|TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's core of Unit 1 has "a bigger breach than expected" [AFP]
One of the reactors at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant has been damaged more severely than originally thought, officials said, a serious setback for efforts to stabilise the radiation-leaking complex.
The data released on Thursday also showed that the water level in the core of Unit 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is much lower than previously thought, leaving the portion of the fuel rods still intact fully exposed.
|Yukio Edano, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, says some highly radioactive liquid has spilled into the sea
Other fuel has slumped to the bottom of the pressure vessel and is thought to be covered in water.
The findings also indicate a greater-than-expected leak in that vessel. Radioactive water pouring from troubled reactors has flooded around the complex, hindering work to bring the plant under control.
However, temperatures in the unit are still far below dangerous levels because the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., continues to inject new water to keep the rods cool.
That radioactive water is apparently leaking into and through the larger containment vessel.
"The situation [in the core] hasn't changed since [early in the crisis], and the fuel rods are being cooled by water continuously being injected into the core,'' Takashi Sakurai, a nuclear official, said.
Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency officials said the new data indicates that it is likely that partially melted fuel had fallen to the bottom of the pressurised vessel that holds the reactor core together and possibly leaked down into the drywell soon after the March 11 quake and tsunami that struck Japan's northeastern coast.
'Bigger breach than expected'
While officials said it was unlikely that the chunks of fuel were still dangerously hot or that they could melt through the concrete base of containment vessel, they acknowledged that the level of damage could
complicate plans detailed in April to bring the plant to a cold shutdown within nine months.
Further examination was needed to ascertain the full extent of damage, they said.
The new findings became available after workers fixed a water metre on Tuesday after entering the building for the first time since a March 12 hydrogen explosion at the unit.
The gauge showed that the water was at least one metre below the four-metre-long fuel rods, which are suspended in the pressure vessel.
Some of the rods have melted away, however, and the chunks of damaged fuel are presumed to be sitting at the bottom of the vessel, covered in water.
The low level of water indicates that the core of Unit 1 had a bigger breach than expected, Junichi Matsumoto, the TEPCO spokesman, said.
Cooling water has been leaking from the reactor cores of Units 2 and 3 as well, allowing an estimated 70,000 tonnes of contaminated water to pool inside the complex, which TEPCO has been struggling to bring under control for two months.
To prevent contaminated water from leaking into the ocean, workers in April began pumping it into a waste processing building while a system to decontaminate the water is set up.
The plant, 220 kilometres north of Tokyo, has a total of six reactors. Units 5 and 6 have already reached cold shutdown. Unit 4 contained no fuel rods at the time of the earthquake, but workers have needed to spray
water into its spent fuel pool where still-hot rods are stored and structural damage and leakage are suspected.
The government on Thursday also delayed the announcement of a plan to ensure that TEPCO fulfills its obligation to compensate tens of thousands of people affected by the crisis. Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister, said further discussion was needed.
Under the plan, a new fund would be created with mandatory contributions from electric utilities, including TEPCO, in case TEPCO's total compensation exceeds its financial capacity. The government could also add public money if needed.
TEPCO would be required to repay any money it uses from the fund. The utility has agreed to restructuring, cost-cutting and other conditions in exchange for government support in the compensation scheme.