Japan finds plutonium at stricken nuclear plant
March 28, 2011
Plutonium found in soil at the crippled Fukushima nuclear
complex heightened alarm on Tuesday over Japan's protracted
battle to contain the world's worst atomic crisis in 25
In parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was
lambasted for his handling of the disaster, which was
triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami that slammed
into the coastline north of Tokyo.
Already deeply unpopular, Kan assured angry lawmakers that
that the government was making public all the information it
had to hand and he apologized for flying over the stricken
site one day after the quake, which media reports said had
delayed crucial operations to cool the reactors.
Opposition MP Yosuke Isozaki blasted Kan for not ordering
evacuation from a zone 20-30 km (12-19 miles) beyond the
nuclear plant, asking "is there anything as irresponsible as
this?". Kan said the government was seeking advice on
whether to extend the zone beyond its current perimeter of
The drama at the six-reactor facility has compounded Japan's
agony after the double disaster left more than 28,000 people
dead or missing in the devastated northeast.
PLUTONIUM LEVELS NOT HARMFUL Plant operator Tokyo Electric
Power Co (TEPCO) said the plutonium -- a by-product of
atomic reactions and also used in nuclear bombs -- had been
found at low-risk levels in five places at the plant, hit by
a March 11 quake and tsunami.
"I apologize for making people worried," said Sakae Muto,
vice-president of TEPCO, announcing the latest piece of bad
news from Fukushima at a briefing during the night in Tokyo.
Muto said the traces of plutonium-238, 239 and 240 were in
keeping with levels found in Japan in the past due to
particles in the atmosphere from nuclear testing abroad.
"It's not at the level that's harmful to human health."
Experts believe that at least some of the plutonium may have
come from spent fuel rods at Fukushima or damage to reactor
No. 3, the only one to use plutonium in its fuel mix.
The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency said
the find was expected due to known fuel degradation. But
Japan's own nuclear safety agency was concerned at the
plutonium samples, whose levels of radioactive decay ranged
from 0.18 to 0.54 becquerels per kg.
"While it's not the level harmful to human health, I am not
optimistic. This means the containment mechanism is being
breached so I think the situation is worrisome," agency
official Hidehiko Nishiyama was quoted as saying by Jiji
Workers at Fukushima are resigned to a struggle of weeks or
months to re-start cooling systems vital to control the
reactors and avert disaster. Their conditions are extremely
dangerous, earning them sympathy and admiration round the
On Monday, highly contaminated water was found in concrete
tunnels extending beyond one reactor, while at the weekend
radiation hit 100,000 times over normal in water inside
another. That poses a major dilemma for TEPCO which wants to
douse the reactors to cool them, but not worsen the
Fires, blasts, smoke and steam have posed other hazards.
Japan says a partial meltdown of fuel rods inside reactor
No. 2 has contributed to the radiation levels.
The crisis, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in
1986, has contaminated vegetables and milk from the area, as
well as the surrounding sea. U.S. experts said groundwater,
reservoirs and the sea all faced "significant
APOCALYPTIC SCENES With towns on the northeast coast reduced
to apocalyptic landscapes of mud and debris, more than a
quarter of a million people are homeless.
The event may be the world's costliest natural disaster,
with estimates of damage topping $300 billion. The
environmental group Greenpeace said its experts had
confirmed dangerous radiation of up to 10 microsieverts per
hour in Iitate village, 40 km (25 miles) northwest of the
It called for the extension of a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation
zone. "It is clearly not safe for people to remain in Iitate,
especially children and pregnant women," Greenpeace said,
urging Japan to "stop choosing politics over science".
In most countries the maximum permissible annual dose for
radiation workers is 50 millisieverts, or 50,000
microsieverts, according to the World Nuclear Association
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from a 20-km
(12 mile) radius around the plant. Those within a further
10-km radius have been told by the government to stay
indoors or, better still, leave too. Beyond the evacuation
zone, traces of radiation have been found in tap water in
Tokyo and as far away as Iceland.
Japanese officials and international experts have generally
said the levels away from the plant were not dangerous for
human beings, who in any case face higher radiation doses on
a daily basis from natural sources, X-rays or flying.
In downtown Tokyo, a Reuters reading on Tuesday showed
0.20-0.22 microsieverts per hour, within the global average
of natural ambient radiation of 0.17-0.39 microsieverts per
hour given by the World Nuclear Association.
LEADERSHIP PROBLEMS Facing a long and uncertain operation,
TEPCO sought outside help from firms including Electricite
de France SA and Areva SA, a French government minister
Japan is also seeking American help, said Robin Grimes, head
of the center for nuclear engineering at Imperial College in
London. "Each country has its own expertise." Mark Prelas, a
professor of nuclear engineering at University of Missouri
in the United States, warned against overreaction to the
fast-moving events in Japan.
"It's worth remembering that millions of Americans in the
west of the country would have been exposed to tiny traces
of plutonium during the above-ground bomb tests prior to the
1960s," he said. The risk of a core meltdown had receded, he
added, and hopefully water pumps would be restarted in the
next couple of weeks to get the reactors into a safe "cold
shutdown" stage. "The eventual clean-up still looks like it
should be easily manageable," he added.
The crisis has put huge pressure on TEPCO, criticized for
safety lapses and a slow disaster response, and its boss,
Masataka Shimizu, has barely been seen. Chief Cabinet
Secretary Yukio Edano denied a newspaper report that the
government was considering a temporary nationalization of
Kan, leading Japan during its worst crisis since World War
Two, has also been low-profile. Even though Japan's culture
stresses group efficiency over individual charisma, many are
unhappy and a weekend poll showed a majority feel Kan has
not shown good leadership. "The characters involved are too
weak to take decisive actions," said Jesper Koll, analyst at
JP Morgan Securities.