Asia-Pacific

Japan earthquake: Radioactive leak 'plugged' at reactor

A worker points to a crack in a concrete pit near Fukushima Daiichi's No 2 reactor, 2 April
The concrete pit near Reactor No 2 was cracked by the quake

A leak of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has been stopped, its operator reports.

Tepco said it had injected chemical agents to solidify soil near a cracked pit that was the source of the leak.

Engineers have been struggling to stop leaks since the plant was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.

They are currently discharging less contaminated water into the sea so more radioactive water can be stored.

Since the earthquake knocked out cooling systems, workers have been pumping water into reactors to cool fuel rods, but must now deal with waste water pooling in and below damaged reactor buildings.

Engineers also face a potential new problem of a build-up of hydrogen gas in one of the reactors at the six-unit plant. Tepco said it could inject nitrogen gas into the No 1 reactor to prevent an explosion.

Blasts caused by a build-up of hydrogen gas took place in three reactors in the aftermath of the earthquake.

"The nitrogen injection is being considered as a precaution," said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

'Water glass'

Plugging the leak from the pit in the No 2 reactor represents a measure of success for engineers at the plant, analysts say.

It is thought to have been the source of high levels of radiation found in seawater close to the plant.

In order to stem the leak, Tepco (the Tokyo Electric Power Co) injected ''water glass'', or sodium silicate, and another agent into the pit.

Desperate engineers had also used sawdust, newspapers and concrete in recent days to try to stop the escaping water.

The government's top spokesman said workers could not rule out other leaks at the reactor.

"Right now, just because the leak has stopped, we are not relieved yet," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. "We are checking whether the leak has completely stopped, or whether there may be other leaks."

Meanwhile, engineers are continuing to pump some 11,500 tonnes of low-level radioactive seawater into the sea so the more highly contaminated water can be stored in waste buildings.

Officials said this water would not pose a significant threat to human health, but local fishermen have reacted angrily.

In a letter, the largest fisheries group accused the government of an "utterly outrageous" action that threatened livelihoods.

On Tuesday, elevated levels of radioactive iodine - about twice the legal limit for vegetables - were found in launce (a small fish) caught off Ibaraki prefecture to the south of Fukushima.

The government has promised compensation for the fishing industry and Tepco has already unveiled plans to compensate residents and farmers around the nuclear plant.

Shares in the power giant continued to tumble on Wednesday, hitting a new closing low of 337 yen.

Meanwhile figures from immigration authorities said the number of foreign visitors to Japan had fallen 75% compared with March 2010 in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the nuclear plant.

The tourist industry had been hard-hit, with many hotels reporting cancelled bookings, Kyodo news agency reported.

The number of people known to have died in the earthquake and tsunami has now reached 12,494, with another 15,107 still missing, according to police.

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