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Level of Iodine-131 in Seawater Off Chart

1,250 Times Higher than Normal; Contamination Spreading

by Kanako Takahara and Kazuaki Nagata

TOKYO -- The level of radioactive iodine detected in seawater near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was 1,250 times above the maximum level allowable, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Saturday, suggesting contamination from the reactors is spreading.

OFF THE CHART -- Picture released by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) via Jiji Press shows black smoke rising from reactor number three at the Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Radiation levels in seawater near the tsunami-hit nuclear plant have soared over the past several days, officials said. Meanwhile, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. turned on the lights in the control room of the No. 2 reactor the same day, and was analyzing and trying to remove pools of water containing radioactive materials in the turbine buildings of reactors 1 to 3.

The iodine-131 in the seawater was detected at 8:30 a.m. Friday, about 330 meters south of the plant's drain outlets. Previously, the highest amount recorded was about 100 times above the permitted level.

If a person drank 500 ml of water containing the newly detected level of contamination, it would be the equivalent of 1 millisievert of radiation, or the average dosage one is exposed to annually, the NISA said.

"It is a substantial amount," NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama told a news conference.

But he also stressed there is "no immediate risk to public health," as the changing tides will dilute the iodine-131, and its half-life, or the amount of time it takes for it to lose half its radioactivity, is only eight days.

Nishiyama said the high concentration was perhaps caused by airborne radiation that contaminated the seawater, or contaminated water from the plant that flowed out to sea.

Tepco said early Saturday that it had detected a radiation reading of 200 millisieverts per hour in a pool of water in the No. 1 reactor's turbine building on March 18 and failed to notify workers, but later denied that a radiation level that high was found.

"If we had warned them, we may have been able to avoid having workers (at the No. 3 reactor) exposed to radiation," a Tepco official said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government had not been informed about the high radiation reading at the No. 1 plant and he will order Tepco to thoroughly report information. "If (Tepco) doesn't report various information with speed and accuracy, the government can't give proper instructions," Edano said. "It will only trigger distrust from the public and from the workers at the site."

On Thursday, three workers in the turbine building's basement of reactor 3 were exposed to a high dosage of radiation when they stepped into about 15 cm of contaminated water.

Two of the workers were not wearing high boots and received beta ray burns when the water soaked their legs. All three were sent to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba Prefecture.

Tests revealed that while the two received 170 to 180 millisieverts of radiation, within the maximum allowable dose of 250 millisieverts, their feet were exposed to between 2 and 6 sieverts. One sievert is equivalent to 1,000 millisieverts. But their injuries are not thought to be life-threatening and will be treated the same way as regular burns, the institute said, adding that the workers are able to walk unassisted.

On Saturday, Tepco also started pumping fresh water rather than seawater into the No. 2 reactor.

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