Tag Archive: Hidehiko Nishiyama


Japan nuke plants starts pumping radioactive water

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110419/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake

By MARI YAMAGUCHI and YURI KAGEYAMA, Associated Press Mari Yamaguchi And Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press 1 hr 54 mins ago

TOKYO – The operator of Japan’s crippled nuclear plant began pumping highly radioactive water from the basement of one of its buildings to a makeshift storage area Tuesday in a crucial step toward easing the nuclear crisis.

Removing the 25,000 metric tons (about 6.6 million gallons) of contaminated water that has collected in the basement of a turbine building at Unit 2 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will help allow access for workers trying to restore vital cooling systems that were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.

It is but one of many steps in a lengthy process to resolve the crisis. Tokyo Electric Power Co. projected in a road map released over the weekend that it would take up to nine months to reach a cold shutdown of the plant. But government officials acknowledge that setbacks could slow the timeline.

The water will be removed in stages, with the first third of it to be handled over the coming 20 days, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. In all, there are 70,000 tons (about 18.5 million gallons) of contaminated water to be removed from the plant’s reactor and turbine buildings and nearby trenches, and the entire process could take months.

TEPCO is bringing the water to a storage building that was flooded during the tsunami with lightly contaminated water that was later pumped into the ocean to make room for the highly contaminated water.

The operator plans to use technology developed by French nuclear engineering giant Areva to reduce radioactivity and remove salt from the contaminated water so that it can be reused to cool the plant’s reactors, Nishiyama said, adding that this process would take “several months.”

Once the contaminated water in the plant buildings is safely removed and radioactivity levels decline, workers can begin repairing the cooling systems for the reactors of Units 1, 2 and 3, which were in operation at the time of the tsunami. Workers must also restore cooling functions at the plant’s six spent fuel pools and a joint pool for all six units.

When the tsunami struck, units 5 and 6 were going through a regular inspection. On March 20, they were put in cold shutdown, which is when a reactor’s core is stable at temperatures below 212 Fahrenheit (100 Celsius).

With the nuclear crisis dragging on, public frustration with the government is growing. Opinion polls show more than two-thirds of Japanese are unhappy with the leadership of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was grilled for hours Monday by opposition politicians, many demanding he resign.

TEPCO has offered residents forced to evacuate from homes around the plant about $12,000 per household as interim compensation. People elsewhere in the disaster zone who lost houses to the tsunami — which also left more than 27,000 dead or missing — say help has been slow to materialize.

“I don’t understand what the politicians are doing, there are new committees and meetings everyday,” said Hiroshi Sato, who lost his house in Kesennuma and now lives in a fabric warehouse from his old business.

“We need support, financial assistance, and nothing has come yet,” he said.

In TEPCO’s blueprint for stabilizing the reactors, the utility aims to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools and reduce radiation leaks over the next three months. Within 6-9 months, the goal is achieve a cold shutdown of the reactors and cover the buildings, possibly with a form of industrial cloth, to further tamp deter any possible radiation leaks.

Two remote-controlled robots sent into the reactor buildings of Unit 1 and Unit 3 on Sunday showed that radiation levels inside — up to 57 millisieverts per hour — were still too high for humans to realistically enter.

The U.S.-made Packbots, which resemble drafting lamps on tank-like treads, also were briefly sent into Unit 2 on Monday, officials said, and the radiation level was found to be a much lower 4.1 millisieverts per hour.

But the high level of humidity inside the reactor building fogged up the robot’s camera lens, making it difficult to see conditions inside. They were pulled out after less than an hour, officials said.

“We didn’t want to lose sight of where the robot was and then not be able to retrieve it,” TEPCO manager Hikaru Kuroda said.

The reason for the higher humidity wasn’t clear, but it suggests that workers — if they were to go inside — also would have difficulty seeing through their masks, Kuroda said.

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Associated Press Writer Jay Alabaster in Kesennuma contributed to this report.

