Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he can see “light at the end of the tunnel” even as smoke at two reactors hampered efforts to restore cooling systems at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. evacuated engineers and halted work after smoke was seen billowing from the No. 3 unit, Hitoshi Emukai, a Tokyo-based spokesman at the utility, said yesterday. White smoke seen later at the No. 2 reactor is likely steam, said Naoki Tsunoda, another company spokesmen.
Kan’s optimistic statements are the strongest yet from a Japanese official amid the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years. The battle to prevent a meltdown entered its 12th day as reports of radiation contamination at sea and on land multiplied. Cooler temperatures in pools holding spent fuel rods are the result of thousands of tons of seawater sprayed over the reactors since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the cooling systems.
“While we haven’t reached the point where we can say we’ve gotten out of this crisis situation, it can be said that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kan said at a meeting of his crisis response team in Tokyo.
Firefighters have sprayed seawater on the reactor buildings from fire engines in attempts to refill storage pools and prevent fuel rods from overheating and releasing more radiation.
Regulators in Japan and the U.S. said not covering the hot plutonium rods could cause them to catch fire and release radioactive pollution if exposed to air.
Death Toll Rises
Nikkei 225 Stock Average futures expiring in June jumped 2.9 percent to 9,440 in Singapore after Tokyo Electric said it connected a power cable from reactor 3 to 4, and Kan said progress was being made restoring power to units 1 and 2. Japan’s markets were closed for a public holiday yesterday.
The death toll from the nation’s worst postwar disaster rose to 8,805 as of 9 p.m. local time yesterday with 12,654 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the country’s northern coastline and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.
“We are at the beginning of the post-accident phase,” Andre-Claude Lacoste, head of the Paris-based Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, a watchdog group, said at a press conference in Paris yesterday. “Japan will have to deal with the consequences of this accident for decades.”
The Japanese government is risking a food scare by failing to clarify where produce is contaminated and stopping some shipments, said Toshihiko Baba, a spokesman for the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives in Japan, which represents more than 4.8 million farmers. Radiation levels found in food so far aren’t harmful, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the nation will limit distribution of spinach and milk after samples from the area near the plant 135 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo were found to have higher-than-normal radiation levels. Spinach sampled at Hitachi, 97 kilometers south of the plant, contained 27 times the government limits for Iodine-131, according to the health ministry. That spinach won’t enter the food chain.
“Food-borne radiation will last longer than airborne radiation,” Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, said in an interview. “Even smaller amounts of radiation in food could potentially be more dangerous because you ingest it.”
Japan’s limits are based on assumptions about how much contaminated food a person may eat, Edwin Lyman, a specialist on nuclear materials for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said in a press call.
“It will be a dilemma for a lot of consumers in Japan,” Lyman said. “People are going to have to understand the basis for those limits.”
Japanese officials will have to perform triage on farmland -- closing some areas entirely, monitoring some for radiation and labeling some as safe, said Kenneth Bergeron, a former nuclear scientist at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Japan is going to have to put in place a very extensive monitoring system to make sure that every batch of produce that might come out of this area is monitored,” Bergeron said.
Asian countries are screening Japanese imports, and Taiwan yesterday detected radiation on vegetables that was within acceptable limits. Stores and restaurants across Asia dropped Japanese food from shelves and menus.
Tokyo Electric reported radioactivity levels today above allowable limits in seawater sampled near the plant at 2:30 p.m. local time, Kyodo News reported. Rain, or the seawater that crews are using to cool the plant, may have washed contaminants into the sea, Kyodo News said.
Fuel shipments at Sendai Shiogama Port have resumed and roads to the worst-hit areas reopened, adding to signs the crisis may be passing its peak.
Radiation containment domes at the reactors are intact and the situation at the plant “is on the verge of stabilizing,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Bill Borchardt said.
“The fact that offsite power is close to being available for use at plant equipment is perhaps the first optimistic sign that things could be turning around,” Borchardt, executive director for operations, said at a meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.