Emergency workers struggling to pump contaminated water from Japan’s stricken nuclear complex fled one of the troubled reactors today after reporting a huge spike in radioactivity, with levels 10 million times higher than normal in the reactor’s cooling system.
The numbers were so high that the worker measuring radiation levels in the complex’s Unit 2 withdrew before taking a second reading, officials said.
It was not immediately clear, however, how long workers were exposed to the highly radioactive water or how long the levels had been that high at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, 140 miles north-east of Tokyo.
But it came as officials acknowledged there was contaminated water in all four of the complex’s most troubled reactors, and as airborne radiation in Unit 2 measured 1,000 millisieverts per hour – four times the limit deemed safe by the government, said Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Takashi Kurita.
Officials still don’t know where the radioactive water is coming from, though government spokesman Yukio Edano said some is “almost certainly” seeping from a cracked reactor core in one of the units.
While the discovery of the high radiation levels – and the evacuation of workers from one reactor unit – again delayed efforts to bring the troubled complex under control, Mr Edano insisted the situation had partially stabilised.
“We have somewhat prevented the situation from turning worse,” he said. “But the prospects are not improving in a straight line and we’ve expected twists and turns. The contaminated water is one of them and we’ll continue to repair the damage.”
The discovery over the last three days of radioactive water has been a major setback in the mission to get the plant’s crucial cooling systems operating more than two weeks after a massive earthquake and tsunami.
The magnitude-9 quake off Japan’s north-east coast on March 11 triggered a tsunami that barrelled onshore and disabled the Fukushima plant, complicating an immense humanitarian disaster.
The death toll from the twin disasters stood at 10,668 today, with more than 16,574 people missing, police said. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless.
Workers have been scrambling to remove the radioactive water from the four units and find a safe place to store it, TEPCO officials said.
Minoru Ogoda, of Japan’s nuclear safety agency, said each unit could have hundreds of tons of radioactive water.
The protracted nuclear crisis has spurred concerns about the safety of food and water in Japan, which is a prime source of seafood for some countries. Radiation has been found in food, seawater and even tap water supplies in Tokyo.
Just outside the coastal Fukushima nuclear plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal last week – but that number had climbed to 1,850 times normal by the weekend.
A top TEPCO official acknowledged today it could take a long time to completely clean up the complex.
“We cannot say at this time how many months or years it will take,” TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto said, insisting the main goal now is to cool the reactors.