TOKYO – Radioactivity in contaminated water in one unit of a damaged Japanese nuclear power plant tested 10 million times higher than normal, forcing the evacuation of workers and again delaying efforts to bring the complex under control, the plant’s operator said today.
The air in Unit 2, meanwhile, measured 1,000 millisieverts per hour – four times the limit of 250 millisieverts deemed safe by the government, Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Takashi Kurita told reporters.
Word of the startling jump in radioactivity came as TEPCO struggled to pump the contaminated water from four troubled units at the overheated Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo. The reading was so high that the worker measuring the levels fled before taking a second reading, officials said.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA, had warned Saturday that radioactivity inside the units was rising fast and that extracting the radioactive water was a priority.
The discovery of radioactive water leaking into one or more units at the six-unit complex has been a major setback in the urgent mission to get the plant’s crucial cooling system back up and operating more than two weeks after a massive earthquake and tsunami.
The magnitude-9 quake off Japan’s northeast coast March 11 triggered a tsunami that barreled onshore and disabled the Fukushima plant, complicating a humanitarian disaster that has killed more than 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Since the quake and tsunami, nuclear workers have raced to cool down the overheating plant as radiation made its way into food, seawater and even tap water supplies as far away as Tokyo.
Officials said the discovery Thursday of highly radioactive pools of water in some of the units led to suspicions that radiation was leaking due to a possible breach. Two workers were being treated at a hospital for possible burns sustained from wading into the contaminated water.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, speaking today on TV talk shows, said the exact source wasn’t clear yet but radioactive water is “almost certainly” seeping from a reactor core.
Workers were scrambling today to remove the contaminated water from several units and find a safe place to store it, TEPCO officials said.
With just one pump capable of handling the large amounts of water, two more will be brought in to help speed up the process, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a NISA official.
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 milk, seawater and a range of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.
Tap water in several areas of Japan, including Tokyo, has showed higher-than-normal levels of radiation, prompting officials to distribute bottled water to families with infants.
Just outside a reactor at the coastal Fukushima nuclear plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal, Nishiyama said. He said the area is not a source of seafood and that the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health.
The nuclear crisis has added to the misery and uncertainty facing Japan, with no sense of an end to a disaster Edano warned would take “a long time” to resolve.
Hundreds of thousands are still sleeping on crowded school gymnasium floors with few comforts. Those living within a 12-mile radius of the plant have been evacuated.