Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese firemen pick through the rubble looking for bodies of victims of the tsunami in a flooded area of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture on April 1, 2011.
Japan's nuclear safety agency ordered a review Friday of the latest radiation measurements around a leaking nuclear plant, saying they seemed suspiciously high. TEPCO has conceded that there appears to be an error in the computer program used to analyze the data. Still, there is some relatively good news from the plant.
The company responsible for a damaged power plant in Japan says it may have misstated radiation levels in water near the plant, plant officials said Friday.
Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety agency on Friday ordered the Tokyo Electric Power Co. to review its latest radiation measurements taken in air, seawater and groundwater samples around the disabled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, saying they seemed suspiciously high.
Among the measurements under scrutiny: Thursday's announcement from TEPCO that it had found groundwater under one of its reactors containing iodine concentrations that were 10,000 times the government's standard for the plant, a NISA spokesman said.
TEPCO has been repeatedly forced to retract such figures. At the beginning of the week, the utility reported radiation levels in water that turned out to be 100 times higher than the actual readings. That has fueled fears over health risks and a lack of confidence in the company's ability to respond effectively to the crisis. TEPCO has still not been able to stabilize the plant's dangerously overheating reactors since cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.
TEPCO has conceded that there appears to be an error in the computer program used to analyze the data and that recent figures may be inaccurate. But company officials have also said that despite the glitch, it's possible the figures are correct.
NISA has held out the possibility that a complete review of all radiation data collected since the tsunami might eventually be ordered.
Though the size of more recent leaks is now unclear, it appears radiation is still streaming out of the plant, underscoring TEPCO's inability to get it under control. The company has increasingly asked for international help in its uphill battle, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that were to arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.
Still, there is some relatively good news from the plant: The pressure and temperature in the cores of the reactors have been pretty stable since the quake and tsunami hit. And no one seems worried anymore about the pools used to store spent nuclear fuel rods, reports NPR's Jon Hamilton in Tokyo. Fuel rods remain hot for years after they're used up, and the water levels in the pools where they are stored was of great concern in the first two weeks of the crisis.
Moreover, TEPCO has managed to restore electrical power to much of the plant. That's a critical step in getting cooling systems back in working order. And with every passing day, the reactor cores are producing less heat. It's now just a tiny fraction of what it was when the earthquake hit.
Drinking Water Not A Concern For Now
Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku University, said it was unlikely that radiation seeping into the ground under the plant would affect drinking water. He noted that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in the ground, as it does in the ocean.
But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking water if concentrations were high enough. One is if it were to seep into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile radius around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been sneaking back to check on their homes.
The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for drinking water. Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that's "extremely unlikely" because groundwater would flow toward the ocean, and the plant is right on the coast.
The two closest filtration plants for drinking water have both been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.
"When people return to the area, we will test the water to make sure it is safe," said Masato Ishikawa, an official with the Fukushima prefecture's food and sanitation division.
Contamination Concerns Rattle Public
Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles of the northeastern coast. Three weeks after the disaster — in one of the most connected countries in the world — 260,000 households still do not have running water, and 170,000 do not have electricity. Officials fear up to 25,000 people may have been killed.
In the latest report of food becoming tainted, the government said Friday that a cow slaughtered for beef had slightly elevated levels of cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat was never put on the market.
Radioactive cesium can build up in the body, and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. It is still found in wild boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.
Contamination has also affected work at the plant itself, where radioactive water has been pooling, often thwarting the vital work of powering up the complex's cooling systems.
Despite the leaks, TEPCO hasn't had enough dosimeters to provide one for each employee because many were destroyed in the earthquake. Under normal circumstances, the gauges, which measure radiation, would be worn at all times. Officials said Friday that more meters had arrived, and there are now enough for everyone.
"We must ensure safety and health of the workers, but we also face a pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. Until now, sharing meters "has been an unavoidable choice."
TEPCO has repeatedly relaxed safety standards during the crisis in order to prevent frequent violations. That is not uncommon during emergencies.
Meanwhile the search for the dead has continued, with the Japanese government relying on the assistance of foreign partners like the U.S. So far 11,500 people have been confirmed dead. Of those, more than 9,000 have been identified. Another 16,400 are missing, and many may never be found.
Hundreds of thousands more people are living in evacuation centers, most because they lost their homes in the tsunami. But others have been forced to leave their houses near the plant because of radiation concerns.
With reporting from NPR's Jon Hamilton in Tokyo. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.