Japan’s reactor chief hospitalised

THE president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was admitted to hospital on Tuesday evening, local media reported today

TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu, 66, was suffering high blood pressure and dizziness, public broadcaster NHK said.

A massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the cooling systems of the plant’s six reactors – triggering explosions and fires, releasing radiation and sparking global fears of a widening disaster.

On Monday TEPCO said Shimizu fell sick during the crisis and took several days off from the joint task force that had been set up by the government and the company.

The Mainichi Daily had quoted a senior TEPCO official as saying Shimizu had been so sick that he had stayed “mostly in bed” in a separate room in the building where the task force was meeting.

Shimizu has not appeared in public since attending a press conference on March 13, leading to criticism from local media.  Japan today admitted its nuclear safeguards were insufficient, as radioactive iodine in the sea off the disaster-hit Fukushima plant was reportedly measured at 3355 times above the legal limit.

Barack Obama has spoken to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the leaders agreed to cooperate closely on the radiation crisis, officials said.  The US government separately said it was sending some robotic help to Japan to help regain control of the plant.

And Japan is reportedly considering draping crippled reactor buildings at the Fukushima nuclear plant with a fabric to reduce radiation, and using a tanker to siphon off contaminated water.

The government did not explicitly confirm the report, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Japan’s leaders and nuclear experts were discussing “every possibility, including those mentioned in the press”.

The government is tabling multiple options in its struggle to control overheating reactors that have leaked radiation into the air and water since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported.

One possibility is to cap reactors one, three and four with a special fabric to cover roofs and walls knocked out or damaged by a series of hydrogen explosions, the Asahi Shimbun reported, citing unnamed government officials.

The report did not specify what type of material may be used to limit the radiation, but said authorities were also considering installing filtered ventilators inside to remove gas buildup and avert further blasts.

The government today conceded its safeguards were insufficient to protect Fukushima against the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the facility and caused it to spew radiation, and it has vowed to overhaul safety standards.

The struggle to contain radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi complex has unfolded with near-constant missteps – the latest including three workers drenched with radioactive water despite wearing supposedly waterproof suits.

Today Jiji press reported that the level of radioactive iodine in the sea was 3355 times greater than allowed.  The unfolding drama has drawn increasing criticism of the utility that owns the plant as well as scrutiny of Japan’s preparedness for nuclear crises.

“Our preparedness was not sufficient,” Mr Edano told reporters. “When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review” the safety standards.

The March 11 tsunami that slammed into Japan’s northeast, wiping out towns and killing thousands of people, knocked out power and backup systems at the coastal nuclear power plant.

More than 11,000 bodies have been recovered but officials say the final death toll is expected to exceed 18,000. Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Damage could amount to $302 billion – the most expensive natural disaster on record.

The mission to stabilise the power plant has been fraught with setbacks, as emergency crews have dealt with fires, explosions and radiation scares in the frantic bid to prevent a complete meltdown.

The plant has been leaking radiation that has made its way into vegetables, raw milk and tap water as far away as Tokyo. Residents within 20km of the plant have been ordered to leave and some nations have banned the imports of food products from the Fukushima region.

Highly toxic plutonium was the latest contaminant found seeping into the soil outside the plant, TEPCO said.

Safety officials said the amounts did not pose a risk to humans but the finding supports suspicions that dangerously radioactive water is leaking from damaged nuclear fuel rods.

“The situation is very grave,” Edano said.

Workers succeeded last week in reconnecting some parts of the plant to the power grid. But as they pumped in water to cool the reactors and nuclear fuel, they discovered numerous pools of radioactive water, including in the basements of several buildings and in trenches outside.

The contaminated water has been emitting four times as much radiation as the government considers safe for workers. It must be pumped out before electricity can be restored and the regular cooling systems powered up.

Meanwhile a top Energy Department official told a Senate panel today that a shipment of “radiation-hardened robotics” will be sent to Japan.

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