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Radiation near Japan reactors too high for workers

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110418/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake

By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press 10 mins ago

TOKYO – A pair of thin robots on treads sent to explore buildings inside Japan’s crippled nuclear reactor came back Monday with disheartening news: Radiation levels are far too high for repair crews to go inside.

Nevertheless, officials remained hopeful they can stick to their freshly minted “roadmap” for cleaning up the radiation leak and stabilizing the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant by year’s end so they can begin returning tens of thousands of evacuees to their homes.

“Even I had expected high radioactivity in those areas. I’m sure (plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.) and other experts have factored in those figures when they compiled the roadmap,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Officials announced for the first time Monday that spent fuel rods in Unit 2 were damaged, and contaminated water was discovered in other areas of the plant, underscoring the growing list of challenges facing TEPCO in cleaning up and containing the radiation. They also described in more detail the damage to fuel in three troubled reactors, saying pellets had melted.

Angry at the slow response to the nuclear crisis and to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that caused it, lawmakers tore into Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

“You should be bowing your head in apology. You clearly have no leadership at all,” Masashi Waki, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, shouted at Kan.

“I am sincerely apologizing for what has happened,” Kan said, stressing the government was doing all it could to handle the unprecedented disasters.

TEPCO’s president, Masataka Shimizu, appeared ill at ease as lawmakers heckled and taunted him.

Workers have not been able to go inside the reactor buildings at the stricken plant since the first days after the its cooling systems were wrecked by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 27,000 people dead or missing. Hydrogen explosions in both buildings in the first few days destroyed their roofs and scattered radioactive debris.

On Sunday, a plant worker opened an outer door to one of the buildings and two Packbots, which resemble drafting lamps on tank-like treads, entered. After the worker closed the door, one robot opened an inner door and both rolled inside to take readings for temperature, pressure and radioactivity. They later entered a second building.

Click image to see photos of quake, tsunami damage

The robots reported radioactivity readings of up to 49 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 1 and up to 57 inside Unit 3, levels too high for workers to realistically enter.

“It’s a harsh environment for humans to work inside,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Japanese authorities more than doubled the legal limit for nuclear workers since the crisis began to 250 millisieverts a year. Workers in the U.S. nuclear industry are allowed an upper limit of 50 millisieverts per year. Doctors say radiation sickness sets in at 1,000 millisieverts and includes nausea and vomiting.

The robots, made by Bedford, Massachusetts, company iRobot, which also makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, explored Unit 2 on Monday, but TEPCO officials had yet to analyze that data.

The radioactivity must be reduced, possibly with the removal of contaminated debris and stagnant water, before repair crews would be allowed inside, said NISA official Masataka Yoshizawa.

Sturdier robots can remove some of the debris, but workers are needed to test the integrity of the equipment and carry out electrical repairs needed to restore the cooling systems as called for in the road map, Yoshizawa said.

“What robots can do is limited, so eventually, people must enter the buildings,” TEPCO official Takeshi Makigami said.

The robots, along with remote-controlled miniature drones, have enabled TEPCO to photograph and take measurements of conditions in and around the plant while minimizing workers’ exposure to radiation and other hazards.

Separately, readings from a water tank in Unit 2 showed a severe spike in radiation that indicates likely damage to the fuel rods inside the spent fuel pool there, TEPCO officials said. That was the first indication of damage to those rods. The radiation was far higher than that measured in the spent fuel pool of Unit 4, suggesting the damage to the fuel in Unit 2 is greater.

NISA also sent a report to the government watchdog Nuclear Safety Commission, saying that some fuel pellets and rods in the reactors in Units 1, 2 and 3 had become overheated and melted during the crisis, the first time it had provided details of the damage to the fuel. Nishiyama, said the agency can only say “more than 3 percent” of the fuel rods have melted.

A pool of stagnant radioactive water was also discovered in the basement of Unit 4.

