Workers at Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant have finally halted a leak that was sending a tide of radioactive water into the Pacific and exacerbating concerns over the safety of seafood, the operator said.
It was a rare bit of good news for the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex and the coastal areas surrounding it, where high levels of seawater contamination have angered fishermen and prompted the government to set limits for the first time on the amount of radiation permitted in fish.
But in a sign that workers still face several challenges before the overheating reactors are stabilised, Tokyo Electric Power Co said it plans to inject nitrogen gas into one of the reactors.
Nitrogen can prevent highly combustible hydrogen from exploding - as it did three times at the compound in the early days of the crisis.
There is no immediate possibility of an explosion, but the “nitrogen injection is being considered as a cautionary measure,” said spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Tepco said the process could begin as early as this evening in Unit 1 - where pressure and temperatures are the highest - according to spokesman Junichi Matsumoto.
The same measures will eventually be taken at the other two troubled reactors.
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that followed are believed to have killed as many as 25,000 people.
Hundreds of miles of coastline have been destroyed and the country’s fishing industry devastated.
Since the crush of water flooded the plant and knocked out cooling systems, workers there have been desperately trying to cool overheated reactors.
The effort has required spraying large amounts of water and allowing it to gush out wherever it can escape, sometimes into the sea.
While officials have said the crack in a maintenance pit plugged early today was the only one found, they have not ruled out that radioactive water is leaking into the sea from another point.
“Right now, just because the leak has stopped, we are not relieved yet,” said chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano. “We are checking whether the leak has completely stopped, or whether there may be other leaks.”
Workers had used concrete, a polymer, sawdust and shredded newspaper in several days of failed efforts to seal the crack.
This morning, an injection of 1800l of “water glass”, or sodium silicate, and another agent appeared to be successful, Tepco spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said.
While photos of water pouring from the pit over the weekend intensified fears of ocean contamination, authorities had insisted the radioactive water would dissipate and posed no immediate threat to sea creatures or people who might eat them. Most experts agreed.
Still, Japanese officials adopted the new standards as a precaution. And the mere suggestion that seafood from the country that gave the world sushi could be at any risk stirred worries throughout the fishing industry.
“Even if the government says the fish is safe, people won’t want to buy seafood from Fukushima,” said Ichiro Yamagata, a fisherman who fled his home in the shadow of the power plant and now lives in an evacuation centre near Tokyo. “We probably can’t fish there for several years.”
Fukushima is not a major fishing region, and no fishing is allowed in the immediate vicinity of the plant. But experts estimate the coastal areas hit by the massive wave last month account for about a fifth of Japan’s annual catch.