Plutonium Found In Soil Outside Japanese Nuke Plant - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Plutonium Found In Soil Outside Japanese Nuke Plant

TOKYO - Tiny amounts of plutonium have been detected in the soil outside of the stricken Japanese nuclear complex, the plant operator said Monday.

Experts had expected traces would be detected once crews began searching for it, because plutonium is present in the production of nuclear energy.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the amounts found at five sites during testing last week were very small and were not a risk to public health.

TEPCO official Jun Tsuruoka said only two of the plutonium samples were believed to be from a leaking reactor. The other three samples were from earlier nuclear tests, he said. Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere have left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.

But finding plutonium is a concern because it is the most toxic of isotopes that can be released from a nuclear reactor. It can be fatal to humans in very tiny doses and does not decay quickly.

The report followed another discovery Monday: New pools of radioactive water are leaking from the plant.

Officials believe the contaminated water was responsible for radioactivity levels soaring at the coastal complex on Sunday, causing more radiation to seep into soil and seawater, before levels fell again.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, 140 miles 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.

Experts warn that Japan faces a long fight to contain the world's most dangerous atomic crisis in 25 years.

"This is far beyond what one nation can handle — it needs to be bumped up to the U.N. Security Council," said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California. "In my humble opinion, this is more important than the Libya no-fly zone."

Murray Jennex, a nuclear power plant expert and associate professor at San Diego State University, said "there's not really a plan B" other than to dry out the plant, get power restored and start cooling it down.

"What we're now in is a long slog period with lots of small, unsexy steps that have to be taken to pull the whole thing together," he told Reuters.

The good news, he said, was that the reactor cores appeared to be cooling down.

'Delicate work'
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 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.

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."

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, TEPCO officials said 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.

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