With evacuees’ ordeal stretching into the long-term, some began moving out of school gymnasiums into temporary housing. Hundreds who have not found apartments or relatives to take them in began filling up inns at hot springs.

“The government has asked us to be ready to take in as many as 200 evacuees for the next four months at least,” said Masaki Hata, whose family has run the Yoshikawaya Hot Springs Inn on the outskirts of Fukushima for seven generations.

Michiaki Niitsuma, a 27-year-old office worker, said he was glad to have a comfortable place to stay while he waited to go home.

“My kids got sick in the shelter. It was cold. It’s much better here. It’s a relief,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Fukushima and Noriko Kitano in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Operator airs plan to control Japan nuclear crisis

Tsunehisa  Katsumatahttp://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110417/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake

By RAVI NESSMAN and YURI KAGEYAMA, Associated Press Ravi Nessman And Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press 1 hr 14 mins ago

TOKYO – The operator of Japan’s crippled nuclear plant laid out a blueprint Sunday for stopping radiation leaks and stabilizing damaged reactors within the next six to nine months as a first step toward allowing some of the tens of thousands of evacuees to return to the area.

While the government said the timeframe was realistic, those forced to flee their homes, jobs and farms were frustrated that their exile is not going to end soon. And officials acknowledge that unforeseen complications, or even another natural disaster, could set that timetable back even further.

“Well, this year is lost,” said Kenji Matsueda, 49, who is living in an evacuation center in Fukushima after being forced from his home 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the plant. “I have no idea what I will do. Nine months is a long time. And it could be longer. I don’t think they really know.”

Pressure has been building on the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to resolve Japan’s worst-ever nuclear power accident since a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit the country March 11, knocking out power and cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex.

On orders from Prime Minister Naoto Kan, TEPCO drew up the blueprint and publicly explained its long-term strategy — for the first time since the disaster — for containing the crisis that has cast a cloud of fear over the country.

“We sincerely apologize for causing troubles,” TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said. “We are doing our utmost to prevent the crisis from further worsening.”

Under the roadmap, TEPCO will deal with the crisis in two stages.

In the first stage, the company will focus on cooling the reactors and spent fuel pools and reducing the level of leaking radiation. It will also aim to decontaminate water that has become radioactive, reduce the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere and soil, and lower radiation levels in the evacuation area, Katsumata said.

In the next stage, TEPCO aims to firmly control the release of radioactive materials, achieve a cold shutdown of the reactors and temporarily cover the reactor buildings, possibly with a form of industrial cloth. Longer-term goals include removing fuel from the spent fuel pools and putting permanent covers over the buildings.

TEPCO also plans to establish a system to recycle cooling water that will remove radioactivity as well as corrosive salt left behind by seawater that was earlier used as an emergency cooling measure.

“Given the conditions now, this is best that it could do,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, adding that conditions at the facility remain unstable.

Explosions, fires and other malfunctions have hindered efforts to repair the stricken plant and stem radiation leaks.

In a show of support for a staunch American ally, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Tokyo on Sunday to express admiration and sympathy for the Japanese.

Clinton had tea with the emperor and empress, who have been visiting evacuation centers to commiserate with the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, which left nearly 28,000 people dead or missing.

“We pledge our steadfast support for you and your future recovery. We are very confident that Japan will demonstrate the resilience that we have seen during this crisis in the months ahead,” Clinton said.

She also met with government officials, including Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, who asked for U.S. feedback on TEPCO’s plan to combat the nuclear crisis, Clinton said.

Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister and member of his nuclear crisis management task force, said the government would closely monitor TEPCO’s implementation of the plan and hoped the work could be concluded ahead of the six to nine month schedule. He said he understood people were frustrated by the timeline, but he called it “realistic.”

“There is no shortcut to resolving these issues. Though it will be difficult, we have to go step by step to resolve these problems,” he said.

Even with the announcement of the timeline, it remained unclear when evacuees might be able to return home.

