Fresh Concerns Emerge as Japan Unveils Timetable for Fukushima Shut Down

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Assessing the full impact of Japan’s crisis has been a moving target since the first minutes after the 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11. So it’s with a cautious sense of optimism that Sunday’s news from Tokyo Electric and Power Company (TEPCO) – that the crippled power plant could be in cold shut down before the end of the year – has been received. With the kind of mixed messaging that has become typical of the catastrophe at Fukushima, the timeline was unveiled the day after it was also revealed that radiation levels in the sea near reactor 2 had risen from 1,100 times the legal limit on Thursday to 6,500 the legal limit on Friday. And on Sunday, robots that went into reactors 1 and 3 found enduringly high radiation levels that created too “harsh” an environment for humans to work in, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), raising questions of how, exactly, TEPCO will be able to stick to its new plan. (See pictures of robots surveying Fukushima’s damaged reactor buildings.)

The Japanese public is wearying of both the bad news and the constant stream of conflicting information. In polls conducted over the weekend, two-thirds of respondents said they thought Prime Minister Naoto Kan should lose his post for the government’s handling of the crisis – with a price tag of $300 billion, the most expensive natural disaster in history.

As of Monday evening in Japan, the cause of the high radiation levels off the coast had not been determined. The increase could be the result of a fresh leak or stirred-up sediment, a spokesman for NISA told CNN. He said: “At this point, they have not visually found any leakage of any water into the ocean, and it is hard to check the conditions around [reactor] No. 2 due to high radiation levels.” Earlier this month, a direct leak into the sea was indentified from an underground chamber where radioactive water had been building up after water has been continuously poured onto the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools for over a month in an effort to keep the nuclear fuel rods cool. That leak was eventually plugged, and physical barriers were set up in the sea to prevent irradiated water from exiting the immediate area of the plant.

TEPCO, meanwhile, opted to put its energy into touting its new roadmap for shutting down the plant within the next nine months. The plan, announced Sunday, is divided into two stages. In the first three months, cooling systems would be installed to lower temperatures in reactors and radiation levels in the region. In the second six-month phase, the plant would be cleared of wreckage and contaminated water and encased in a covering, including an air filter to prevent any further radiation being released into the atmosphere. Officials said they have for now ruled out using a permanent structure comparable to the concrete sarcophagus built around Chernobyl. (See pictures of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.)

Sticking to this timetable will be tricky, despite the relative stability that the plant has achieved in the last few weeks. Workers at the plant will have to continue to respond to short term problems like the spike in radiation levels detected Friday. Even without those interruptions, workers continue to be hampered in their efforts to get the cooling systems’ back online both because of the dangerous conditions inside the reactors and because of the large amounts of radioactive water around the site generated by having to continuously pour water onto the fuel to keep it cool.

What will be done to change those conditions so that the first phase of the project is completed this summer isn’t yet clear. Nor is it clear when the tens of thousands of nuclear refugees may be able to return home. Though nine months provides some kind of timeline for the people scattered around Japan in hotels, shelters and friends’ and families’ homes, the government has also said that it will have to decontaminate a widespread area before they are allowed to go back. Meanwhile, thousands of more residents outside the original 12-mile (20 km) exclusion zone were told last week that they, too, would have to vacate their homes by the end of the month. (See pictures of devastation in Japan.)

Under government pressure, TEPCO has announced it will give $12,000 in compensation to each evacuated household, but that will do little to cover the losses of those families or the many others whose livelihoods have dried up in the nuclear shadow. Fishermen in the Fukushima region and throughout Japan have been suffering from both the real threat of radiation contamination and the fear of it. From Hong Kong to London, restaurants and supermarkets have stopped stocking Japanese seafood to assuage customers’ concerns that it may be tainted. Though levels of cesium and iodine over the legal limit were found in some sand lance in Ibaraki prefecture earlier this month, no other fish have been found to be contaminated above allowable limits. Nevertheless, prices have plummeted across the market, driving individual operators and wholesalers out of business.