Stabilizing signs seen in Japan's nuclear crisis

08:57, March 21, 2011      

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Japan reported some progress yesterday in the battle to gain control over a leaking nuclear complex, although the evolving crisis was far from over.

On Sunday, officials found more radiation-tainted vegetables and the tap water in the vicinity of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has intensified public anxiety and jitters about a spreading contamination in daily necessities including food and drink.

Japan's Health Ministry disclosed that tests had detected excess amounts of radioactive elements on canola and chrysanthemum greens. Also, tap water supply in a pocket of Tokyo was found to be polluted, though with trivial content of the elements.

On Sunday, the operator of the overheated Fukushima nuclear plant said at least two of the six nuclear reactors were safely cooled down, with reignited cooling systems in the Unit 5 and 6.

As day broke today, Japan's military resumed dousing of the complex's troubled Unit 4.

"We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control," Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters.

Still, serious problems remained at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. Pressure unexpectedly rose in a third unit's reactor, meaning plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam.

The safety of food and water was of particular concern. The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables — canola and chrysanthemum greens.

Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday, now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted, according to official sources.

The Health Ministry also advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 30 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine.

In all cases, the government said the radiation levels were too small to pose an immediate health risk.

All six of the nuclear complex's reactor units saw trouble after the disasters knocked out cooling systems. In a small advance, the plant's operator declared Units 5 and 6 — the least troublesome — under control after their nuclear fuel storage pools cooled to safe levels.

Progress was made to reconnect two other units to the electric grid and in pumping seawater to cool another reactor and replenish it and a sixth reactor's storage pools.

However, the buildup in pressure inside the vessel holding Unit 3's reactor presented some danger, forcing officials to consider venting steam. The tactic produced explosions of radioactive gas during the early days of the crisis.

"Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters. "At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough."

Nuclear safety officials said one of the options could release a cloud dense with iodine as well as the radioactive elements krypton and xenon.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., temporarily suspended the plans Sunday after it said the pressure inside the reactor stopped climbing, though staying at a high level. "It has stabilized," Tokyo Electric manager Hikaru Kuroda told reporters.

Death toll keeps rising

Growing concerns about radiation add to the overwhelming chain of disasters Japan has struggled with since the 9.0-magnitude quake. It spawned a tsunami that ravaged the northeastern coast, killing 8,450 people, leaving more than 12,900 people missing, and displacing another 452,000, who are living in shelters.

Fuel, food and water remain scarce. The government in recent days acknowledged being caught ill-prepared by an enormous disaster that the prime minister has called the worst crisis since World War II.

Bodies are piling up in some of the devastated communities and badly decomposing even amid chilly rain and snow.

"The recent bodies — we can't show them to the families. The faces have been purple, which means they are starting to decompose," says Shuji Horaguchi, a disaster relief official setting up a center to process the dead in Natori, on the outskirts of the tsunami-flattened city of Sendai. "Some we're finding now have been in the water for a long time, they're not in good shape."

Another nuclear safety official acknowledged that the government only belatedly realized the need to give potassium iodide to those living within 20 kilometers of the nuclear complex.

The pills help reduce chances of thyroid cancer, one of the diseases that may develop from radiation exposure, by preventing the body from absorbing radioactive iodine. The official, Kazuma Yokota, said the explosion that occurred while venting the plant's Unit 3 reactor a week ago should have triggered the distribution. But the order came only three days later.

"We should have made this decision and announced it sooner," Yokota told reporters at the emergency command center in Fukushima. "It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared."

By People's Daily Online / Agencies
 
 
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(Editor:张心意)

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