No quick fix seen at Japan’s nuclear plant

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — Officials raced Monday to restore electricity to Japan’s leaking nuclear plant, but getting the power flowing will hardly be the end of their battle: With its mangled machinery and partly melted reactor cores, bringing the complex under control is a monstrous job.

Restoring the power to all six units at the tsunami-damaged complex is key, because it will, in theory, power up the maze of motors, valves and switches that help deliver cooling water to the overheated reactor cores and spent fuel pools that are leaking radiation.

Ideally, officials believe it should only take a day to get the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear under control once the cooling system is up and running. In reality, the effort to end the crisis is likely to take weeks.

Late Monday night, the deputy director general of Japan’s nuclear safety body suggested to reporters why there is so much uncertainty about when the job will be finished.

“We have experienced a very huge disaster that has caused very large damage at a nuclear power generation plant on a scale that we had not expected,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The nuclear plant’s cooling systems were wrecked by the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11. Since then, conditions at the plant have been volatile; a plume of smoke rose from two reactor units Monday, prompting workers to evacuate.

In another setback, the plant’s operator said Monday it had just discovered that some of the cooling system’s key pumps at the complex’s troubled Unit 2 are no longer functional — meaning replacements have to be brought in. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it had placed emergency orders for new pumps, but how long it would take for them to arrive was unclear.

An official of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in Washington that Units 1, 2 and 3 have all seen damage to their reactor cores, but that containment is intact. The assessment dispels some concerns about Unit 2, where an explosion damaged a pressure-reducing chamber around the bottom of the reactor core.

“I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing,” said Bill Borchardt, the commission’s executive director for operations.

Monday’s evacuation of workers from the plant came after smoke began rising from the spent fuel storage pool of the plant’s problem-plagued Unit 3, Tokyo Electric spokesman Hiroshi Aizawa said. Unit 3 also alarmed plant officials over the weekend with a sudden surge of pressure in its reactor core.

Traces of radiation are tainting vegetables and some water supplies, although in amounts the government and health experts say do not pose a risk to human health in the short term. That has caused the government to ban sale of raw milk, spinach and canola from prefectures over a swath from the plant toward Tokyo. The government has just started to test fish and shellfish.

Tokyo Electric said radioactive iodine about 127 times normal levels and radioactive cesium about 25 times above the norm were detected in seawater 100 yards off the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Despite that concentration, a senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency said the ocean was capable of absorbing vast amounts of radiation with no effect and that — comparatively — the radioactivity released so far by the plant was minor.

The Health Ministry has advised Iitate, a village of 6,000 people about 19 miles northwest of the plant, not to drink tap water due to elevated levels of iodine. Ministry spokesman Takayuki Matsuda said iodine three times the normal level was detected there — about one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray in one liter of water.

“Please do not overreact, and act calmly,” Chief Cabinet spokesman Yukio Edano said in the government’s latest appeal to ease public concerns. “Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all.”

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