The area would need to be decontaminated, including removing and replacing the soil, Nishiyama said.

Hosono said the evacuees would not have to stay in gymnasiums for such a long period, but would be moved into temporary housing.

Some evacuees were unswayed by TEPCO’s plan.

“I don’t believe a word they say,” said Yukio Otsuka, 56, a private school owner whose home is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the power plant. “I don’t trust them. I don’t believe it is possible. We have really drawn the short stick on this one.”

Activists criticized the delay in the roadmap’s announcement.

“TEPCO has taken far too long to provide an indication of the direction it plans to take to bring the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi under control,” said Philip White of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a group of scientists and activists who have opposed nuclear power since 1975. “We hope TEPCO meets its targets, but there are many challenges ahead and many uncertainties.”

The unveiling of the roadmap came two days after TEPCO — also under pressure from Kan’s government — announced plans to give 1 million yen ($12,000) in initial compensation to each evacuated household, with much more expected later.

Katsumata, the TEPCO chairman, was hammered Sunday by questions over his managerial responsibility and told reporters he was considering stepping down because of the crisis.

“I feel very responsible,” he said.

Kan said in a weekend commentary in the International Herald Tribune that ending the nuclear crisis as soon as possible was his “top priority.”

As Japan has begun planning for reconstruction and mulling how to pay for it, Kan’s political opponents have resumed calls for his resignation after refraining from criticism in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Government officials fanned out across the affected areas over the weekend seeking to explain evacuation decisions and calm nerves. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano met Sunday with the governor of Fukushima, who has vigorously protested the predicament the nuclear crisis poses for his prefecture.

“The safety of residents is our foremost priority,” Edano said. “I told the governor that the government will do everything it can to prevent the crisis from worsening.”

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Associated Press writers Noriko Kitano and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo and Eric Talmadge in Fukushima contributed to this report.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110404/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake

By MARI YAMAGUCHI and YURI KAGEYAMA, Associated Press Mari Yamaguchi And Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press 2 hrs 55 mins ago

TOKYO – Workers used a milky bathwater dye Monday as they frantically tried to trace the path of radioactive water seeping into the ocean from Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear plant.

The crack in a maintenance pit discovered over the weekend was the latest confirmation that radioactivity continues to spill into the environment. The leak is a symptom of the primary difficulty at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex: Radioactive water is pooling around the plant and preventing workers from powering up cooling systems needed to stabilize dangerously vulnerable fuel rods.

The plant operators also deliberately dumped 10,000 tons of tainted water — measuring about 500 times above the legal limit for radiactivity — into the ocean Monday to make space at a storage site for water that is even more highly radiactive.

Engineers have turned to a host of improvised and sometimes bizarre methods to tame the nuclear plant after it was crippled in Japan’s magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami on March 11.

Efforts over the weekend to clog the leak with a special polymer, sawdust and even shredded newspapers failed to halt the flow at a cracked concrete maintenance pit near the shoreline. The water in that leak contains radioactive iodine at rates 10,000 times the legal limit.

Suspecting they might be targeting the wrong channel to the pit, workers tried to confirm the leak’s pathway by dumping several pounds (kilograms) of salts used to give bathwater a milky hue into the system, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Monday.

“There could be other possible passages that the water may be traveling. We must watch carefully and contain it as quickly as possible,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear Safety and Industrial Agency.

Radioactive water has pooled throughout the plant because the operator has been forced to rely on makeshift ways of pumping water into the reactors — and allowing it to gush out wherever it can — to bring down temperatures and pressure in the cores.

Government officials conceded Sunday that it will likely be several months before the cooling systems are completely restored. And even after that happens, there will be years of work ahead to clean up the area around the complex and figure out what to do with it.

The makeshift system makes it difficult to contain the radiation leaks, but it is aimed a preventing fuel rods from going into a full meltdown that would release even more radiactivity into the environment.

