Workers at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant are being paid vast sums of money to brave high radiation levels – as experts warn that the race to save the facility has been lost.
Subcontractors are reportedly being offered up to 100,000 yen a day (£760) – 20 times the going rate – but some are still refusing the dangerous work.
Radiation levels are still extremely high at the plant, with water around the reactors emitting a highly dangerous 1,000 millisieverts per hour.
There are also fears that the plant is leaking more radiation as sea water around the plant was found to contain levels 3,335 higher than normal – almost three times higher than last week.
In a further development, an expert who helped design the plant said today that the race to prevent reactor number two melting down had been lost.
The plant’s operators also said today that the four reactors that suffered explosions will be shut down for good once they are under control – and could be sealed in special material to keep radiation in.
Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling-water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, told the Guardian that he believed nuclear fuel had melted and burned through the reactor floor in unit number two.
That would expose the core to the atmosphere, risking more serious radiation leaks.
He told the Guardian: ‘The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the dry well.
‘I hope I am wrong, but that is certainly what the evidence is pointing towards.’
The major worry is that the lava-like radioactive core will react with the concrete floor in Unit Two, sending radioactive gasses into the atmosphere.
Fortunately, though, the plant is flooded with seawater which will cool the material quicker than normal, reducing the amount of gas released.
Water is also causing problems for the plant workers. Now that power has been restored to pumping systems they can pump water into the stricken reactors, but the water coming out is highly radioactive and poses a risk to health.
According to the Independent newspaper, subcontractors have been offered the huge daily rates to take part in the containment efforts.
It comes as a team of American robots was dispatched to help efforts to keep the reactors under control without risking lives.The Energy Department robots will take pictures and measure radiation levels in areas where a human would not be sent.
Former worker Shingo Kanno said: ‘They know it’s dangerous so they have to pay up to 20 times what they usually do.’
The seasonal farmer and construction worker turned down offers of work. ‘My wife and family are against it because it’s so dangerous.’
There has been widespread speculation in Japan that the levels of radiation workers face could ultimately prove lethal.
A new evacuation zone is now being considered by the Tokyo Electric Power Company which could mean another 130,000 people have to evacuate.
Seawater outside the crippled nuclear power plant in north-eastern Japan was found to contain 3,335 times the usual amount of radioactive iodine – the highest rate yet and a sign that more contaminated water was making its way into the ocean, officials said today.
Readings on Friday found levels were 1,250 times higher than normal.
The amount of iodine-131 found offshore 300 yards south of the power plant did not pose an immediate threat to human health, but was a ‘concern’, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
He said there was no fishing in the area. ‘We will nail down the cause, and will do our utmost to prevent it from rising further,’ said Mr Nishiyama.
The power plant has been leaking radiation since the March 11 tsunami slammed into Japan’s north east, knocking out power and back-up systems crucial to keeping temperatures down inside the plant’s reactors.
Residents within 12 miles have been evacuated, while those up to 19 miles have been urged to leave as radiation has made its way into vegetables, raw milk and water. Last week tap water as far away as Tokyo, 140 miles to the south, contained levels of cancer-causing iodine-131 considered unsafe for infants.
Radiation from the Fukushima leak has been also detected across Britain this week. The Health Protection Agency revealed that radioactive iodine had already been discovered 5,500 miles from the stricken plant in Oxfordshire and Glasgow.
Experts said the levels were ‘minuscule’ and posed no health risk to Britons. However, its arrival highlights how far radioactive material can travel on the winds – and how vulnerable Britain would be if there was a serious release of radiation thousands of miles away.
The government acknowledged yesterday that its safeguards had been insufficient to protect the plant against the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
‘Our preparedness was not sufficient,’ chief Cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said. ‘When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review’ the safety standards.
Highly toxic plutonium was the latest contaminant found seeping into the soil outside the plant, Tepco said. Safety officials said the amounts did not pose a risk to humans, but the finding supports suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods.
Workers succeeded last week in reconnecting some parts of the plant to the power grid. But as they pumped in water to cool the reactors and nuclear fuel, they discovered numerous pools of radioactive water, including in the basements of several buildings and in trenches outside.
The contaminated water has been emitting many times the amount of radiation that the government considers safe for workers. It must be pumped out before electricity can be restored and the regular cooling systems powered up.
That has left officials struggling with two crucial but contradictory efforts: pumping in water to keep the fuel rods cool and pumping out contaminated water.
Officials are hoping tanks at the complex will be able to hold the water, or that new tanks can be trucked in. The Nuclear Safety Commission said other possibilities included digging a storage pit for the contaminated water, recycling it back into the reactors or even pumping it to an offshore tanker.
Yesterday three workers trying to connect a pump outside the Unit 3 reactor were splashed by water that gushed from a pipe. Though they wore suits meant to be waterproof and protect against high levels of radiation, Mr Nishiyama said the men were soaked to their underwear.
They quickly washed it off and were not injured, officials said.
Last week, two workers were hospitalised with burns after they waded into highly radioactive water that reached their knees while wearing ankle-high protective boots. They have been treated and released.
Nikkei, Japan’s top business newspaper, called it ‘outrageous’ that Tepco had been slow to release information about trenches outside the reactors filled with contaminated water, one just a few inches (10cm) from overflowing.
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