Radiation Rises in Seawater Near Fukushima Plant

Japanese officials concede they are no closer to resolving nuclear crisis as high level of radiation is detected in ocean

Japanese officials have conceded they are no closer to resolving the nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi power plant, as new readings showed a dramatic increase in radioactive contamination in the sea.

The pressure to make progress also took its toll on Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the plant's operator, whose chief executive, Masataka Shimizu, was taken to hospital on Tuesday night suffering from exhaustion.

The country's nuclear and industrial safety agency, Nisa, said radioactive iodine-131 at 3,355 times the legal limit had been identified in the sea about 300 yards south of the plant, although officials have yet to determine how it got there.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a Nisa spokesman, said fishing had stopped in the area, adding that the contamination posed no immediate threat to humans. "We will find out how it happened and do our utmost to prevent it from rising," he said.

The government's acceptance of help from the US and France has strengthened the belief that the battle to save the stricken reactors, now well into its third week, is lost.

On Tuesday, a US engineer who helped install reactors at the plant said he believed the radioactive core in unit 2 may have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor.

The government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, could not say how long the operation at Fukushima would last. "We are not yet in a situation were we can say we will have this under control by a certain period," he said.

While Nisa officials attempted to play down the contamination's impact on marine life, any development that heightens health concerns among consumers will dismay local fishermen, many of whom already face a long struggle to rebuild their businesses after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

Experts say the radiation will be diluted by the sea, lessening the contamination of fish and other marine life.

Robert Peter Gale, a US medical researcher who was brought in by Soviet authorities after the Chernobyl disaster, said recent higher readings of radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137 should be of greater concern than reports earlier this week of tiny quantities of plutonium found in soil samples.

But he added: "It's obviously alarming when you talk about radiation, but if you have radiation in non-gas form I would say dump it in the ocean."

Gale, who has been advising the Japanese government, said: "To some extent that's why some nuclear power plants are built along the coast, to be in an area where the wind is blowing out to sea, and because the safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.

"The dilutional factor could not be better - there's no better place. If you deposit it on earth or in places where people live there is no dilutional effect. From a safety point of view the ocean is the safest place."

Analysts said a prolonged crisis at the Fukushima plant could place intolerable pressure on the economy. "The worst-case scenario is that this drags on not one month or two months or six months, but for two years, or indefinitely," said Jesper Koll of JPMorgan Securities in Tokyo. "Japan will be bypassed. That is the real nightmare scenario."

Criticism of Tepco is building after safety lapses last week put three workers in hospital - all have been discharged - and erroneous reports of radiation data.

Shimizu, 66, has not been seen since appearing at a press conference on 13 March, two days after the disaster.

He had reportedly resumed control of the operation at the firm's headquarters in Tokyo after suffering a minor illness, but on Tuesday he was admitted to hospital suffering from high blood pressure and dizziness. Tepco said on Wednesday that he was not expected to be absent for long.

Tepco shares plunged by almost 18% on Wednesday morning and have lost 75% of their value since 11 March. Reports on Tuesday said the government was considering nationalising the beleaguered utility.

The hundreds of workers at the plant must now find a balance between pumping enough water to cool the reactors and avoiding a runoff of highly radioactive excess water. As yet they do not have anywhere to store the contaminated water.

The options under consideration were to transfer the water to a ship or cover the reactors to trap radioactive particles, Edano said.

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