Click image to see photos of quake, tsunami damage

“We must keep putting water into the reactors to cool to prevent further fuel damage, even though we know that there is a side effect, which is the leakage,” Nishiyama said. “We want to get rid of the stagnant water and decontaminate the place so that we can return to our primary task to restore the sustainable cooling capacity as quickly as possible.”

To that end, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said it jettisoned the 10,000 tons of water Monday, clearing space in a waste-storage facility. The government decided to allow the step as “an unavoidable emergency measure,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

An additional 1,500 tons will be dumped from a trench under the plant’s units 5 and 6. That water is threatening to interfere with the workings at those units, whose reactors are under control.

Radioactivity is quickly diluted in the ocean, and Edano said the dump should not affect the safety of seafood in the area.

The crisis has unfolded as Japan deals with the aftermath of twin natural disasters that decimated large swaths of its northeastern coast. Up to 25,000 people are believed to have died in the disaster, and tens of thousands lost their homes. Thousands more were forced to flee a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius around the plant because of the radiation.

The 8-inch-long (20-centimeter-long) crack was discovered in the maintenance pit over the weekend. It is sending radioactive water into area that is normally blocked off by a seawall, but a crack was also discovered in that outer barrier Monday.

Though it later authorized the dumping of slightly radioactive water, the government said Monday it was growing concerned about the sheer volume of contaminated materials spilling into the Pacific. It is not clear how much water has leaked from the pit so far.

“Even if they say the contamination will be diluted in the ocean, the longer this continues, the more radioactive particles will be released and the greater the impact on the ocean,” Edano said. “We are strongly urging TEPCO that they have to take immediate action to deal with this.”

The crisis has sparked protests in Japan and raised questions around the world about the safety of nuclear power. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency told delegates at a nuclear safety conference Monday that the industry cannot afford to ignore these concerns.

“We cannot take a ‘business as usual’ approach,” Yukiya Amano said.

The operator said Monday it is ordering fencing that is typically used to contain oil spills. The screens are not designed to trap radioactivity but might curtail the flow of water and thus reduce the spread of contamination, said TEPCO manager Teruaki Kobayashi. It was not clear when they would arrive.

All of the plant’s reactors were designed by General Electric, and the company’s CEO met Sunday with TEPCO’s chairman. Jeffrey Immelt told reporters Monday that more than 1,000 engineers from GE and its partner Hitachi are helping to analyze the problems at the plant.

Immelt also offered assistance in dealing with the electricity shortage brought on by damage to Dai-ichi and other power plants. Japan is expecting a shortfall of at least 10 million kilowatts come summer.

Gas turbines are on their way from the U.S. with both long- and short-term capabilities, Immelt said.

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Associated Press writer Ryan Nakashima in Tokyo contributed to this report.

More radioactive water spills at Japan nuke plant

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110328/ap_on_bi_ge/as_japan_earthquake

By SHINO YUASA, Associated Press Shino Yuasa, Associated Press 48 mins ago

TOKYO – Workers discovered new pools of radioactive water leaking from Japan’s crippled nuclear complex, officials said Monday, as emergency crews struggled to pump out hundreds of tons of contaminated water and bring the plant back under control.

Officials believe the contaminated water has sent radioactivity levels soaring at the coastal complex, and caused more radiation to seep into soil and seawater.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, was crippled March 11 when a tsunami spawned by a powerful earthquake slammed into Japan’s northeastern coast. The huge wave engulfed much of the complex, and destroyed the crucial power systems needed to cool the complex’s nuclear fuel rods.

Since then, three of the complex’s six units are believed to have partially melted down, and emergency crews have struggled with everything from malfunctioning pumps to dangerous spikes in radiation that have forced temporary evacuations.

Confusion at the plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will last weeks, months or years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far away as Tokyo.

The troubles at the Fukushima complex have eclipsed Pennsylvania’s 1979 crisis at Three Mile Island, when a partial meltdown raised fears of widespread radiation release, but is still well short of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation for hundreds of miles (kilometers).

