TOKYO (Reuters) - Engineers have stopped highly radioactive water leaking into the sea from a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant, the facility’s operator said on Wednesday, a breakthrough in the battle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
However, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) still needs to pump contaminated water into the sea because of a lack of storage space at the facility.
“The leaks were slowed yesterday after we injected a mixture of liquid glass and a hardening agent and it has now stopped,” a TEPCO spokesman told Reuters.
Desperate engineers had been struggling to stop the leaks and had used sawdust, newspapers and concrete as well as liquid glass to try to stem the flow of the highly-contaminated water.
Japan is facing its worst crisis since World War Two after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit its northeast coast, leaving nearly 28,000 people dead or missing, thousands homeless, and rocking the world’s third-largest economy.
Samples of the water used to cool reactor No. 2 were 5 million times the legal limit of radioactivity, officials said on Tuesday, adding to fears that contaminants had spread far beyond the disaster zone.
The government is considering imposing radioactivity restrictions on seafood for the first time in the crisis after contaminated fish were found.
India also became the first country to ban food imports from all areas of Japan over radiation fears.
Workers are still struggling to restart cooling pumps -- which recycle the water -- in four reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.
Until those are fixed, they must pump in water from outside to prevent overheating and meltdowns. In the process, that creates more contaminated water that has to be pumped out and stored somewhere else or released into the sea.
TEPCO has offered “condolence money” to those affected in the Fukushima region where the plant is based. But one city rejected the money and local mayors who came to Tokyo to meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan demanded far more help.
“We have borne the risks, co-existed and flourished with TEPCO for more than 40 years, and all these years, we have fully trusted the myth that nuclear plants are absolutely safe,” said Katsuya Endo, the mayor of Tomioka town.
He was one of eight Fukushima prefecture mayors who went to Kan to demand compensation and support for employment, housing and education for the tens of thousands of crisis evacuees.
There is a total of 60,000 tonnes of highly contaminated water in the plant after workers poured in seawater when fuel rods experienced partial meltdown after the earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan on March 11.
TEPCO on Monday had to start releasing 11,500 tonnes of low-level radioactive seawater after it ran out of storage capacity for more highly contaminated water. The release will continue until Friday.
Asked about media reports some countries had complained about Japan’s dumping seawater back into the ocean, Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), said Japan was trying to adhere to its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to avoid contamination of the ocean.
The dumping of the contaminated water was being done in the face of a national emergency and would not have a significant impact on human health, he said.
Radioactive iodine of up to 4,800 times the legal limit has been recorded in the sea near the plant. Caesium was found at levels above safety limits in tiny kounago fish in waters off Ibaraki Prefecture, south of Fukushima, local media reported.
Iodine-131 in the water near the sluice gate of reactor No. 2 hit a high on April 2 of 7.5 million times the legal limit. The water, which was not released into the ocean, fell to 5 million times the legal limit on Monday.
TEPCO said it had started paying token “condolence money” of 20 million yen ($238,000) each to local governments in towns near the reactors to aid people evacuated from around its stricken plant or affected by the radiation crisis.
It faces a huge bill for the damage caused by its crippled reactors, but said it must first assess the extent of damage before paying actual compensation.
”We are still in discussion as to what extent we will pay on our own and to what extent we will have assistance from the government, TEPCO executive vice-president Takashi Fujimotohe told a news conference.
Fishermen from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture saw prices for flounder and sea bream tumble by 65 percent as buyers shunned their catch. Their union said they, too, would see compensation from TEPCO and from the government.
India on Tuesday announced a three-month ban on imports of processed foods, fruits and vegetables from the whole of Japan, becoming the first country to introduce a blanket ban.
The world’s costliest natural disaster has caused power blackouts and cuts to supply chains, threatening Japan’s economic growth and the operations of global firms from semiconductor makers to shipbuilders.
($1 = 84.040 Japanese Yen)
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Leika Kihara, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Chikako Mogi in Tokyo and Ratnayjyoti Dutta in New Delhi; Writing by Paul Eckert; Editing by Dean Yates