- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2011

TOKYO (AP) — 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. Crews also found traces of plutonium in the soil outside of the complex on Monday, but officials insisted there was no threat to public health.

Plutonium — a key ingredient in nuclear weapons — is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for over two weeks, so experts had expected some to be found once crews began searching for evidence of it this week.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) official Jun Tsuruoka said only two of the plutonium samples taken Monday were from the leaking reactors. The other three were from earlier nuclear tests. Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.

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.

The headquarters building of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., also known as Tepco, at the base of the communications tower in the middle, is pictured in Tokyo on Monday, March 28, 2011. The company, which runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant at the center of the country's nuclear crisis, has issued a series of botched radiation readings from the plant in recent days. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)
The headquarters building of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., also known as ... more >

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 across much of the Northern Hemisphere.

While parts of the Japanese plant have 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 still were 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 Tepco, 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.

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