More highly radioactive water spilled into the sea from a tsunami-disabled nuclear plant and authorities struggled to seal the leak, as frustrated survivors of last month’s disaster complained that Japan’s government was paying too much attention to the nuclear crisis.
The contaminated water will quickly dissipate into the sea and is not expected to cause any health hazard, but pooling water at the Fukushima Daiichii nuclear power plant has hampered the work of technicians trying to stabilize the complex’s reactors. Pouring concrete has so far failed to fill the crack.
Word of the leak Saturday came as Prime Minister Naoto Kan toured the town of Rikuzentakata, his first trip to survey damage in one of the dozens of villages, towns and cities slammed by the March 11 tsunami that followed a magnitude-9.0 earthquake.
“The government has been too focused on the Fukushima power plant rather than the tsunami victims. Both deserve attention,” said 35-year-old Megumi Shimanuki, who was visiting her family at a community center converted into a shelter in hard-hit Natori, about 160 kilometres from Rikuzentakata.
The double disaster is believed to have left nearly 25,000 dead -11,800 confirmed. More than 165,000 are still living in shelters, and tens of thousands more still do not have electricity or running water.
Although the government had rushed to provide relief, its attention has been divided by the efforts to stabilise the Fuskushima plant, which suffered heavy damage and has spiralled into the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.
The plant’s reactors overheated to dangerous levels after electrical pumps, deprived of power, failed to circulate water to keep them cool. A series of almost daily problems have led to substantial amounts of radiation leaking into the atmosphere, ground and sea.
On Saturday, workers discovered an 20 centimetre long crack in a maintenance pit, from which water containing levels of radioactive iodine far above the legal limit was spilling into the Pacific, said Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama.
Over the past 10 days, pools of contaminated water have been found throughout the plant and high levels of radioactivity have been measured in the ocean, but this marks the first time authorities said they had found a spot where the water was directly entering the sea.
The ultimate source of the contaminated water is believed to be one of the reactor cores.
A search of the plant found no other similar leaks leading directly to the ocean. “We believe that’s the only crack,” said Naoki Tsunoda, a spokesman for the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Soon after the discovery, workers tried to seal the crack but could not get the concrete to dry. Next, they will try injecting polymer, according to Tsunoda.
The amount of water spilling into the ocean is not clear, but a picture released by TEPCO shows water shooting some distance away from a wall and splashing into the sea.
People living within 20 kilometres of the plant have been evacuated, but it was unclear if the leak posed any new danger to workers.
A nuclear plant worker who fell into the ocean Friday while trying to board a barge carrying water to help cool the plant did not show any immediate signs of being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, nuclear safety officials said Saturday, but they were waiting for test results to be sure.
Radiation worries have compounded the misery for people trying to recover from the tsunami. Mr. Kan’s visit Saturday to Rikuzentakata did little to alleviate their worries.
“The government fully supports you until the end,” Mr. Kan told 250 people at an elementary school serving as an evacuation center. He earlier met with the mayor, whose 38-year-old wife was swept away by the tsunami.
The Prime Minister bowed his head for a moment of silence in front of the town hall, one of the few buildings still standing, though its windows are blown out and metal and debris sit tangled out front.
Mr. Kan also stopped at the sports complex being used as a base camp for nuclear plant workers, who have been hailed as heroes for labouring in dangerous conditions. He had visited the nuclear crisis zone once before, soon after the quake.
Workers have been reluctant to talk to the media about what they are experiencing, but one who spent several days at the plant described difficult conditions in an anonymous interview published Saturday in the national Mainichi newspaper.
When he was called in mid-March to help restore power at the plant, he said he did not tell his family because he did not want them to worry. But he did tell a friend to notify his parents if he did not return in two weeks.
“I feel very strongly that there is nobody but us to do this job, and we cannot go home until we finish the work,” he said.
Early on, the company ran out of full radiation suits, forcing workers to create improvised versions of items such as nylon booties they were supposed to pull over their shoes.
“But we only put something like plastic garbage bags you can buy at a convenience store and sealed them with masking tape,” he said.
He said the tsunami littered the area around the plant with dead fish and sharks, and that the quake opened holes in the ground that tripped up some workers who could not see through large gas masks. They had to yell at one another to be heard through the masks.
“It’s hard to move while wearing a gas mask,” he said. “While working, the gas mask came off several times. Maybe I must have inhaled much radiation.”
Radiation is also a concern for people living around the plant. In the city of Koriyama, Tadashi and Ritsuko Yanai and their one-month-old baby have spent the past three weeks in a sports arena converted into a shelter. Baby Kaon, born a week before the quake, has grown accustomed to life there, including frequent radiation screenings, but his parents have not.
Asked if he had anything he would like to say to the Prime Minister, Tadashi, a 32-year-old father, paused to think and then replied, “We want to go home. That’s all, we just want to go home.”
In Natori, where about 1,700 people are living in shelters, others had stronger words for Mr. Kan. Toru Sato, 57, lost both his wife and his house in the tsunami and said he was bothered that Mr. Kan’s visit to the quake zone was so brief - about a half day.
“He’s just showing up for an appearance,” Mr. Sato said. “He should spend time to talk to various people, and listen to what they need.”