While parts of the Japanese plant has been reconnected to the power grid, the contaminated water — which has now been found in numerous places around the complex, including the basements of several buildings — must be pumped out before electricity can be restored to the cooling system.

That has left officials struggling with two sometimes-contradictory efforts: pumping in water to keep the fuel rods cool and pumping out — and then safely storing — contaminated water.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, called that balance “very delicate work.”

Click image to see photos of quake, tsunami damage

He also said workers were still looking for safe ways to store the radioactive water.

“We are exploring all means,” he said.

The buildup of radioactive water first became a problem last week, when it splashed over the boots of two workers, burning them and prompting a temporary suspension of work.

Then on Monday, officials with Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the complex, said that workers had found more radioactive water in deep trenches used for pipes and electrical wiring outside three units.

The contaminated water has been emitting radiation exposures more than four times the amount that the government considers safe for workers.

The five workers in the area at the time were not hurt, said TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita.

Exactly where the water is coming from remains unclear, though many suspect it is cooling water that has leaked from one of the disabled reactors.

It could take weeks to pump out the radioactive water, said Gary Was, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

“Battling the contamination so workers can work there is going to be an ongoing problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, new readings showed ocean contamination had spread about a mile (1.6 kilometers) farther north of the nuclear site than before but is still within the 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius of the evacuation zone. Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered offshore at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters.

Amid reports that people had been sneaking back into the mandatory evacuation zone around the nuclear complex, the chief government spokesman again urged residents to stay out. Yukio Edano said contaminants posed a “big” health risk in that area.

Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arrived in Tokyo on Monday to meet with Japanese officials and discuss the situation, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

“The unprecedented challenge before us remains serious, and our best experts remain fully engaged to help Japan,” Jaczko was quoted as saying.

Early Monday, a strong earthquake shook the northeastern coast and prompted a brief tsunami alert. The quake was measured at magnitude 6.5, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. No damage or injuries were reported.

Scores of earthquakes have rattled the country over the past two weeks, adding to the sense of unease across Japan, where the final death toll is expected to top 18,000 people, with hundreds of thousands still homeless.

TEPCO officials said Sunday that radiation in leaking water in Unit 2 was 10 million times above normal — a report that sent employees fleeing. But the day ended with officials saying that figure had been miscalculated and the level was actually 100,000 times above normal, still very high but far better than the earlier results.

“This sort of mistake is not something that can be forgiven,” Edano said sternly Monday.

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Associated Press writers Tomoko A. Hosaka, Mayumi Saito, Mari Yamaguchi and Jeff Donn contributed to this report.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/as_japan_earthquake

By SHINO YUASA and JAY ALABASTER, Associated Press Shino Yuasa And Jay Alabaster, Associated Press 11 mins ago

TOKYO – A suspected breach in the reactor at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant could mean more serious radioactive contamination, Japanese officials revealed Friday, as the prime minister called the country’s ongoing fight to stabilize the plant “very grave and serious.”

A somber Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a pessimistic note at a briefing hours after nuclear safety officials announced what could be a major setback in the urgent mission to stop the plant from leaking radiation, two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami disabled it.

“The situation today at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant is still very grave and serious. We must remain vigilant,” Kan said. “We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care.”

The uncertain situation halted work at the nuclear complex, where dozens had been trying feverishly to stop the overheated plant from leaking dangerous radiation. The plant has leaked some low levels of radiation, but a breach could mean a much larger release of contaminants.

The possible breach in Unit 3 might be a crack or a hole in the stainless steel chamber of the reactor core or in the spent fuel pool that’s lined with several feet of reinforced concrete. The temperature and pressure inside the core, which holds the fuel rods, remained stable and was far lower than would further melt the core.

Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when two workers waded into water 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found in water in or around a reactor and suffered skin burns, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.

