has advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine. Ministry spokesman Takayuki Matsuda said iodine three times the normal level was detected there — about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray in one litre of water.

-AP

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