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MORE Radioactive water spills at Japan nuke plant

Posted on: March 30, 2011

Workers have discovered new pools of radioactive water leaking from Japan’s crippled nuclear complex that officials believe are behind soaring levels of radiation spreading to soil and seawater.

Crews also detected plutonium — a key ingredient in nuclear weapons — in the soil outside the complex, though officials insisted Monday the finding posed no threat to public health.

Plutonium is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for more than two weeks, so experts had expected to find traces once crews began searching for evidence of it this week.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant was crippled March 11 when a tsunami spawned by a powerful earthquake slammed into Japan’s northeastern coast. The huge wave destroyed the power systems needed to cool the nuclear fuel rods in the complex, 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

Since then, three of the complex’s six reactors are believed to have partially melted down, and emergency crews have struggled with everything from malfunctioning pumps to dangerous spikes in radiation that have forced temporary evacuations.

Confusion at the plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will continue for months or even years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far away as Tokyo.

The troubles have eclipsed Pennsylvania’s 1979 crisis at Three Mile Island, when a partial meltdown raised fears of widespread radiation release. But it is still well short of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates and spewed radiation across much of the northern hemisphere.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the complex, said plutonium was found in soil at five locations at the nuclear plant, but that only two samples appeared to be plutonium from the leaking reactors. The rest came from years of nuclear tests that left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.

Plutonium is a heavy element that doesn’t readily combine with other elements, so it is less likely to spread than some of the lighter, more volatile radioactive materials detected around the site, such as the radioactive forms of cesium and iodine.

“The relative toxicity of plutonium is much higher than that of iodine or cesium but the chance of people getting a dose of it is much lower,” says Robert Henkin, professor emeritus of radiology at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine. “Plutonium just sits there and is a nasty actor.”

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