Kan apologized to farmers and business owners for the toll the radiation has had on their livelihoods: Several countries have halted some food imports from areas near the plant after milk and produce were found to contain elevated levels of radiation.

He also thanked utility workers, firefighters and military personnel for “risking their lives” to cool the overheated facility.

The alarm Friday comes two weeks to the day since the magnitude-9 quake triggered a tsunami that enveloped cities along the northeastern coast and knocked out the Fukushima reactor’s cooling systems.

Police said the official death toll jumped past 10,000 on Friday. With the cleanup and recovery operations continuing and more than 17,400 listed as missing, the final number of dead was expected to surpass 18,000.

Click image to see photos of quake, tsunami damage

The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a nation already saddled with a humanitarian disaster. Much of the frigid northeast remains a scene of despair and devastation, with Japan struggling to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors, clear away debris and bury the dead.

A breach could mean a leak has been seeping for days, likely since the hydrogen explosion at Unit 3 on March 14. It’s not clear if any of the contaminated water has run into the ground. Radiation readings for the air were not yet available for Friday, but detections in recent days have shown no significant spike.

But elevated levels of radiation have already turned up in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips. Tap water in several areas of Japan — including Tokyo — also showed radiation levels considered unsafe for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said.

The scare caused a run on bottled water in the capital, and Tokyo municipal officials are distributing it to families with babies.

Previous radioactive emissions have come from intentional efforts to vent small amounts of steam through valves to prevent the core from bursting. However, releases from a breach could allow uncontrolled quantities of radioactive contaminants to escape into the surrounding ground or air.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano said “safety measures may not be adequate” and warned that may contribute to rising anxiety among people about how the disaster is being managed.

“We have to make sure that safety is secured for the people working in that area. We truly believe that is incumbent upon us,” the chief Cabinet secretary told reporters.

Edano said people living 12 to 20 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) from the plant should still be safe from the radiation as long as they stay indoors. But since supplies are not being delivered to the area fast enough, he said it may be better for residents in the area to voluntarily evacuate to places with better facilities.

“If the current situation is protracted and worsens, then we will not deny the possibility of (mandatory) evacuation,” he said.

NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said later that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. was issued a “very strong warning” for safety violations and that a thorough review would be conducted once the situation stabilizes.

Meanwhile, damage to factories was taking its toll on the world’s third-largest economy and creating a ripple effect felt worldwide.

Nissan Motor Co. said it may move part of its engine production line to the United States because of damage to a plant.

The quake and tsunami are emerging as the world’s most expensive natural disasters on record, wreaking up to $310 billion in damages, the government said.

“There is no doubt that we have immense economic and financial damage,” Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. “It will be our task how to recover from the damage.”

At Sendai’s port, brand new Toyota cars lay crushed in piles. At the airport, flooded by the tsunami on March 11, U.S. Marines used bulldozers and shovels to shift wrecked cars that lay scattered like discarded toys.

Still, there were examples of resilience, patience and fortitude across the region.

In Soma, a hard-hit town along the Fukushima prefecture coast, rubble covered the block where Hiroshi Suzuki’s home once stood. He watched as soldiers dug into mounds of timber had been neighbors’ homes in search of bodies. Just three bodies have been pulled out.

“I never expected to have to live through anything like this,” he said mournfully. Suzuki is one of Soma’s lucky residents, but the tsunami washed away the shop where he sold fish and seaweed.

“My business is gone. I don’t think I will ever be able to recover,” said Suzuki, 59.

Still, he managed to find a bright side. “The one good thing is the way everyone is pulling together and helping each other. No one is stealing or looting,” he said.

“It makes me feel proud to be Japanese.”

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Alabaster reported from Onagawa. Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach, Tomoko A. Hosaka, Kristen Gelineau, Jean H. Lee and Jeff Donn in Tokyo, Eric Talmadge in Soma and Johnson Lai in Sendai contributed to this report.

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