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Japan stops nuclear plant leak

Japan stopped highly radioactive water leaking into the sea today from a crippled nuclear plant, a breakthrough in the battle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, but contaminated water was still be pumped into the ocean.

world Updated: Apr 06, 2011 09:26 IST

Japan stopped highly radioactive water leaking into the sea on Wednesday from a crippled nuclear plant, a breakthrough in the battle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, but contaminated water was still be pumped into the ocean.

Analysts said the damaged reactors, whose fuel rods operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is desperately trying to cool, were still not under control almost a month after they were hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

TEPCO said it had stemmed the radioactive leak using liquid glass at one of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeast Japan that were damaged on March 11.

"The leaks were slowed yesterday (Tuesday) after we injected a mixture of liquid glass and a hardening agent and it has now stopped," a TEPCO spokesman told Reuters.

Engineers had been frantically struggling to stop the leaks from reactor no. 2, even using sawdust and newspapers. It was liquid glass that finally stemmed the flow of the highly-contaminated water.

Engineers are still faced with the massive problem of how to store 60,000 tonnes (60 million litres) of contaminated seawater used to cool over-heated fuel rods and are being forced to pump 11,500 tonnes of low-level radioactive water back into the sea.

Local newspapers said neighbours South Korea and China were getting concerned over the ongoing nuclear crisis and radioactive water being pumped into the sea.

"Perhaps we should have given more detailed explanations to the relevant ministries and to our neighbours. We are instructing the trade and foreign ministries to work better together so that detailed explanations are supplied especially to neighbouring countries," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference on Wednesday.

"The situation is not under control yet," said Thomas Grieder, Asia analyst at forecasting firm IHS Global Insight.

"TEPCO's decision to displace the contaminated water into the ocean reflected the urgency of clearing? the turbine buildings and trenches of radioactive water so as not to damage equipment needed for restoration of cooling systems."

Workers are struggling to restart cooling pumps -- which recycle the water -- in four damaged reactors.

Until those are fixed, they must pump in water from outside to prevent overheating and meltdowns. Radioactive iodine detected in the sea has been recorded at 4,800 times the legal limit, but has since fallen to around 600 times the limit.

A floating tanker is being converted to hold contaminated seawater and is due to arrive at the plant site by April 16. TEPCO also plans to build tanks to hold the equivalent of six Olympic swimming pools of radioactive water.

Cooling reactors key

Japan is facing its worst crisis since World War Two after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami left nearly 28,000 people dead or missing and thousands homeless, and rocked the world's third-largest economy.

It will likely take months to finally cool down the reactors and years to dismantle those reactors that have been damaged. TEPCO has said it will decommission four of the six reactors.

"Reactor cooling efforts have improved and proper supply lines appear to be in place so we are getting fewer increases in the temperature of reactors or spent fuel ponds," said Grieder.

"On how long it will take to bring the reactors into cold shutdown status I would predict between two and three weeks. The key determinant of how long it will take, is how damaged those cooling systems are," he said.

In a sign the cooling systems may be severely damaged, the Sankei newspaper reported on Wednesday the government and TEPCO were considering building new cooling systems for three reactors to operate from outside the reactor buildings.

Kyodo news agency quoted a government source as saying the authorities were also considering covering damaged reactors with special sheets to halt radiation leaks.

But they could not be installed until September because the current high levels of radiation made it too dangerous to work there, it quoted the source as saying.

"Cleaning up the mess in terms of dismantling and taking away the damaged reactors and other facilities will take years," said Grieder.

Moves to avert blackouts

The world's costliest natural disaster has hit Japan's economy and left a damages bill which may top $300 billion, forcing heavily-indebted Japan to plan an extra budget to pay for the massive recovery.

Rolling power blackouts by TEPCO have hit global supply chains, with the world's largest automaker Toyota Motor Corp idling local plants and saying it will suspend some US plants also.

Japan is considering ordering TEPCO's big industrial electricity users to achieve 25 percent cuts in their peak summer power consumption, said a trade ministry official, as efforts mount to avert crippling summer blackouts and further damage the economy.

TEPCO shares continued to tumble on Wednesday, already having hit a 60-year low on Tuesday.

Radiation fears have seen several countries ban Japanese food imports from the nuclear zone, while India is the first to ban food imports from all areas of Japan over radiation fears.

Japan has called for calm over radiation concerns, but is itself considering imposing radioactivity restrictions on seafood for the first time after contaminated fish were found.

Small levels of radiation have been detected as far away as Europe and the west coast of the United States.